In the New Dispersion: Letter from a New Orleans Church Plant
By Benjamin Morris

“Coming together means staying apart.”

Such is the slogan of our city leaders here in New Orleans, ever since last month when the scale of the outbreak became clear. At press conferences, on social media, and in all official advisories, Mayor LaToya Cantrell and her staff have repeated this refrain ad infinitum, like one of the peculiar moral maxims of “Brave New World.” With its famously social culture, New Orleans was hit hard not just by the outbreak — Louisiana has suffered one of the highest growth rates of cases, and in some parishes mortality rates, in the country — but by the corresponding impacts on the healthy as well.

The tourist district, including the French Quarter, is abandoned, a ghost town. Most of our beloved restaurants are closed; the ones still open are open only at a literal arms’ length, for takeout and delivery. Our festivals are canceled, and our unique parading culture, iced overnight. Our parks are now policed for gatherings deemed excessive, and houses of worship across town have seen their doors shuttered, their pews barren, their fellowship halls fallen silent. As the Times-Picayune reported, one Catholic priest now sits on the sidewalk outside his parish church, just to be able to meet his flock — from 6 feet away.

As a young church plant in the city — launched in 2015 from Redeemer PCA, profiled before in these pages St. Peter’s Presbyterian Church has felt these impacts keenly. After several years in the wilderness, we had just secured a beautiful new location and were beginning to feel tangible signs of growth: new families, new births, new relationships. Then just as Carnival ended, so did that momentum. Watching the cases of COVID-19 rise, we held off as long as we could, but there was no stemming the tide. On March 15, we made the agonizing call to suspend all our services.

St Peter’s sanctuary, one-half of a shotgun house. The pastor’s stoles substitute for stained glass.

With roughly 40 souls in our congregation — nearly half of them children — swiftly came the worry: Would we see our families again, or would they drift away? How would we pay our bills, running on a shoestring already? Would we ever see another visitor, or would those newborns be our newest members for the foreseeable future? Yet after extensive prayer and discussion, we realized that as challenging as this situation was, part of what we were being called to do was adapt: to take the means of common grace we had been given and turn them into something new. Veterans of the lean years after Hurricane Katrina recalled similar years of making stone soup; hauling out the pot, we put on water to boil.

Adaptation requires balancing the routine with the novel, like flour and fat in a roux. Early on we decided to preserve as much of our worship as possible, including our meeting time and the core of our liturgy, but other things quickly evolved. Here, having a smaller congregation affords a unique flexibility: Rather than livestream over YouTube, conducting services over Zoom has given us the interactivity we crave.

Our pastor, Shane Gibson, still leads the service from the pulpit but now preaches via a webcam, to a tableau of digital parishioners (some in their pajamas). Our music director still leads us in song but does so from his living room, everybody singing along with his feed for each new hymn. Scripture readings require no more than a mic switch. We have added new prayers of intercession; the Passing of the Peace now consists of a flurry of text messages. Donuts, however, sadly, are now BYO.

“Count it all joy, brothers,” James writes to the 12 tribes of the Dispersion (1:2), “when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” Some at St. Peter’s might feel we’re unmoored, that our fledgling church might never recover: in membership, in faithfulness, in finances. And it is true, our deprivation has caused us to hunger even more for what we have taken for granted: Even the voices warbling out of tune, or the cheddar Goldfish crushed into the nursery carpet, now seem precious beyond measure. And yet precious not just for their absence, but precious because we know that now, more than ever, we are united to the global body of Christ for longing for the exact same things. Restoration. Renewal. Hope.

None of us at St. Peter’s knows what will happen, but we take comfort in this: that during this chapter in the life of this small church, the promises of the future Kingdom have come to echo more audibly in the present than we could have imagined. And yet — if the logic of the Kingdom inverts the logic of this world — why the surprise? This virus, ghastly as it is, has forced our hopes to shine anew: We long even more for healing for those who suffer; we long even more for safety for those in harm’s way (an emergency room doctor in our flock, husband and father to three).

In our longing we are ever more unified, beyond markers of race, class, or age. How sorrowful the circumstance but how good to be joined to the church universal: freshly cognizant of our brothers and sisters across time and space who have never been able to gather without fear of persecution or harm, and to share with them — though we may never meet this side of eternity — that experience of brightened yearning. Of seeing ever more clearly the face of our Savior, meeting us in our distress.

The holy catholic church: How resonant that clause of the Apostle’s Creed now sounds in the season of the coronavirus.

Let not these words portray us here as Pollyannas. Far from it; we fully grasp the horror of this crisis, and the PCA churches in New Orleans have already mourned the loss of one parishioner’s father to the disease, with others still gravely ill. We mourn especially for those who have succumbed in isolation, unable even to hold a human hand. In this, we join N.T. Wright’s call to lament, and pray not just for those in harm’s way, but for the swiftest end to this suffering that can be achieved. For the wilderness remains: A few days after Easter, Mayor Cantrell extended the stay-home order until May 16, with potentially more to come.

“And let steadfastness have its full effect,” James continues (1:4), “that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” In this season of sharpened, almost biting impatience — never more felt than during Holy Week — like all believers I too long for fellowship, for the sacraments, and yes, for my one weekly donut. But personally, here in the new Dispersion I have felt a strange gratitude for these trials visited upon us and, in an unexpected way, look forward to the hour on Sunday morning when we worship Christ through a poorly-lit screen.

The holy catholic church: How resonant that clause of the Apostle’s Creed now sounds in the season of the coronavirus. We will obey the Emperor (1 Peter 2:13); we will obey the order to stay home, as long as it is required. But Madam Mayor, the church will gently insist that you have it backwards. For the church triumphant, staying apart means coming together, more than you know.

Benjamin Morris is a deacon at St. Peter’s Presbyterian Church (PCA), New Orleans.

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