By Saunia Powell
COVID-19 has taken so much from our ability to be there for one another. As a hospice chaplain, I have not been allowed to enter the facilities where our patients live. I talk to patients and their family members on the phone, but that isn’t what I would consider connection. I can share some words of care, but I want to share my body in the room, patient and listening. Listening on the phone doesn’t count – much like not turning on your camera in a Zoom meeting – who knows where your mind is when no one can see your face. No one wants to speak into a void.
I believe that receptivity predates and draws forth all connection. That’s what made me think I would like chaplaincy – not because I have wisdom to impart, but because I have listening to give. And I think listening matters. Whatever I mean by “listening” has significantly less to do with my ears than my whole body and how it lends its full attention. It shows on my face, the moisture in my eyes, and the physical reach of my arm across the hospital bed. What makes me a worthwhile chaplain wasn’t taught in seminary, but something I got from my mom and all her overactive mirror neurons and daily practices of paying attention. I learned how to show folks that I am listening, and I do my best to become the empty sheet of notebook paper, ready to hold whatever is drawn forth.
But I have found no good coronavirus-safe workaround for this gift of receptivity and human connection. While I may have staked my career and theology on the importance of being seen/heard/known as necessary conditions to Being, I honestly can’t figure out how to find that grounding presence on the phone, or Zoom, or from across a yard with masks on. If the open and receptive other is the first cause – the magic that conjures everything that matters – where does that leave us now? (And it isn’t enough to talk about the future when we can be together again. Real listening, real connection is needed now, in every present everywhere.)
Yes, we’re going to have to expand our receptivity repertoire and get mightily creative. And. (I hate to say this part because I hate when humans relinquish their responsibilities to God, but,) I think in this time of social distance, we are going to need to rely more heavily than usual on that which is greater than any one of us. Because I actually can’t always hear you from my house. (My cell phone audio is terrible, and zoom freezes approximately 30% of the time.) I can’t always show you the ways I am open to your being, even though I want to. You probably won’t feel my presence, because I’m just not there.
My only recourse in this presence-restricting pandemic is to use my words to remind the folks I work with and maybe you too: the truth is, whether we feel it or not, the whole world is open, listening, receptive, with us. While there are many moments pointing to the contrary, you are seen and held with gentle care, by the trees and the sky and the objects that surround you. *I* might not be able to show my attentiveness right now, but if you look for it (pay attention), I promise that open care is already there and listening. While it is very hard for me to let go of my white knuckled grip on these reins, I have to trust that receptivity will find you. And I’ll be praying that you can connect with that openness, whatever form it may take, and be drawn forth by its open ears, eyes, leaves, pages, and desire for your being.
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Saunia has lived in the Lancaster Amish countryside, Indianapolis suburbs, the middle of Iowa, Jiangsu Province, North Carolina’s Appalachia, Seattle’s CD, the north Berkeley hills, the panhandle of Nebraska, West Oakland, NOLA, Chi-town, St. Louis, and back to the middle of Iowa (in that order.) Nomadic not only in locale, Saunia’s homes in multiple religions, occupations, and families make writing a concise bio difficult. Most consistently sprinkled throughout her occupational story are multiple attempts at hospital and hospice chaplaincy, directing for the theatre, and academia. Raised Pentecostal, with a Master of Theological Studies from Pacific School of Religion titled “Christian Theologies of the Body,” Saunia’s spirituality has always stayed close to the soft body and followed after what it loves. Whether at a Holy Ghost tent revival, Old Order German Baptist funeral, all day shapenote singing, African grief ritual, dancing at a queer club, or lying under a tree, Saunia believes in incarnation. This “this” of us is God in us. The pain and the ecstasy. She couldn’t be more delighted and honored to walk alongside the faithful attending to divine incarnation and creativity that is enfleshed.