OPINION: How mourning might help build a unified community, nation

Credit: Courtesy of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church

Credit: Courtesy of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church

Three times over the last month, members of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta have joined with other houses of worship across the country to mourn.

If you’ve somehow managed to avoid the wave of grief washing over this city, indeed this nation, your eyebrow might be rising right about now, so here’s a quick rundown of what the rest of us have had to endure.

Loss of loved ones. Loss of livelihood. Loss of community.

And yet, in every instance, we’ve been forced to grieve for the most part in isolation. COVID-19 has not only killed more than 200,000 of us and counting, it has also prevented us from being with those loved ones in their last moments, wreaked havoc on the economy, and pitted us against each other.

Worse, our capacity for compassion, for seeing the whole, seems lost as well.

ExploreWall of hearts sees COVID-19 deaths as loved ones, not numbers

It’s been depressing to watch.

And so when I heard about the candlelight vigils happening at churches, synagogues and mosques across the country, I thought finally.

The interfaith vigils, billed as Mourning Into Unity, were intended to bring Americans together to grieve the deaths from COVID-19 and other losses the ongoing pandemic has caused.

Credit: Courtesy of St. Luke's Episcopal Church

Credit: Courtesy of St. Luke's Episcopal Church

St. Luke’s held its last a week ago over Zoom and Facebook, but we need more.

No one can say for sure if that will happen, but the Rev. Ed Bacon, interim rector of St. Luke’s, said the church is pondering what’s next.

“I do know we will continue to have mourning as a spiritual practice,” he said.

ExploreWhy it’s time to put ‘we’ ahead of ‘me’ more often

Just days after the last St. Luke’s vigil, I caught up with Bacon, who talked about the impact the exercise had on him personally.

There were two major takeaways, he said, including the revelation that mourning can be a spiritual practice.

“I should have known that from Jesus’ Beatitude, ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,’” Bacon said.

The Beatitudes are eight blessings recounted by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew. Each is a proverb-like proclamation, without narrative, but I didn’t need any.

For most of my life, I’ve known that even in the midst of trouble, He will be with you.

Bacon put it this way. “God enters every suffering, and turns it into redemption, more abundant living.”

He pointed to other passages, including Psalm 22 and his favorite, Lamentations 3:23, which says the Lord’s mercies “are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.”

“This has brought to my awareness you really have to go through lament to get to a place of hopefulness," Bacon said. "We Americans are up people, but the Bible is telling us yes, that’s good but it’s very important to mourn. By doing that, we will come to God’s hopefulness that is eternal.”

For some, that might seem like a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, but to the faithful, it is like food to the soul.

Grief is terrible. It makes us want to curl into a ball and stay there. It is raw, confusing, painful, and can last for like what seems an eternity. It can break us in two.

But there’s nothing like it to teach us to love more deeply, to be more forgiving, compassionate, empathetic.

Often when I write about issues of race and gender, even poverty, I’m struck by the number of people who are unable to even acknowledge it as a problem, who can’t be bothered by the pain of others and so my response to them is often just keep living.

Life’s circumstances, indeed mourning, will teach you more than I ever could.

Beyond the sheer number of deaths COVID-19 has wrought, Bacon said one of the saddest moments for him came when he learned parents were having to choose between losing their jobs and sending their kids into schools where they might be exposed to the deadly virus.

“That’s such a Sophie’s choice,” he said, referring to the movie in which a mother is forced to choose which one of her two children would be gassed and which would proceed to the labor camp. “What I’m advocating is that we can find a third way. That third way is to come together and to mourn our losses and then discover new paths to unity so that it is neither an either-or choice or a blame, shame and attack choice.”

The vigil, he said, allowed participants to acknowledge how tough these times are and how easy it is to give into fear, divisiveness and polarization.

And unlike many of my readers, to be saddened by the same grief impacting others and then unite with them to find answers.

Bacon told me he thinks daily about the Pando tree, his favorite symbol of interdependency, which of course, is what we need to counter the tale-of-two-countries polarization in America today.

“It is one plant with a 106-acre rootball in southern Utah,” he said. "There are 57,000 seemingly separate quaking aspen trees with one DNA, which means they are one, interdependent unit. We must start behaving as one, where the health and well-being of one depends on the whole.”

Mourning into unity creates an attack-free zone where we can come together, and that’s what we need.

If you happen to still believe we can continue to go it alone, to ignore the suffering of others, just keep living.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.