What a challenging and painful time we are living through. I hold you all and our congregations in my heart. The need for and demands on our religious communities are high. I have needed and experienced the ministry of our congregations all across this country—both by attending virtual worship services and by witnessing how you are responding in your communities in ways that are deeply pastoral and urgently prophetic.
My preaching professor taught me that there were three kinds of sermons—theological, pastoral, and prophetic. While these categories were helpful initially, I have never been good at keeping them separate. And now, in the midst of this global pandemic, as we hold the grief and weight of what is happening to the human community, it is clear that the pastoral is prophetic and the prophetic is pastoral.
Pastoral comes from the Latin root meaning shepherd. In religious meaning, it is the work of tending to the care and well-being of the people and the community. It’s embodied in the personal connection, witness, and care we give to others in times of loss and need. It’s the ways we are known and held and loved in our congregations.
As the number of lives lost to covid-19 grows, as the impacts of illness and loss touch more and more of our communities, families, and congregations, the need for the pastoral grows. For we need pastoral care when we lose loved ones, when we lose a job, when we face financial vulnerability, when we struggle through the mental and emotional impacts of isolation and uncertainty. It’s vital to making our way through the pain and loss wrought by this virus.
It is also true that this pandemic has exposed the fact that too many lives have long been treated as disposable. Even before the pandemic, tens of millions of people and families in the United States were already in crisis. They were already experiencing a housing crisis, food insecurity, inadequate healthcare, mass incarceration, immigrant detention, environmental toxins, and climate devastation. These interlocking systemic issues of exploitation, poverty, and dehumanization are making the impacts of the coronavirus worse for communities of color, Indigenous people, and the poor.
It is devastating to see the impacts of covid-19 on black communities in cities like Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, and New Orleans. These impacts are the direct result of generations of racism, divestment, redlining, and discrimination. They show up as disparities in environmental pollutants in neighborhoods, who is able to telework and who isn’t, who has never had consistent access to healthy food and adequate healthcare, who must still be out working in low-paid essential services. These disparities in impact and their causes are also happening to Latino communities in Boston and New York, and we know this racial disparity will be repeated across the country.
Naming and addressing these injustices has always been characterized as prophetic, but when we call for relief and resources to be distributed to alleviate this disparity, then this is also deeply pastoral—for it is about the care and well-being of the people and the community. It is about saving lives and directly responding to people’s suffering and need. It is where the pastoral and prophetic are one.
This is happening in people’s hearts without even being named. For example, there is growing support coming from so many corners to decarcerate—to release people from jails and detention centers—because their lives depend on it. This is the pastoral, compassionate response to people’s lives at risk, and it is prophetic in that it shines a light on the injustice and inhumanity of our mass incarceration system.
In truth, maybe my preaching professor had it wrong. We cannot separate the theological, the pastoral, and the prophetic, especially not now. As Unitarian Universalists, our theology is always rooted in love and a recognition of our fundamental interdependence. And with compassion and mutuality as our foundation and guide, we are called to the place where the pastoral and the prophetic are always one.
Yours in love, Susan.