Belonging in the Midst of Isolation / Isolation in the Midst of Belonging

I want to talk about social isolation in the post-pandemic era. You might think, Oh boy, isolation, that’s such a heavy topic. Maybe we should  just let the band keep playing. The music is so uplifting. It’s all about community, family and friendship. Why does he have to talk about isolation? Blech! If you are actually thinking something like that, please know that this sermon has a happy ending. Isolation is very real, but some combination of community, family and friendship is the response. Community, family and friendship contribute to a person’s experience of belonging, which is our ministry theme for September. They are antidotes to isolation. I am also exploring belonging in the post-pandemic era, but to get there we need to consider what isolation looks like right now.

To begin, I said last Sunday I’m not even sure what to call this moment in time. I’m calling it the post-pandemic era, but I am not personally convinced the pandemic is over. Covid is still spreading, though certainly not at the dizzying rates it has in the past, like last winter’s omicron surge. And obviously in Connecticut, high vaccination rates contribute to lower numbers of hospitalizations and deaths, and greatly reduced severity of disease when contracted (though not for everyone). And regardless of how I may personally assess the overall situation and my own tolerance for risk, most of the rest of the state and the country has accepted that we are in the post-pandemic era, or that we have transitioned from Covid as pandemic to Covid as endemic. We will now treat it like we treat the flu. It makes for some messiness. Different people make different decisions about what they deem safe and what they deem unsafe. In public life, messy. Different people tolerate different levels of risk for a whole variety of reasons, in public life, messy. It’s especially messy for anyone who is still Covid-vulnerable due to age or a health condition that compromises their immune system. And it’s messy for any institutions—like faith communities—that endeavor to take those vulnerabilities seriously.

Let me back up from Covid for a moment, and acknowledge first that in any faith community, it is rare that everyone involved experiences the same level of belonging. As I said last week, we want everyone to feel like they belong. That’s the aspiration. I think we do an excellent job of providing that experience here, and yet we know not everyone feels like they fully belong, at least not all the time. Even in the midst of a very supportive, caring community, it is possible to feel isolated. I love the way Sheila Foran put it in her reflections on belonging at our September 4th service. She asked, “What if … even though you are part of several cohorts … you may have a family, you have colleagues from work or school, you have friends and hobbies and yes, you have UUS:E  … what if you still feel that you may not fully belong? That there is always a part of you that is standing outside the circle.” In my experience this is common.

Sheila offered a number of reasons why one might feel this way. I want to add one to her list: In our culture—meaning our wider United States culture, which impacts our congregational culture—for most people (not all, but most) it is profoundly difficult to name our vulnerabilities in public. Especially for people who are independent, who easily manage their own affairs, who  at least have the appearance of “having it all together,” who are used to helping others but not needing help themselves—people who others regard as competent, resilient, courageous, even powerful—it’s really hard to say I need help, I am afraid, I am in pain, I am lonely, I can’t do this by myself. Remember adrienne maree brown’s list of questions: Can you drive me to the hospital? … Can you open this water bottle? … Can you put my bag in the overhead bin? Can you bring me groceries? … Can you hold me while I cry? … Can you listen while I feel this?[1] It’s really hard to make these kinds of requests if we aren’t in the habit of making them. It’s really hard to reveal our messy, hurting, vulnerable selves, even to people who we know, intellectually, care about us.

Why is it hard? We come up with all sorts of reasons why we don’t want to share our vulnerabilities. I don’t want to burden anyone. I’m embarrassed. I don’t want anyone to judge me. I don’t want people to think I’m needy or weak or that I don’t have it all together in my life. I don’t want this to get in the way of my friendships. If I ask for help it means my life is changing and I desperately don’t want my life to change. What if people don’t take me seriously? What if the people I tell can’t handle it? What if they don’t want to hear it? What if they say, ‘oh, you’ll be fine,’ when I am terrified that I won’t be?

Have you ever had the experience of sharing a vulnerability with another person, sharing something painful in your life, your grief, your medical condition, a financial problem, a parenting challenge, an addiction you’re struggling with, and the person with whom you shared it, the person you thought was with you, suddenly wasn’t with you. They stopped making eye contact. They changed the subject. They looked at their watch or their phone. They made some excuse to end the conversation. They had to go. They didn’t check in with you later. Afterwards you felt more isolated than you did before you shared. If you don’t share with anyone, your isolation deepens. If you share and people don’t respond the way you hoped they would, your isolation deepens.

And while I am describing this dynamic, I think it’s important to ask: have you ever had the experience of someone sharing their vulnerability with you, and you were the person who couldn’t hear it, couldn’t make eye contact, etc? I think we all struggle with both sides of this equation. I always appreciate when people say to me, Rev., I don’t think you’re really listening. I don’t think you’re really with me in this. But it is also hard to hear that I’ve let someone down in their moment crisis.

People not sharing their vulnerabilities deepens isolation. People not hearing the sharing—or somehow discounting it—deepens isolation.

Back to Covid. We ended, at least for now, our mask mandate here at UUS:E. The Policy Board voted, not unanimously by the way, to end the mandate during the first full week of September. We now recommend masking, but don’t require it. From one angle, we are joining the rest of society where mask mandates were disappearing all last year. In my experience, the only place you find mask mandates now is in health care facilities. Waiting so long to remove our mandate definitely made us an outlier. It seems like such a simple change, like it could have happened sooner. But it wasn’t simple. This change carries huge symbolic weight. Masks are loaded with symbolic energy now, engendering not only heated conversations, but full-blown arguments, disruptions of school board meetings, lawsuits, even fist-fights over the value of science, about the role and effectiveness of public health protocols, public health officials and public health agencies, about freedom and personal choice, about educational pedagogy, about parents’ rights, about workplace safety. Remember April of 2020 when we and every other congregation were desperately sewing masks to donate to hospital staff, and we were becoming aware of huge disparities when it came to which workers got personal protective gear and which workers didn’t? Masks are a big deal.

I wear my mask faithfully in the grocery store and really anywhere I go in public where I expect to encounter large groups of people I don’t know in potentially close quarters. When I walk in and I’m the only one wearing a mask, my mind races, my anxiety rises. What do people think? Do they think I’m sick? Paranoid? Self-righteous? Are they judging me as one of those people who believes in science? Am I judging them? Why aren’t they wearing masks? Do they not care about my health and well-being? Do they follow Covid Act Now? I have no opportunity to explain why I am still wearing a mask. I can’t strike up that conversation with random people. So I feel …. isolated. Masks are loaded with symbolic energy.

For our congregation, for the Emergency Preparedness Team, the Policy Board and the staff, that energy had and still has everything to do with meeting the needs of the most vulnerable among us. From March of 2020 we’ve been doing our best to center the needs of the people at most risk for greater health complications or death if they were to contract Covid. That has meant mandating mask-wearing inside our meeting house. As the Policy Board was discussing the removal of the mandate, the primary question was: what about the most vulnerable? The last thing we want to do in removing our mask mandate is inadvertently say to covid-vulnerable people: you’re on your own now! thereby creating more isolation, even as the end of the mask mandate actually reduces isolation for others. We remain fully committed to doing everything we can to center the needs of the most vulnerable. I want to share some preliminary steps we’re taking to do that.

Thank you to the members of the Pastoral Friends Committee. They are developing a UUS:E buddy system. If, in this post-pandemic time, you feel isolated, vulnerable, not sure how to navigate the loosening of restrictions here or anywhere, maybe you’d like a church buddy; someone to check in with from time to time, someone with whom you can share your concerns, someone who will listen to you and to whom you will listen. It’s totally voluntary. If that’s something you’d like, watch our eblast for information, or contact me. We will set you up with a buddy.

We’re also getting ready to launch three new small group ministries. For those who are unfamiliar with this program, small groups are usually 7-10 people who meet monthly to check in with each other and discuss topics relevant to our spiritual lives. They provide an excellent opportunity to build deeper relationships with a few people, which can sometimes be difficult in a congregation as large as ours. I want to encourage people who are feeling isolated to consider joining one of these groups when they are ready to go. And for people who still feel unsafe meeting in person, we are designing one of them as an online only option. The others, we expect, will be hybrid meetings, meaning some people will attend in person while others participate online at the same time. And if I say “online” and you start to feel even more isolated because you’d like to participate, but you aren’t very tech savvy and have trouble with platforms like Zoom, let us know. We have folks who can coach you.

These are just two ideas. We’d love to hear other ideas and I encourage you to share with me or Sally Gifford who is the current Pastoral Friends chair. Even if you don’t have an idea to share, if you are feeling isolated in this post-pandemic era, for any reason, I encourage you to say it out loud. Say it to me. Say it to someone in the congregation to whom you feel close. Let’s talk about it. Maybe there’s nothing we can do, no change we can make, no action we can take in response. But in the very least we can know. And you will be acknowledged, believed, supported, loved.

Earlier I read to you a passage from the activist, organizer, writer adrienne maree brown, in which she talks about learning to ask for help. It wasn’t easy. It took practice. There were a lot of cultural norms around not sharing that got in her way. But she learned to ask, even when she knew there was no way she could return the favor to the person helping her, and it changed her life. “The result of this experience is that I feel so much more woven into the world. I still anticipate independence, my default can-do self space. But I don’t want to sever any of this connecting fabric between myself and all of the incredible people who held me through [difficult times], saw me, corrected me, held me in my contradictions, met my needs. I want more of my life to feel this interdependent, this of community and humanity.”[2]

Community, family, friendship: always messy. Never perfect. But what are we here for—in this faith community, but also on this planet—if not to be there for each other when times get tough. Vulnerabilities and isolation are a part of the human condition. They are not going away. But here’s the happy ending. This congregation will do its best to address the needs of the vulnerable among us. This congregation will do its best to reduce isolation and increase belonging. And in doing so, all our lives will feel more interdependent, more, in brown’s words, of community, more of humanity.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] brown, adrienne maree, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2017) p. 95.

[2] brown, adrienne maree, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2017) p. 96.