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  • Writer's pictureDan Robinson

What has the Pandemic Taught Us?

Updated: Jan 31, 2021

How will we be different after the coronavirus? As soon as Sr. Caroline Sullivan posed that question, it stuck to me like wet sand on the beach.

A bit of wet sand at Neshotah Park/Beach in Two Rivers, WI

Sr. Caroline, a member of the Sinsinawa, WI Dominican Community, ran a retreat center and farm called The Bridge Between, which operated in northeast Wisconsin for a number of years. That’s where I first met her, many years ago, and I really enjoyed few times at the center/farm, including one particularly memorable encounter with the farm’s llamas.

A mutual friend reconnected us after she heard about the Great Lakes Spirituality Project, and my conversation with Sr. Caroline started like so many conversations do these days, with the coronavirus.

It’s not like I hadn’t thought about post-Covid-19 life before, but for some reason, her question seemed especially urgent that day. As the long-term reality of the virus sets in, the implications of the pandemic seem to grow even more. What will we learn from all this? Do we just try to go back to life before the virus? Is that even possible? Do we even want to “go back”?

A recent poll by the University of Chicago Divinity School and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research showed that almost two-thirds of Americans who profess some kind of religious faith or belief say the virus is a sign that God is telling us we need to change.

Of course, the question then becomes, what does that change look like? How are we to be different, or what are we to do differently? My conversation with Sr. Caroline left me with some possibilities.

We need to begin to see ourselves as part of the nature and not separate or above it.

Sr. Caroline remarked that too often, “we pray for one species and one species only.” The coronavirus reminds us that we as a species are not separate or immune from the natural world, but are just as affected as any part of creation. And sometimes, we are our own worst enemy. The toxic algal bloom in Lake Erie that poisoned the drinking water for the people of Toledo demonstrated that in 2014.

Because we are not separate from nature, we need to understand that we’re part of the whole of creation and that our actions have consequences beyond us.

As Sr. Caroline said, “What we haven't seen is how we're a part of the web of life... to see how, if I do this, this is the effect.” Staying home if you can or staying six feet apart and wearing a mask if you have to go to work or out in the community are seemingly small and self-centered actions. But they really do serve a purpose in protecting everyone. Reducing plastic or water use can also feel small, but these actions have a real impact in protecting our water and environment. “We are the domino that can make a difference,” Sr. Caroline said. “If we believe that we can't do anything, then nothing will get done.”

Change for the better is possible.

Sr. Caroline commented on the reports of blue sky appearing in places where air pollution had obscured it for years. Pollution has been significantly reduced in many urban areas like Los Angeles because of reduced transportation and closed factories.

Clean skies in Los Angeles, previously the worst city for air quality in the U.S., demonstrate that change is possible, that we can positively affect our future and our environment. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has also shown that we can clean up our messes, if we devote the time, energy and resources to that work.

Change works best when we work together.

“We have to do this together,” Sr. Caroline reminded me. “It's OK if one of us does something, but we can do so much more together.” Certainly, that’s true in combating this pandemic. We’ve seen how an at-times-fractured response fails to stem the spread of the virus. It’s only when we’ve worked together that we’ve been able to “bend the curve.”

What’s true for protecting us from the virus is also true of protecting the Great Lakes Basin. I’ve always been impressed with the number and variety of organizations and individuals who are working to care for the Lakes. But, when all these people come together for a shared purpose, the work is even more effective. I’ve attended the “Healing Our Waters - Great Lakes Coalition” conference in the past, and have seen how that collaboration and synergy can magnify our work.

Working together, however, means recognizing the equal dignity of every human being as well as the systemic injustice that has historically affected people of color.

The disproportionate impact of the pandemic on black communities in the U.S. is well documented. But this is just one terrible example of a history where communities of color have disproportionately suffered from environmental and public health hazards. It is no coincidence, then, when communities suffering from a lack of clean, safe drinking water also have a high population of under-represented people, as the water emergency in Flint, MI demonstrated years ago. I’ve recently written about how communities of color lack equal access to clean water, especially important in this pandemic where we need to be consistently washing our hands.

Seeing injustice as a kind of poverty, Sr. Caroline commented, “The coronavirus is a spiritual opportunity to listen to the voice of the poor. The inequality of nurturing life in all its forms. There is dis/ease when a species continually takes and seldom or never gives back or shares.”

Spirituality from a variety of perspectives has a role to play.

As the survey mentioned above indicated, many Americans see their faith and spirituality as essential to the moment. We as a people, however, are as fractured spiritually as we are politically, with many different takes on God, spirituality, and what our ultimate reality is.

But what if we saw that diversity as an asset rather than a problem? “We keep dividing the divine up, goodness up,” Sr. Caroline said. “But all the different spiritualities are seeing some portion.” The Great Lakes Spirituality Project is dedicated to that very idea, that a variety of spiritual perspectives positively add to how we understand our connection to the Great Lakes Basin and how we can protect these waters.

We have a moral responsibility.

All the major spiritual traditions agree on one thing - that we have a moral responsibility to care for each other. The pandemic gives us an opportunity to demonstrate the truth of that belief. But that responsibility, according to Sr. Caroline, extends to the Great Lakes as well. “We have a moral responsibility to take care of the Lakes.”

In this moment, when so much of our lives feel threatened by forces unseen and beyond our control, this may be where spirituality can serve us best, as comfort and source of unity, as a call to take action and a guide.

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