When my family was unclean

Photo: Kai Pilger, Pexels. Photo: Kai Pilger, Pexels.

For a moment he held out his hands . . . as if to slow the world that was rushing away and seemed to care nothing for the old or the young or rich or poor or dark or pale or he or she. Nothing for their struggles, nothing for their names. — Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses

My family contracted COVID-19 in early January. We all had a mild case, praise God, and as a physical experience, having COVID was no different than our previous interactions with illness. We felt crummy, and after several days we felt normal again.

The emotional experience of being COVID positive, however, was new. As a person harboring a dreaded and relatively unknown disease, I wasn’t just sick. I was dangerous.

When people found out I was COVID positive, there was a notable, wary shift of tone in their voice. On Zoom calls I could see their bodies instinctively recoil from the camera, as though my germs would leap through the screen.

Our family and neighbors were incredibly quick and eager to help us. Their generosity was sincerely appreciated, though I was unprepared for the delivery method. When they brought the groceries or supplies, they approached the house wearing a mask, set the bags on the front stoop and then hurried back to their car. They waved as they made their getaway out the driveway.

This was confusing. Was it possible for the virus to leap through a glass door? Was there perhaps a virus force field around the house, eager to suck the healthy in?

I have certainly been in situations where I didn’t feel particularly welcome or wanted, but I’ve never felt dirty — or, to invoke a biblical term, unclean. Indeed, a rosebud on the thorny stem of having COVID was that the experience brought a new and deeper meaning to the Gospel stories about the unclean lepers and Jesus’ merciful response to them. While others shunned lepers, Jesus allowed them to draw near to him. When he touched and healed them, he shared their impurity and removed the shame that others assigned to them.

Perhaps it is irrational, but during my days of isolation I desperately wanted people to come to the door and, with both of us wearing masks, simply hand me what they brought. I wanted to feel like a person who was sick and needed help instead of an aggressing, virus-ridden body, whose only worth is to be gone. The idea of Jesus coming near to me and touching my unacceptable body seemed like a kindness too great to fathom.

Here I must beg you to suspend moral outrage for a moment. I’m not suggesting that Jesus would want my elderly parents to come share hugs and kisses while I was COVID contagious. I am fully cognizant that this virus is more dangerous than most viruses our world has encountered. Over 400,000 people in the United States have not had mild cases as my family did; they died. This virus demands greater caution than we are used to.

Still, there is a difference between caution and fear. Caution requires practices like wearing masks that allow people to be together, serve each other and share their humanity. Fear, though a perfectly natural response to illness and death, becomes ungodly when it justifies self-protection that exerts power over others.

The law of Moses imposed rules regarding skin ailments in the interest of public health and the containment of infectious diseases. But in “an abundance of caution,” the Pharisees banished lepers to the outskirts of town and labeled them, “Unclean.”

With “an abundance of caution,” our school doors remain closed while our children are at home with computers and iPads. We allow this even though we know we have abandoned many children to fend for themselves.

With “an abundance of caution,” many churches continue their worship and fellowship in a virtual space. While there are many examples of responsible churches that have safely met for months with social-distance and mask-wearing measures, large sanctuaries and fellowship halls sit empty as parishioners watch the worship service in their pajamas, teens “jump onto” youth group Zooms while they scroll through TikTok off camera, and children have probably forgotten what church is by now.

“An abundance of caution” is a socially acceptable way of saying, “I’m scared and will do what I need to in order to feel in control.”

COVID-19 is dangerous. It has killed many and left countless others naked, beaten and half-dead by the side of the road. We cannot be the priest or Levite keeping our distance to remain clean and safe. If we are to love our neighbor as the Good Samaritan did, we must cross over to them, lift them up and take them with us to safety.

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