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COVID-19 sheds light on the nation’s spiritual disease

Seattle pastor and coronavirus survivor: ‘What I’ve learned in the past year is very sad’

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Jane Pauw leads online worship at Rainier Beach Presbyterian Church in Seattle. (Screenshot)

LOUISVILLE — COVID-19 has changed the Rev. Jane Pauw from the inside out.

One of the first PC(USA) pastors to test positive for the coronavirus, she has memories of:

  • Crawling to get water
  • Going down the stairs like a child, sitting and sliding for a few steps before pausing to rest
  • Her daughters frantically calling daily to check in
  • Husband Jack standing by her bed to make sure she was still alive.

During her recovery, the Rainier Beach Presbyterian Church pastor felt there were important individual and communal lessons to learn from the global pandemic.  But she didn’t want to jump to any conclusions about how her “little death” had changed her, or what the Holy Spirit might teach us through the “darkness of coronavirus.”

Pictured on the way to get tested for coronavirus last year, the Rev. Jane Pauw blacked out in the car on the way home. (Photo by Jack Pauw)

Now, a year later, even though Pauw has no long-term physical effects, COVID-19 has taken away some of her spiritual — and eternal — optimism.

“What I’ve learned over the last year is very sad,” she said. “I have deep insights of dismay that I never would have thought possible a year ago.”

During the past year, Pauw said the majority of her pastoral care conversations have been with people expressing their deep disappointment around what has been revealed as the pandemic swept across the country.

She was reminded of this as she listened to a radio conversation with the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, last week.  He was describing how all of his suggestions to help the country survive COVID, based on scientific conclusions, were mysteriously rebuffed. In the same conversation, Fauci and the director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins, talked about how some people in the country were not willing to believe the scientific truth about COVID-19 and refused to do their part to help control the spread of the pandemic.

“A lot of people doing this say they are ‘Christians’ from the evangelical wing,” Pauw said.

“As a physical disease, COVID is shedding light on the spiritual disease of the nation’s — and our — souls.”

This has become clearer to Pauw as she’s watched the spiritual values of her congregation get trampled on in the past year. As an example, she pointed to the virus striking a higher percentage of people of color than white people, and also the people doing service work for the country — while the more privileged people in white collar jobs work from home.

Like many in the PC(USA), members and friends at Rainier Beach Presbyterian Church have been doing intense study work to understand the country’s problem with race so that they can do their part in dismantling structural racism. As they’ve done this, Pauw has come to believe the country is facing not two but three pandemics: COVID, racism and spiritual disease.

“I can no longer separate them,” she said. “This spiritual disease, the sickness of our souls, is related to our white supremacy, to this horrible, long-standing pandemic of racism.”

As Pauw reflected on the lectionary passage which she preached on March 14, from John 3:14-17, the dismay and anger she’s felt about the way the country’s been acting during the pandemic dissipated a bit.

“Just hearing, ‘for God so loved the world,’ makes me feel less bitter,” she said. “This is the world God loves. These are the people God loves. God loves the worst of us, in all of our sickness. It isn’t just those other people affected by spiritual disease. We all are.”

Pauw said this message can stretch all of us and lead to growth, which is happening at Rainier Beach.

During online worship, “there’s really no place for people to gather for small talk, so everything we’re doing is much deeper,” she said. “In our Zoom meetings people have grown so much.”

The Rev. Jane Pauw takes a walk in Lublin, Poland last year. A long-distance walker, Pauw had no underlying health conditions when she was infected with the coronavirus. (Photo by Jack Pauw)

And more people than ever are participating in Facebook Live services. People from Africa, England, Istanbul, Jordan, and the Netherlands — along with people who live in in Seattle and in other U.S. cities — are tuning in to worship God. Many worshipers view the service at different times during the week. Twice Rainier Beach has had over 1,000 views. Pauw doesn’t really know how people from around the world have discovered Rainier Beach, except the person in the Netherlands, who is a long-lost cousin.

“The really lasting insight I have is that God moves slowly in history,” she said. “It’s not in a blink of an eye that we will recover from COVID. There’s still a long arc of learning ahead.”

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