On a recent Friday evening, I was playing phone tag with a woman named Suzette. We were strangers, as far as I knew, connected through her membership with the TownLake YMCA.
It was my job, as a Y director and interfaith chaplain, to check-in with members like Suzette, see how they were holding up during the COVID-19 shelter-in-place order. Because Y staff couldn’t be with our collective community in person, we were determined to be there for people — for thousands of members — one by one.
But when my phone rang around 7 p.m. that Friday, I almost didn’t answer. I felt spiritually and emotionally exhausted from weeks of working at home, alongside my husband and our two elementary-age kids, both of whom need ample physical, emotional and educational attention. Like so many mothers — so many people — right now, I was drained, verging on despair. But I told myself, “just one more phone call.”
I did this because of my faith, which includes what I call “the spiritual practice of showing up.” I trust — and have experienced time and again — that our purpose will be revealed when we arrive. The universe (what you might call God or the divine) will delight and surprise us if we can only find a way to show up.
At the end of a very hard week, delight came as Suzette and I made small talk (not usually my favorite). We chatted about the stress relief and sunshine we get walking in our neighborhoods — which we quickly realized, as we described our routes, are one and the same! In fact, Suzette and I discovered we have been living just two blocks away from each other for nine years.
“I’m on my cell phone!” I told her, straightening up in my bed. “I should just walk to you!”
“You should!” she said.
So I did. I put on my sandals and stepped out into the lovely April evening, heading in my neighbor’s direction. We visited at a safe distance, near where Suzette has been working in her yard. We talked about some experiences of motherhood and bonded over our shared love of music. (Suzette plays in the Morningbird ukulele group that I have been coordinating for TownLake's Live Music in the Lobby program for the past year. She grinned with I told her my rock band, Parker Woodland, is named after an intersection in our neighborhood.)
In hindsight, Suzette and I had met before. I recall seeing her grandkids leaving her house once or twice, and I’m sure I’ve thanked her, along with the other ukulele players, when they have played “You Are My Sunshine” in the YMCA lobby. But Suzette and I had never connected so directly and memorably until the hustle and bustle of modern life had been stripped away by the coronavirus.
Now I text her when I’m out for a walk, and she stops to say, “Hi,” when the kids and I are in the front yard. We each have a new person nearby whom we can call in an emergency or if we simply need a friend.
I thought my job was to call Suzette and lift her spirits. In the end, the support was mutual. That is how true community works.
My YMCA colleagues and I can’t wait until we can safely be back in our facilities, dancing and swimming and re-connecting with our community in person. In the meantime, we laugh and cry with new friends on the other end of the phone.
The Y is a diverse microcosm of the wider world. Many people are doing well, thankful for their jobs and health. But others are struggling. My heart breaks for those who are sick or have lost loved ones and jobs. My heart aches for those who are struggling with abuse, addiction, depression, poverty or other conditions that are exacerbated by the crucial yet difficult effort to shelter in place.
Our staff’s phone call outreach does not take away the pain of the coronavirus pandemic. The calls do not change the fact many families are separated or grieving this Mother’s Day.
The calls mean that fewer people will suffer alone. Moments like meeting Suzette remind me that there is still joy to be had in hard times.
We need our neighbors and our communities, even when we must hold them at a physical distance. Whom do you know that might be struggling or grieving? Whom can you check on today, with an old-fashioned phone call? Where can you show up, even virtually, to surprise and delight someone?
Life can be painful and beautiful all at once, and the way we will get through this is together.
The Rev. Erin Walter serves as director of community engagement and social responsibility with the YMCA of Austin and the affiliated community minister for Wildflower Church,a Unitarian Universalist Congregation in South Austin.