The Reverend Dr. Michael Waters Elizabeth Lavin

Religion

What Faith Looks Like Now: A Conversation with the Reverend Dr. Michael Waters

"Love looks like an empty building."

I called the Reverend Dr. Michael Waters, pastor at Abundant Life A.M.E. Church in South Dallas, on a Tuesday afternoon a few weeks ago. I’ve known him for a few years, I’ve written about him before, and I am always curious to hear his perspective on matters of faith and justice and Dallas and its citizens. The pandemic we are in the midst of, of course, touches on all of that and more, so he was someone I wanted to listen to.

In the beginning stages, as the coronavirus swept across the country, Waters was one of the loudest voices telling people to stay home, a stance that wasn’t popular among other clergy. Lately, he is also making sure that people keep their eyes open, and see that the coronavirus is wreaking the most havoc on the members of society who can afford it the least, people like the members of his congregation. It has become clear that COVID-19 is disproportionately killing the black community.

Our conversation about what it has been like to be a member of the clergy recently, and the hard decisions he’s had to make, follows.

But, first, a prayer.

How are you doing? You know, we’re all doing at this point. And I’ll be, I’ll be honest, I’m—as my wife and I’ve talked about this week—we are very much so recognizing our privilege.

Of course. There’s so many more who aren’t doing so well now. But we we are doing well.

How much have you seen of that in your congregation? So literally today, I have a member—today’s Tuesday—who’s been attempting to be seen and tested since Saturday, who has been exhibiting symptoms since last Monday, who was just confirmed for the virus today, who was turned away from multiple testing sites, who is in financial crisis already. And is trying to work from home with the virus.

My goodness. So, yeah, we’re seeing some things in some up close and personal ways that are very challenging. Had another member who was a health care worker who last week was quarantined. Thankfully they have so far ruled out the virus, but she’s got some health things going on that are challenging for her and her family. And then I have another member who’s kind of end of life now, on hospice with cancer. And we’re having to have very hard conversations with her family concerning what we will be able to do or what we won’t be able to do in terms of celebrating her life. So we’re seeing it hit in some very unique ways already.

From seeing your social media, you were, if not the first around here, at least one of the loudest voices among the clergy about people staying at home and not getting together for services and things like that. What alerted you to the seriousness of it so quickly? I’ve been following the spread of the virus for a few weeks now and kind of watching it closely—not yet taking action but watching it closely. I was actually scheduled to lead another civil rights pilgrimage, and I called the group that I was leading, and I said, You know what, I just don’t think it’s wise for us to travel. This is before, you know, people started closing down stuff. I think the only place you were seeing a lot of action at this point was in Washington state. And I said, it’s not worth it. I mean, there’s too much going on. There’s too much that’s unknown. It’s not safe to have people in public spaces.

So we postponed that trip and then, honestly, it just became the next logical conclusion: well, if it’s not safe for people to be gathered in a public space then it’s not safe for them to come to church. I’ll be honest with you: I didn’t think that was any grand revelation.

It just seemed to be the next logical step, that if, you know, getting people in the same space, and the virus is easily transmittable through what you touch or someone sneezes or coughs or any of these other realities, it does not make sense to hold worship. And so we moved very quickly to suspend all of our in-person gatherings, meetings, worship services, activities, and shifted everything online. And I spent a good portion of time instructing, sharing with and providing information to our membership saying, you know what? This is the time to start thinking about what you need to have in your home. Should we move to a forced quarantine? We need to start making some very important decisions.

And I even started saying that if you have access to a mask, I’d get one. If you have access to gloves, do so. And I know a lot of people were saying, you know, don’t worry about that—and even to the extent of saying, which I understand in theory, saying, don’t buy up all the toilet paper. I’m like, well, yeah, don’t buy up all the toilet paper, but at the same time, prepare yourself for what this might look like. Which was the other part I hadn’t heard.

I heard a lot of people, leaders and others, initially almost saying this will be a few days of discomfort and then we’ll be on our way. And everything that I saw suggested the opposite. I didn’t know why we weren’t taking more direct action in terms of what we were doing, in terms of instructing people to take care of themselves. So anyway, that’s what I did and apparently it made a lot of folk upset.

So there was a lot of pushback? Oh my goodness. All over the country. Yeah. I got inbox messages from pastors of some megachurches. I mean, well-known ministries across the country. Oh yeah. Chastising me about my tone, that this wasn’t a unifying tone, that I shouldn’t be as critical, that it wasn’t that big a deal.

That’s unbelievable. I mean, it was direct, you know, there were persons who directly came to me, messaging me and otherwise, and then there were some persons who were clearly indirectly kind of lobbing their critiques in our direction. And then, of course—which, again, I don’t want to claim like, to me this is not brain science, right? This is not a mystery. So you get people together in the same place with the pandemic, people going to catch it. The virus is going to spread. And so it happens. And so now you’re like, well, OK, I mean this is what we knew was going to happen. Kind of suddenly, then you saw people kind of take these pivots without acknowledging the initial stance, which is fine. It’s not about being, you know, at this point, at any point, frankly, it’s not about being right or wrong. It’s literally about saving lives, which is the whole point. Don’t do this, because you put lives at jeopardy. I’ve heard of churches in Dallas where they went to worship and they found out like two days later that somebody—maybe it’s a pastor, maybe it was someone else—was infected.

How do you feel like your role has changed since you can’t be there in person? What have you been called on to do now that it’s kind of a virtual or remote? I think that was one of the calls that I understood and maybe felt really called to be somewhat purposeful and aggressive with it. A couple of things were happening. A lot of people who weren’t thinking this through. They just weren’t really processing what it means to be in the midst of a pandemic and why it’s important to change everything you’re doing.

Right. So you had the persons like that. Then you had another group of individuals who needed the courage to do what they knew they needed to do. And those persons reached out to me as well, and they’d say, you know, I knew that we shouldn’t have worship. I really did know that, but I also knew that I was going to get pushback and I had members calling me, telling me this is the wrong thing. Why are you closing down worship? But this gave me the courage to do what I needed to do. And then others who are members who were saying, you know what, my pastor was saying, come to church. This is how we show our faith. And it just wasn’t sitting well with me.

I didn’t feel like I should put myself in a danger and I didn’t think this was the right thing to do. And so reading your posts, I decided to stay home. And so I mean the opposite is also true. There were persons who pushed back directly and were very forceful. And then there were a number of persons who were also in my inbox or other places who were calling, reaching out to me, and saying, thank you because your posts, your wording, your rationale gave me the courage to do what I needed to do.

So I really believe—and I know people use these terms all time—but I really frankly believe that some of these decisions did say lives.

Given what we know, I’m sure. And I’m very grateful. I was very grateful. That was something that I was able to do to help, help preserve those lives. So that’s the other part of it, too. So I felt, you know, yes, physically confined, but frankly we are the best prepared generation in history, the world ever to face a pandemic. I mean, we just have everything—well not everyone, but a good number of us have much of what we need to survive. So the issue for some people has not been about resources but about discipline, willingness, and maybe even self-sacrifice, willingness to think about your neighbor and what’s most beneficial to your community beyond your own comfort and desires.

Right. I think there’s been a greater strain for Americans, is we’re so individualistic and so focused on our wants and desires. Then now we’ve got a situation where it really is about how we care for each other. And, you know, this pandemic will either continue or come to an end to the extent that we actually care for each other and think more broadly about what it means to be in community with each other. So we have groceries being delivered to our door.

Some of us, at least. We have medications, the same. People working remotely. And, of course, that’s a certain kind of economic class that people who are really experiencing that. I’m also mindful of those in South Dallas and other places who have a real hard time now. They don’t have those same creature comforts.

But my, my view throughout this process has been that if you have the privilege of having a home or the privilege of being at home, then that’s what you should do. For the sake of those who don’t have that privilege, you’re being at home actually makes it safer for those who don’t have that luxury, don’t have that opportunity. I’ve used, you know, as best I can, social media, other platforms to try to get them more at part of it.

This highlights the other work you do, as far as social justice and highlighting the economic inequality, the need for healthcare. Hopefully it’s making people see that. This pandemic is a great equalizer. A pandemic will visit you regardless of where your address is. We’ve already seen celebrities, elected officials, people in power who have been infected or who have died, just as we’ve seen poor people. That will continue on. But it also means that we have to address some of those inequities that we’ve always known about.

And I made a mention of this. I really think that this virus has a capacity to heal America. And when I say that, I mean that I believe the virus is exposing these inequities and presenting us with an opportunity to address them, almost a demand to address them. Because in addressing the inequities, we address the problem before us. This is a justice issue.

I was on a call with the congressional black caucus and one of the experts online said that, you know, in America, to receive quality healthcare for much of our history, you’ve had to kind of reach a three-pronged threshold: you had to be white, you had to be wealthy, and you had to be wombless. And I thought that was a fairly accurate assessment and this is speaking to the fact that healthcare should be, must be, a human right.

Exposing the fact that, through our racism, we rejected a Medicaid expansion that we really need. That we’ve created, in Dallas, the most uninsured population in America, big-city population in America, and that’s going to hurt us. It’s going to harm us in the long run. I think Judge Jenkins has been very clear about that, that the worst is yet ahead of us and much of that is of our own making—the policies or the failed action that we’ve had over time.

So, this is a justice issue. We see it in terms of food apartheid. There are going to be communities that are going to have far greater challenges, making it into the grocery store or having it groceries delivered to them in the midst of this pandemic. We see it educationally, although I do applaud what’s happening in terms of giving kids who need it computers so they can continue to do their work at home. We already know there’s inequity in terms of wifi and internet services and it’s not as fast in some communities than it is in others. And that some communities are more likely to have service interruptions than other communities. So all of these things would be in the scope.

Is there a particular verse of part of the Bible that you’ve been turning to lately? As this continues on and the weight comes down. Yeah, there was one initially from the Book of Second Timothy. It talks about God not giving us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and a sound mind. And I really drew to that text initially, in addressing the issues of faith. So many people framed this issue of whether to stay at home or not to stay at home as an issue of faith. So if you keep going to church while we’re having this pandemic, it shows that you really have true faith in God. So faithfulness is shown by, you know, showing up at a building.

My push back on that was that I believe an appropriate reading of Paul’s letter to Timothy is if we really look at that very clearly, God has not given us a spirit of fear. That’s true. We shouldn’t be fearful. Concerned, yes, but not overcome with fear. But he’s given us power, ability to do things, love, the capacity to uplift others, and a sound mind, wisdom and critical thinking that helps us in our decision making. And I thought that that wasn’t a necessary text to lift up now, that will serve as well.

But more recently I’ve turned to the words of Christ. Christ talks about the fact that we are to love Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind. And then says, this is the first and the great commandment, but that the second command is like unto it, or basically the same as the first. And that is that we’re to love our neighbor as ourself. Jesus concludes, upon these laws, the law to love God and the love of neighbor and self, everything else is based upon.

So basically what Jesus says is that if you want to know who I am, what I’ve come to do, and what I believe your role in the world should be, it is completely summarized by these two commands. If you master these two, if you really focus in on this, you’ve fulfilled everything that I’ve called you to do. And so I’ve lifted up that text because of the emphasis on the neighbor, right? That what we do for our neighbors is what really matters. Love your neighbor as yourself. So this is not about my comfort or my desires, what I want to do. This is about what will impact us in totality and, and, and really trying to share that. So, this is not original to me. I’ve, I’d read so much and come across so much in the last week. I can’t fully attribute it to the person who wrote it now. But I saw a post that really spoke to me that said that today love looks like an empty building.

And I think that’s right. I think that’s right. Love looks like an empty building. It looks like a willingness that I show my love to you now, presently, by my commitment to stay away from you.

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