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When All You Can Do Is Nothing

Brother Thomas and I first visited Saint Mary’s (before we had any idea we’d end up living here) during a trip to NYC for a training in Disaster Chaplaincy. One of the key rules of disaster response we learned there (consistent with incident response training I received as an EMT and elsewhere) is: “Never self-deploy.” This means that, however good your intentions, or whatever you may have to offer, it’s important to be part of a coordinated response effort, and not to simply “show up” trying to be helpful. Self-deploying, at best, can mean resources are not being fully coordinated. At worst, it can disrupt vital efforts. For example, unexpected helpers on the scene of an emergency could throw off a “head-count” leading rescuers to believe all victims are accounted for when they are not. Or, self-deployed responders who are not in contact with the organized effort might end up taking actions that have been determined to be unsafe, or are working against and hampering other strategies and plans.

This lesson has been important to remember as we (both as part of Saint Mary’s church and as part of SSF) navigate the restrictions and response surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic here in New York. Thus far, we’ve had to make some choices we don’t like, including closing the doors of the church and stopping our active outreach to those in need in our neighborhood. For two weeks now, we’ve been unable to open our doors to those who normally rest or pray here, and we’ve been unable to open our clothing rooms to our regular guests and others.

As a Franciscan, this doesn’t feel right to me. Franciscans divide their lives between contemplative practice (which “quarantine” is great for), and active service to the marginalized and others in need (which is temporarily short-circuited). My time as a Brother has put me in the habit of responding to needs I see: the people sleeping in that park need blankets, so I take them; the man sleeping on our steps is hungry, so I feed him, and so on. I have, especially in times of crisis, a deep sense that I need to be DOING something. The people who usually rest in our church now have nowhere to be. People haven’t stopped needing clothing and hygiene items during this time. So, what do I do?

And I am confronted with this uncomfortable answer: NOTHING. I do nothing. Can that really be right? It is exactly the question we had to wrestle with in making decisions about our life and ministry here. The advice of the experts was clear. The risks of the virus were (and are) looming and large. We made some choices. Soon after, public health directions would have forced the same choices. So here we are, hunkered down, and doing nothing.

I want to go out. I want to find the people we serve, I want to help them. I want to be USEFUL in this time, to make it better, at least in some small way. But just now, like it or not, doing nothing is the best thing to do. Franciscan values, and particularly my admiration for Saint Damien of Molokai (from whom I took my religious name) hold up sacrifice and risk as admirable qualities. Francis, Damien, and many other holy people took immense risks (and sometimes paid immense prices) to serve others in the name of Jesus. Shouldn’t I be doing the same?

The answer I’ve come to lies in the phrase “take risks.” The phrase speaks to what my choices might cost. But the reality is that my choices, especially in this circumstance, might not only have costs for ME. They might also be very costly indeed to others. We now know enough about this virus and about epidemiology generally to see that a very coordinated effort to stop transmission is what is most desperately needed right now. The experts agree that, for most of us, the most important thing we can do is take ourselves out of the equation –not merely to avoid “taking the risk” for ourselves, but far more importantly, to avoid BEING the risk to others, including others who are at greater risk of serious illness or death from the virus.

It sounds far more heroic, far more self-sacrificing, far more useful, to get out there and dig in, doing something useful. It’s really tempting to “self-deploy.” I admit part of my mind wanders to a fantasy of being remembered some day as that friar who risked himself in service to others. But in fact, I could end up being remembered as that friar who wouldn’t stay home, and helped spread the coronavirus to many others who might otherwise have stayed healthy.

So sometimes the best thing to do is nothing. That isn’t to say that matters won’t change as we progress through this crisis. I’m keeping my eye on emergency needs and volunteer opportunities, especially as first responders are stretched to the limit and are themselves impacted by the virus. And certainly, there will be much, much more to do once stay-at-home limitations have been lifted. This crisis will have long term effects, and all of our help will be needed.

But for now, let’s do nothing. Except that, in reality, we’re not doing nothing. Here at Saint Mary’s, we’re continuing a rhythm of daily prayer and eucharist with resident clergy and friars, making these services available to others via the internet. That’s not nothing. We’re praying for our friends, our families, our neighbors, our city and the world. That’s not nothing. We’re reaching out to people in our lives by phone, by letter, by e-mail: sharing news, offering encouragement, and reminding others they are loved. That’s not nothing. In fact, here in the midst of this mess, we too are being encouraged to slow down from the endless hustle of “doing things” and to focus on the quiet, the prayerful, the gentle. We can in some ways more easily get on with the business of BEING. And growing closer to Jesus and becoming more who we are made to be is certainly not nothing.

Soon enough, there will be much to do again. For now, the best thing to do is be.


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