This year. This year has been exhausting, dripping in grief and loss. No way around it.
And yet. The exhaustion, grief, and loss are not the whole story. There are small miracles and moments that inspire gratitude. One thing I am giving enormous thanks for? The honor and gift of interviewing so many amazing people in 2020. Mentors, pastors, professors and leaders. Amazing humans, really.
In today’s conversation with Rev. Dr. Judy Cummings, she shares with us how she and New Covenant Christian Church (Disciples) are facing the major crises, losses and griefs of 2020. What she describes is a three-part response to crisis that includes pastoral organizing, deep lament, and sabbath rest. Together these responses offer a template for us all.
Pastoral leaders and congregations, you find yourselves facing unique challenges this year. Activists, professors and chaplains you also are navigating unprecedented times and situations. Crisis ministry is part of our work, yet it is amplified and compounded by these pandemic times.
Join our conversation today to learn from the seasoned ministry of Dr. Cummings. I think she will inspire you as we all think about responding pastorally to crisis, loss, and grief.
In Nashville, the first major crisis of 2020 hit just after midnight on March 3. A sustained supercell tornado swept through the city. Like many Nashvillians, Dr. Cummings went out to buy supplies for the neighborhood surrounding her church. She was headed to the gathering point at Lee Chapel Memorial Church which is about six blocks away from New Covenant. But when she arrived, she was overwhelmed to discover that the damages to North Nashville were dramatically worse than reported on the local news.
On the afternoon of March 4, I ran into Dr. Cummings. I was also dropping off supplies at Lee Chapel. But when I spotted her out on the sidewalk, she had two phones, a notebook, and several neighbors and church members surrounded her. She and I only had time for a quick hello. I learned later, when I interviewed her, that in that very moment Dr. Cummings and her fellow church members were making plans to open another tornado recovery and support center at New Covenant. Because, when your house has been destroyed and there is no power and trees are down on every street? “Six blocks might as well be six miles.”
By the end of that very week before the power was restored, before all the trees were cleared, and before the roofs were tarped, Nashville shut down. The pandemic was descending on us, and we were asked to follow a “safer at home” policy. New Covenant continued to minister to the community in the safest possible ways. For many months now, they have provided masks, and food, and financial resources and been part of organizing people and labor to help people get back on their feet. The ministry of New Covenant has moved forward on many fronts, helping people to stay safe from the coronavirus and to protect their neighbors and neighborhood.
Dr. Cummings is not only a thoughtful leader among leaders in the city of Nashville, she is also trained by the Gamaliel Network. In Nashville our local affiliate is Nashville Organized for Action and Hope (NOAH). Dr. Cummings is a past officer of NOAH, which works on issues like affordable housing, criminal justice, and economic and job equity.
More immediately when it came to the tornado, followed closely by the pandemic, she knew how to organize the people, the money, and the resources to get help flowing in the right direction.
As if tornadoes and pandemics were not enough, 2020 still had more crises in store. This crisis, however, was not new. The suffering and death of Black people in Nashville and throughout the United States for simply jogging, driving, sleeping, shopping, or living, remains an epidemic. When the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd came to light, the nation galvanized in moral outrage, and people rose up in more than 140 cities across the country.
I asked Dr. Cummings to think aloud with us about what she is learning about the practice of ministry while living through these crises of 2020. She reaches back to a lesson she learned in July of 2016. Dr. Cummings says when she heard the news and witnessed the tragedy of the police shooting and subsequent death of Philando Castille she was overwhelmed. She prepared a sermon for the following Sunday. But when she arrived, she could not preach it. What she learned was that it was possible, necessary, the only right response to join her congregation as they lamented together. Watch our conversation to learn more about how she embraced the power of lamentation.
With all of this work, responding to crisis after crisis, who would not be tired? Who would not be worn out from each new wave of grief and distress? Dr. Cummings also knows what to do in response to all the organizing and lamenting and the serving. She knows how to lead her people to rest. Watch today’s conversation to learn how she did it.
As we all turn toward thanks this week, I give thanks for you, dear pastors, chaplains, activists, and ministers! You are caring for the world in unprecedented ways. Bless you and may God’s love surround and uphold you.