The Number You Have Dialed Has Been Disconnected: American Christianity and Covid-19 in the Hospital

One of the most sobering things I witness in the hospital is the sudden onset paralysis of the American Christian faith.

I’m visiting a patient with disheveled hair and two devices strapped to her aged face. Her eyes have started departing from one another, adding to the assessment of her waning orientation and increasing fatigue. Her arms are strapped down in soft, blue foamed wrist restraints because Covid-19 and the toll of inpatient isolation have progressed to the degree that she is not able to participate or comply with her own treatment. The lying on the stomach, the acceptance of the high flow oxygen forced up her nose and non-rebreather mask pulling across her face, the decision-tree of what to do next–they all are outside of her grasp.

Her lifelong devotion to God and service though is intact, as much a part of the fabric of her spirit as her fingerprints to her body. She mumbles words of self-denial, praise to Jesus and the afterlife. She is visibly comforted by affirmation of her work and legacy, echo of her rejection of “this world” and recitation of scripture. It is in this setting that I, my own face covered by three layers, connect a patient to their family with gloved hand and Zoom login and seek to connect with her, a human and suffering friend.

When the patient starts crying, and states she has “no more” when the faces pop up one by one on the tiled screen, I hold her hand and observe aloud that she is crying, to ask about her sadness. I’m rebuked like only a church-kid can be by a two-dimensional virtual visitor. I broke the rule about the gag-order on “negative” emotions–it might crack the portrait of good health and thriving I’m not seeing.

Later, in a phone conversation, and weeks before that, and years before that, and tomorrow, we speak with family, so many families, about the course of Covid-19, the devastating effects on the unvaccinated lungs and, when indicated, the knowledge that it has progressed too far. In church-speak, doors are closing. Just because we can do things to the body, if the body cannot process it, should we? What is the role of the hospital and violent interventions known to be futile in this particular set of conditions? What is the role of the patient and family’s beliefs about death, life, and God in this set of conditions? Though the flesh is weak, how might the spirit become stronger?

It is painful to watch and listen when people of faith, usually hailing from specific streams of Christianity, feel forced to divorce their heart, mind and bodies from reality in order to keep their doctrine intact. When the doctrine is not a friend or companion to the bad news, in the mess, but rather rigidly adversarial and promoting of dissociative behavior. When people have sat under years and years of teaching and been discipled out of any theology of suffering, tolerance of doubt and ambiguity, and curiosity about emotions and grief, they arrive at the hospital with toothpicks when they need a steel beam. Rare patients and families with these backgrounds find themselves on a libertive journey where their lived human experience and their relationship with the Divine work in tandem to pull them to a new dimension of their faith tradition. This is done with not insignificant stress, caution, and loneliness as new information is clunky and old faith containers stretch.

And some follow the automatic and worn neurological path of denying what is seen for what is unseen, to the degree that they resort to lying, rudeness, and hostility in the gymnastic effort to maintain a narrative that is itself on life-support. “We have faith so it doesn’t matter what you say: they’re going to walk out of here.” To the degree that updates about their loved one in the ICU may actually be an offensive affront to the triumphant theology to which they are now so desperately loyal. “He’ll be fine. I prayed all day.” To the degree that an 80-year-old woman’s sadness would be denied in exchange for a one-dimensional interpretation of hope. “Don’t speak negativity over her. God’s ways are not our ways.”

In a study done by the Pew Research Center in September 2021, 55% of Christian respondents share that their church and religious organizations have not made a difference in the handling of the pandemic. While most religiously-identified people would trust their clergy to speak about vaccines and public health, most leaders have not. (Others have happily filled the void.) Protestants are less likely to be vaccinated than their Catholic, other-faith or non-affiliated counterparts. Which means I’m more likely to see them in a serious illness conversation towards the end of life. In the face of one of, if not the most universal and pervasive event of our lifetime, across age, culture, class and livelihood, the Christian leader in America has abstained from the conversation, habitually maintained mute on suffering and loss, and too often failed to recalculate and recommunicate what hope and wisdom could be. The invitation inherent to the passing moment goes unanswered.

It’s not the text. It’s not the God. It’s not the ancient ways. It’s not the intellectual and emotional capacity of humankind, Christian or otherwise. It’s a disabling interpretation and incomplete programming contingent on a cocktail of escapes, privilege, and, when challenged, denial.

Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be permanent. Human hope is rooted in our capacity to both remember and change our mind.

In the hospital, I accompany some Christian people when they enter into what feels to them like a new frontier of holding their grief and their God together. I celebrate when they connect their most human moments with their deepest experiences of the sacred. In the context of Covid-19, the irony of finding a deep breath of theological air as though underwater for too long within the experience of losing their bodily capacity for oxygen and movement is piercing.

And I watch and hold the hands of more Christian people who cannot break the surface, whose entire devout discipleship has not equipped them for the most human and inevitable times of illness and death. I hold the angry gaze of family insistent upon a god of wins, avoidance of suffering and the subsequent rejection of a virus, vaccine and the body. And I grieve with them, for what might have been.

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