The coronavirus and the ministry of touch
I lead a congregation in Rome that thrives on handshakes, greet kisses, and physical contact. This winter, the coronavirus has taught Italians the cautions of distance and isolation.
11 MARCH 2020 · 15:23 CET
I lead a congregation in Rome, Italy, that thrives on handshakes, greet kisses, and physical contact. During our services, friends often embrace as they pray for one another.
Not anymore. The spread of the Coronavirus in Italy has forced Italians to reimagine our shared life. Our expressive manners suddenly feel like a danger; other people, like potential carriers of the virus.
In the past weeks, I missed seeing some of our people on Sundays, especially the elderly.
This weekend, Italy’s prime minister forbid the celebration of church services and funerals, alongside the closure of schools, cinemas, and social venues.
It’s a huge change for a culture that specializes in the physical and the social – good food, sunshine, and friendship. Piazze are empty while people worry in isolation.
On Sunday, our church celebrated its first online-only service on a streaming platform. In my sermon, I encouraged people to relearn the art of expressing love through words, now that close contact is discouraged.
But a video stream and text messages are no substitute for embodied life.
People come to church to be heard and hugged as much as they come to hear and pray. For many, Sunday is the day when we feel most seen and cherished by others.
Jesus often touched the people he healed, including lepers. So do we bring healing to past wounds and recent slights alike when we see and touch one another. Over the years, I’ve learned that that to look someone in the eye and to pronounce his or her name are actions that may speak louder than whatever I may preach.
This winter, the coronavirus has taught Italians the cautions of distance and isolation. But we hope that the lesson will soon be over, superseded by a spring of festivities and embrace.
René Breuel, pastor of an evangelical church in Rome.