Reverend Lynn Ungar’s first book of poetry, Blessing the Bread, was published in 1996. Her poem “Pandemic,” written in March, has been read and recited by people around the world, as we seek to make sense of the paralyzing COVID-19 crisis. She spoke to us about the genesis of her viral poem, writing poetry in this season, and the online congregations she ministers to.
Question: You have written a few poems about the pandemic and the world we now find ourselves in. What do you think it is about your poem “Pandemic” that has especially touched a chord with people?
Answer: I've written something like 18 poems since “Pandemic” that speak to the world we are now in. I think what was different about “Pandemic” is largely a matter of timing. It said something that people were feeling, but didn't know how to express at a time when they needed to express it.
Your poem begins:
“What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?”
Is this where the idea for this poem began for you? You are asking people to think of this time of restrictions as a time to reflect — and maybe even celebrate?
Yes. The starting point of the poem was the idea that, like the Sabbath, restrictions could be viewed as a kind of gift, and invitation into sacred time rather than an imposition to be resented.
As Seventh-day Adventists, we also keep the Sabbath day apart as a time for spiritual focus and rest from the work of the week. Did you grow up in a Jewish household? Do you keep a day of rest apart from your everyday life now?
My father is Jewish and my mother is not, so whether I grew up in a Jewish household depends on your understanding of Jewish. We celebrated some of the holidays, but I grew up going to a Unitarian Universalist church. I'm afraid I don't actually keep a Sabbath day, although it likely would be a good thing if I did.
How can we, as your poem suggests, “give up, just for now, on trying to make the world different than it is”?
There are a tremendous number of things in the world that desperately need to be changed. Most of them are out of our personal control. It matters that we do our best to make the world a more just, sustainable, and compassionate place, but we also need to realize that what any one of us can do is pretty insignificant.
The Jewish understanding of the Sabbath is that it is a time when we don't change things (including things like lighting fires) as a recognition that really, God is the one in charge, not us. It doesn't mean that we don't work, and work hard, the rest of the week. But sometimes we have to let it go.
You wrote your poem “Pandemic” on March 11. Has your perspective on the crisis changed since then, nearly two months later?
I am disappointed to see how even in a national crisis, with 100,000 Americans dead, we still find ways to be divided as a nation, turning something that should bring us together in mutual support into a partisan issue in which some people feel that even a simple public health measure like wearing a mask to protect those around them is somehow an imposition on their freedom.
You are a minister for an online congregation: The Church of the Larger Fellowship, described as a church of Unitarian Universalists and other religious liberals. So you have a lot of experience already in leading a church that meets virtually. How large is your congregation? Where are the parishioners located? How do your services work? Has anything changed for your church as a result of the pandemic?
Yes, the Church of the Larger Fellowship, which I serve, exists primarily online for about half of our members. The other nearly half are incarcerated, and generally do not have access to the internet, so we serve them through the mail. I don't know exactly where our membership stands, but it's roughly 2,000 people.
Our worship services are streamed live, often with a combination of pieces that were pre-recorded and pieces that are done actually live in the moment. There is a chat bar available through much of the service for people to respond, and we offer the opportunity for folks to meet in small groups for video chat after the worship. As you say, we have been offering online worship for about 10 years, so what we are doing now is not radically different than what we were doing before, although we have made some changes to accommodate more people and more interaction.
Your poem has received a huge response, with a piece of choral music written and set to the words, video essays made set to the words, and readings of the poem done by actors and recitations on radio and podcasts around the world. It has been written about in newspapers — and mainly forwarded on Facebook and other social media by millions of people. Has this response surprised you? What responses have you received that felt particularly gratifying?
Yes, I was certainly surprised that the poem went (ironically) viral. I have been most moved by those working on the front lines in the medical professions and serving the elderly in rest homes who have shared that they found comfort and support in the poem.
You already have a published book of poetry. Have you found this time of quiet and staying at home particularly conducive to writing poetry? Have you felt especially inspired during this time of dramatic change in the world?
Yes, rather to my surprise, I have been writing quite a lot more poetry than I usually do.
Read, listen, and watch “Pandemic” below. You can find more of Lynn Ungar’s poetry at her website www.lynnungar.com.
What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.
Promise this world your love—
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.
—Lynn Ungar, March 11, 2020
Listen to a Virtual Choir Sing “Pandemic”:
Watch the “Pandemic” video essay:
Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum.
Photo courtesy of Lynn Ungar.
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