Seattle had one of the early outbreaks of coronavirus in the United States. The headline in the Seattle Timeslast week read, “Coronavirus sparks an epidemic of people helping people in Seattle.” As our daily routines change and we distance ourselves to slow the spread of this virus, many in the Chequamegon Bay are reaching out with their hearts to connect and support one another. I am currently reading the Dalai Lama’s book, “Toward a True Kinship of Faiths,” in which he talks about how all faith traditions turn to compassion as a guiding principle for how to live life. This common root of compassion is what can help us care for each other, no matter our differences, in times like these.
How did faith communities respond in past epidemics? In his book “The Rise of Christianity,” sociologist Rodney Stark asks the question: How did Christianity begin as a small group of followers and expand so quickly into a major world religion? Is there another explanation then that it was a miracle? Doing a historical study of social conditions, Stark concludes that it can also be mathematically explained by looking at the survival rates in the great epidemics of that time. Historical accounts capture how the early Christian community cared for the sick and those in need, such as a letter he references from Dionysius, during the second great epidemic around 260 CE: “Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another… nursing and curing others.” Later in the letter, he described that those without this kind of care fared much worst. He writes that, “at the first onset of the disease, [the healthy] pushed the sick away and fled from their dearest…hoping to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease.” Stark references that modern medical experts believe that, for these historic epidemics, conscientious nursing, which means caring for someone’s cleanliness and dietary needs, even without any medications, could cut the mortality rate by two-thirds or even more. If this is historically accurate, which we have no way of verifying, it would provide an explanation for the rise of Christianity at this time. Literally, it led to higher rates of survival in a community that showed compassion and benevolence. The accounts talk about how Christians and non-Christians alike were served in this way, women and men, girls and boys.
What Stark’s work says to me is that no matter what the circumstances, being kind and showing compassion is always the right choice — to serve others is to bring healing. I don’t think I can stand one more joke this week about hording toilet paper. The world we have been living in was under the authority of materialism, which encourages us to take care of ourselves, to get ahead, to accumulate material things so we feel secure. It’s the mindset of those who would flee at the first site of their loved ones getting sick. Yes, you may save yourself, but what kind of life do we live knowing that for us to win, others must lose? What I learn again and again is that there is no security in material things; they always fall away. Caring for others is nonmaterial, yet it is what leads to survival. As the coming weeks unfold, my hope is that we all experience an epidemic of people helping people.
Stacy Craig is the minister of the Chequamegon Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, which is moving to online services for the time being. Find more information at http://www.chequamegonuuf.org