By Ted Furlow
When the coronavirus first hit, an old movie came to mind. In 1959, Stanley Kramer produced a film version of Neville Shute’s novel, “On the Beach”. It is a dystopian tale of the world, post nuclear holocaust. The story is about an unstoppable wave of radiation sweeping slowly over the earth, killing everything. It is set in Australia, and everyone north is dead. The movie details the final days of the last holdouts, in stark black and white, with excruciating realism, and more than a few serious moral questions. Much of what I was seeing and hearing in the real time of coronavirus, reminded me of scenes from the movie.
In 1959 I was just a kid, a freshman in high school living in the pre-Vietnam, pre- hippie, and pre-drug, Disneyland world of the greatest generation. We were wowed by color TV, watched American Bandstand, read Mad Magazine, and spent the summer bumming on the beach. But underneath it all there was the tension expressed in the song, “Merry Minuet,” which tells us that “man is endowed with a mushroom shaped cloud, and we can be certain that one lovely day someone will strike a spark and we will all be blown away.” The movie was a wakeup call, and I walked away from it with a claustrophobic anxiety of uncertainty. In my 14-year-old mind I wondered if the atomic clock really was approaching midnight. The ensuing decade did little to give me comfort. Starting with the Cuban missile crisis, through the nightmare of the Vietnam War, and the years of social, moral, and racial unrest, you could wonder if we could, or should, get simply blown away.
I’m almost 75 now, and I have a much broader view of life. While I don’t worry about the A-bomb, I do worry a lot about the virus. I’m sick of hearing about “The Rona,” sick of the scare, sick of the news casts, sick of the papers, and really sick of the talking heads. But I am inexorably drawn back to it because it isn’t kind to my age group. More importantly, in the frightening mayhem of this disease, I have found something to sustain me.
I have listened to friends and strangers whine about the Rona, they can’t do this, or they can’t do that. There’s no basketball, no baseball, no hockey, no church, they can’t, can’t, can’t, blah, blah, blah… all of it ending with the question WHY IS THIS HAPPENING? What I have found is that “why?” is not the right question, the correct question is, “what?” God didn’t toss this thunderbolt because he was bored or angry - that’s too Old Testament for me. The simple fact is that this coronavirus came into being because someone in China ate something they shouldn’t and opened this Pandora’s box (I think I have heard this story line before).
As we turn to God in this mess for help and intercession, I don’t think we should be asking him why He did this, rather we should be asking what it is He asks of us in this moment. Consider for a moment that this stress-filled time may be a unique event of transformation, an opportunity for true relational evangelization. I am not talking about the street corner, bible slapping, John 3:16 stuff, I’m talking about being our brother and sister’s keeper. We have contributed to supporting some families in need at our parish school, we continue to financially support our church even though the doors are shuttered, we stand in solidarity with our Pastor who is holding the community together, we check on friends who live alone to insure their well-being, and my wife has been turning out fabric masks for the last three weeks that we give away.
Oh yes, there’s some cost involved in all of this. We have run out of old sheets, old shirts, and hoarded fabric just to make masks. I had to threaten Terri that I would lock up my dresser before she started on my underwear. Terri has cornered the local market on stretch elastic, and people spontaneously show up daily to leave material on our porch with thank you notes. She is the Masked Woman of Elm Avenue, and I love her for it!
Our prayer life has grown exponentially. Not because we might be seeing the glimmering light, but because it grounds us. Our day starts in the dinette, looking out of our bay window on the world. We watch daily mass being live streamed on Facebook, we read chapters from Fr. Andrew Apostoli’s “Walk Humbly with your God” and then the daily one-minute homily on the Jesuit Post. We sit over our coffee and tea discussing what we have read. We talk about life, love, and the American way while watching folks walking by on the sidewalk.
In the enforced apartheid of coronavirus, people are losing community contact with one another. No one can survive this burden by themselves, it will take the village. So, we knock on the windows and wave to them as they pass by. We even have signs we put up that say, “Good Morning” and “Wave.” We have lots of regulars who walk our street, and they look for us in the morning… we crack them up!
This is the transformational and evangelical potential of coronavirus; it is spontaneous bits of service and moments of joy. To reach outside of ourselves to touch strangers with the hope and love of God is to live the “what” of this pandemic. One more day, just one more day.
Ted Furlow is a retired former Director of Pastoral Planning for the Diocese of San Bernardino and continues in marriage preparation ministry in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.