This whole pandemic thing pivoted on March 16. I recall the day vividly. I drove to prison that morning, to teach a class. (If you don’t regularly read this column: I volunteer as a chaplain in the state prison system.)

On the way to prison the radio was talking about keeping group sizes to 50 or below. By the time I got out, a bit over two hours later, the number was down to 10. By the end of the day there was talk of public restrictions and lock downs. It was a big day, the day America got public-health serious.

We kinda’ knew this was coming. My son had been married the Saturday before, March 14, and I remember talking with him and his bride as to how in a week it was likely you wouldn’t be able to have an event like that, guests mingling. At the time I don’t think anyone even had a mask handy, but we were all getting good at washing our hands based upon the storm we saw coming.

Relative to the prison thing, they ended access for non-badged volunteers and others the week of March 16. This meant a religious service planned for Sunday, March 23, suddenly did not have anyone to conduct it. A group from a church had planned to come in, but that was off the table due to the new pandemic reality.

I was asked, as a badged volunteer, to conduct the service instead, and agreed to do so. It was, on one hand, just another day at the office. I’ve conducted a few services before, which amounts to going in and delivering a message (“preaching”). From time-to-time emergencies came up and I tried to keep a couple-three emergency messages ready to go for just such events.

On the other hand: COVID-19. At the time it was much less than what we’ve seen since, but it was a big, and somewhat unknown, deal. Rather than dig a message out of the files I wanted to discuss the COVID-19 thing. Like what I suspect was 99 percent of the people stepping up to a pulpit that Sunday, I felt it my call to convey a message along the lines of “Faith in a Time of Fear.”

I got there and checked in. Normally when I show up to these events I bring my guitar and play with the prison worship band. (As an aside here, I have played with some really good musicians in prison worship bands.) Not today, however, there was a pandemic going on and we didn’t want any additional devices in there. (Recall this was pandemic-early, and we weren’t sure just how easy it was to catch this thing from, say, someone coughing on your guitar.)

And I get in there, see the guys (“No handshakes today guys.”) and, well, Faith Over Fear.

And I start out talking, letting them know just what was going on, what COVID-19 was doing. There were over 200 people infected in the state (I know, right?) and more anticipated. Things were shut down and everyone was standing back, people were getting sick, some were dying, and so forth.

And I’m talking, and it suddenly occurs, looking at those faces while I stood at the pulpit. Their eyes were getting bigger in some cases. “I could really start a panic here,” the voice in my head said.

I dropped the disease talk, and went on to talk about faith. I could only imagine, if I hadn’t caught myself, the panicked calls and letters to home, to family, and the worry. I could have started a, in effect, fire.

Words, you see, matter. What you say, even at those times when you’re not entirely serious, can lead to mayhem, if not destruction. The human race, the human condition, is not a game, a toy. Somebody makes a “joke” about “stringing them up” or taking over, or who engages in inflated rhetoric ‘cause it’s kinda’ fun and almost kinda’ funny, and “look at them get all fired up,” is playing with fire.

We saw that last week. Media-soaked glory-hounds allowing themselves to get caught up in the rhetoric and placing emotion in front of sense and decency, in front of any greater picture than surfing the wave of hate-speak to something like an adventure.

Words matter, it matters what you say, and it matters what you encourage to happen as a result of your words. And if you see your words, however well meaning, are having a greater impact than any decent person would intend: Shut up.

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