José Irizarry discusses new roles for church leaders in a pandemic
June 2, 2020 by Mike Ferguson
The Rev. Dr. José Irizarry has plenty of roles and titles, including Vice President of Education for the Board of Pensions. In recent weeks, he told the Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty Wednesday during a Facebook Live event, the pandemic has added a new important title to his portfolio: Minister of Household.
“As minister of household, we are institutional beings,” Irizarry said. “All the institutions we belong to have collapsed into one place we call home. Home is now church, workplace and school.
When those coalesce into one place, he said, it takes the people who understand the space to make it work. “Debating what’s for dinner, discussing school assignments and having different opinions — families are reclaiming a space, and those discussions are precious.”
Hinson-Hasty, senior director for Theological Education Funds Development for the Presbyterian Foundation, has a guest on at 1 p.m. Eastern Time each Wednesday to talk about life and ministry during the pandemic. Irizarry’s conversation was titled “Education in Virtual Society.” Interviews typically last about 30 minutes.
Even with all the technology now available, Irizarry noted that many people of faith are returning to traditional means to communicate with one another and share God’s love in tangible ways, through letter-writing, cookie baking and phone trees, among others. “These are ways of getting closer as a society,” he said.
When online courses were first being offered in the early 1990s, Irizarry “was part of the resistance, let me tell you,” he told Hinson-Hasty. “It’s a way to capture a larger audience of students, but how can we define that as a real community without the presence of the person? Then we turned it into a theological discussion: We can’t be a community without an incarnational component.”
Now, of course, online offerings, including worship, are no longer transitional. “We will continue to use means like this,” he said, shaping the visual space in the same way an architect designs a house to fit the environment, including the lot on which the house will be constructed.
“The tendency is to try to find the models, especially when you are trying to do it fast,” he said. “An online community allows you to go to different places to look for information. It’s a different kind of community.”
Some experiences cannot be replicated for an online community. One example for worshipers is the pleasure one’s nose derives from burning incense as part of in-person worship. Even the smell of the people around you, Irizarry said with a laugh, is part of that sense of community.
Taste is another sensory experience that requires creativity for an online community to enjoy. Hinson-Hasty said his worshiping community uses a very sweet bread his children used to call “community bread” instead of communion bread. Maybe they were onto something, he said.
He said his family is considering purchasing the bread for household communion use. “It seems silly,” he said, “but it reminds me of taste and flavor being part of communion.”
Irizarry, a collector of children’s books, had three books on hand to tout. One, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso’s “When God Gave Us Words,” will be read at 1 p.m. Eastern Time Friday by Ruling Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri, Co-Moderator of the 223rd General Assembly, as part of her weekly Facebook Live offering.
Irizarry’s other recommendations were Amanda Noll’s “I Need My Monster,” read on YouTube by actress Rita Moreno, and “Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and her Family’s Fight for Desegregation,” by Duncan Tonatiuh.
Asked by Hinson-Hasty to close with a benediction, Irizarry delivered this gem: “We are living in difficult, challenging times. My blessing for you today is that when the pathways of hope close, may you find a way. When the voices around you sound ambivalent and uncertain, may you be captured by truth. When all dreams seem to wither in the winter of our souls, may you be awakened by life — the one I Am, who is the way, the truth and the life, be with you as you face the world.”