This blog post is the next in a series showcasing the Religions Texas Archive. Religions Texas is a community archive and public humanities initiative that explores Texas as a site of religious encounters and a meeting place for people and communities from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds. It’s rooted in practices of oral history, storytelling, and community-based research.
Our last blog post featured the Muslim Voices collection. Today, our focus is the Corona Chronicles Collection, which explores and preserves the stories of religious leaders across Texas as they have maintained their communities and navigated the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. In these unprecedented and uncertain times, this collection delves into how the pandemic has affected the lives of religious leaders, from the mundane to the extraordinary, and how it has led to new ways of being community. It serves to document this historical moment for the future as well as help those living in this moment make sense and meaning out of the changing nature of our lives.
To learn more about this project, I spoke with Mary Wilson, the primary interviewer for this collection and a retired minister herself. In our conversation, we reflected on how throughout the pandemic, religious communities have faced challenges around whether or when to meet in person, what restrictions or guidelines to follow, and how to maintain community when in-person gatherings are not possible. We discussed how forms of practice, worship, and rituals have been transformed, and the roles of community and religious leaders have been reshaped. Today’s blog post tracks the lessons Wilson has learned from when she began interviewing in the fall of 2020 to the ongoing interviews being conducted this spring.
Early on in our discussion, Wilson reflected on the importance of mask wearing during the pandemic, and how this issue has been addressed within Protestant Christian communities in Texas. She shared her personal perspective, saying:
To wear a mask or not wear a mask? Well why wouldn’t you? I mean it’s such a simple thing to do to help care for other people. Yes it helps you, but mostly it helps the people that are around you. And isn’t that part of the Christian faith, to love your neighbor and to care for one another? This idea that “I’m not gonna wear a mask because my freedom is more important than me caring for someone else’s wellbeing.” It’s bizarre. It’s so antithetical to the heart of Christianity that I don’t even understand it.
Wilson clarifies that she believes mask wearing has nothing to do with conservative or progressive politics, affirming that “Christianity from the left and the right has always understood that part of what we’re called to is to care for one another.” However, she believes that the politicization of mask wearing has led to some religious leaders forgetting this. Wilson finds this especially frustrating given that she understands mask wearing to be an “innocuous” thing to do. She even hilariously pointed out that wearing a mask is “not like asking someone to wear a bra 24/7”.
That said, Wilson was happy to report that most of the ministers she interviewed upheld mask wearing, though many have had to navigate a breadth of political opinions within their congregations. For example, Brent Hampton, a Presbyterian minister in Brenham, TX laid out to his congregation why it was not good for them to meet in person, even though congregants were pushing for it, by referencing the fact that ministers from other churches had died as a result of having in person gatherings. As Wilson paraphrased, he expressed to his congregation, “I don’t want to die because we’re impatient!”
Wilson and I also noted how the pandemic has exacerbated and emphasized pre-existing worldwide injustices. Wilson shared how in a recent interview with Rabbi Marie Betcher, they discussed the idea that “covid or not the world would still need healing”. One of the interviews that stood out to Wilson the most was with Marialena Cristerna, an Episcopal priest in Eagle Pass TX. Most of Cristerna’s congregation lives across the border in Piedras Negras, Mexico and she testifies in her interview to the unique challenges her community faces given their pre-existing poverty. In her interview, Cristerna expressed how unemployment and hunger spurred by the pandemic have compounded upon each other:
Thank you, Jesus, he has provided for so many families to get that help. It’s food and then education, in that order. We don’t want the children to stay home without receiving any classes. It’s so sad. Domestic violence has increased because of our economic situation. Also, child abuse and all that because the children are hungry, crying, asking for food or something and parents feel impatient. What did they do? I mean, they get mad because they don’t have a way to feed their family, their children. So, it’s very sad.
Cristerna delivered this powerful testimony in the midst of tears. When speaking of Cristerna and other ministers who shared their heartbreak during the interview process, Wilson notes that “When people are that vulnerable it feels like a privilege to walk alongside that, to be on the receiving end of hearing that story.” Wilson was lucky enough to have that privilege many times while interviewing for the Corona Chronicles collection. She also reflects that though many of these stories are heartbreaking, their experiences of crisis make them richer, more capable pastors. In fact, Wilson offers a prelude to all those who intend to explore the Corona Chronicles collection:
You’re about to hear from some really great people doing some fantastic work in caring for their congregations and caring for the world. Enjoy! Because they are inspiring.