‘It’s all that easy and it’s all that hard’
December 13, 2021 by Mike Ferguson
After surviving a stay in the hospital following a COVID-19 diagnosis despite being fully vaccinated, the Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow says he now counts “competent days as a win.”
“What gives me life now is writing,” Reyes-Chow, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto, California, and the Moderator of the 218th General Assembly (2008), told the Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty of the Presbyterian Foundation last week during an edition of Leading Theologically, which can be viewed here. This spring Chalice Press published Reyes-Chow’s latest book, “In Defense of Kindness: Why It Matters, How It Changes Our Lives, and How It Can Save the World,” and he’s already at work on his next book. Writing “feeds my soul these days,” he said.
Reyes-Chow, a social media legend in PC(USA) circles who’s inspired many with talks on topics including holding meaningful and effective online worship, told Hinson-Hasty he posted extensively during his hospital stay in order to “normalize” what it means to be hospitalized because of the coronavirus.
“So many people have it, and not everyone dies from it, thankfully,” he said. “What I discovered is many pastors and others had COVID and didn’t have the resources or the platform or the flexibility to heal and share their story. There are a lot of people healing in silence.” Family and friends “just want us to get better … but we know with COVID there are long-haul [effects], more so for some than others. I was trying to normalize this longer path that recovery takes.”
Another motivation to share so freely, he told Hinson-Hasty, was to encourage more people to get vaccinated. “I firmly believe if I was not vaccinated, I may not be here,” he said. “I was at the very low end of hospitalization, and it can get so much worse. I wanted to reinforce that for as many people as were willing to listen.”
“You are for me and for so many others a trusted voice,” Hinson-Hasty told him. Reyes-Chow’s social media posts were more compelling than statistics and numbers to his many friends and followers, Hinson-Hasty said. “When it’s personal, it’s a little different, and I’m grateful for that,” he told Reyes-Chow. “I’m so glad you are encouraging folks.”
As First Presbyterian Church has added an in-person worship option despite the presence of the omicron variant, Reyes-Chow said he’s hopeful “it doesn’t create a sense where we are cavalier about this or we give up” on being vigilant about safety, “but that it actually reinvigorates our diligence. I’m not sure which way we’re going to head [with the new variant] but I do think it is exhausting to hear about another one.”
“We do a little bit in person and quite a bit on Zoom to try to get people more comfortable with different ways of interacting,” Reyes-Chow said. “We are trying to create a sense of ‘how do we stay in community and be responsible,’ which means some inconvenience but also some discovery. There have been some real revelatory things happen because of the pandemic — not silver linings by any means, but we’ve revealed some things about ourselves, both good and bad, things that were a little static and calcified as well as places that we’re fairly adaptable at.”
“For those of us called to lead these [faith] communities, it’s exhausting, especially for small-church pastors,” Reyes-Chow said. “I want to acknowledge that I think folks are tired. If anybody listening is on a session, I think pastors should be given more time off and time just to rejuvenate a little without any strings — just some time to refresh a little, because [guiding a congregation through a pandemic] takes a toll on folks for sure.”
Reyes-Chow has a word he finds himself using increasingly of late: enough.
It’s not “I have had enough,” he said, “but ‘what is enough?’” when it comes to productivity, a nagging he ascribes to “toxic productivity gremlins.” When they “come into your world, you are only as good as what you accomplish … It’s a cultural phenomenon in the U.S. and we need to break that because it is not sustainable.” It’s being made manifest in the Great Resignation, he said, in which clergy and people in other lines of work are leaving their positions in surprising and sometimes alarming rates.
“All these things are forcing us to ask questions, and for me it’s, ‘what is enough?’” he said. “How in shape do I need to be? How much do I need to be working? How much do I need to be managing my way through the pandemic for the church? What does success mean? All these great questions have become more real for everybody over the past 18 months.”
He said his most recent book isn’t overtly religious, “but it does regard the beauty of Creation and the created.” Hinson-Hasty read the author some of the book’s more playful lines including this one: “They say kindness is dumb. I say, ‘I know you are — but what am I?’”
“I’ve got to slip some childishness in somewhere,” Reyes-Chow told listeners, “to keep you on your toes.”
“I think your authenticity is a clear witness,” Hinson-Hasty told him before asking Reyes-Chow to offer listeners a charge and benediction. Reyes-Chow used one he frequently goes to:
“Go forth into the world with compassion and justice in your heart. Hear voices of the long silenced. See strength in that which has been deemed weak. See one another, hear one another, care for one another and love one another. It’s all that easy and it’s all that hard.
“May the grace of God, the love of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit be with us all now and forever more. And all God’s people say, ‘Amen!’”
Leading Theologically airs at 1 p.m. Eastern Time every other Wednesday. Watch it here.