My wilderness of skyscrapers

Jun 1, 2020 by

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Three times in 30 years I’ve lived through events I hope never happen anywhere again: the 1990 Hesston, Kan., tornado, the 2016 mass shooting in Hesston — and now I’m living in the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in New York City.

Since Ash Wednesday my husband, Mel Lehman, and I have been together 24/7 in our studio apartment on the fifth floor of a 25-story apartment building. We started sheltering in place two and a half months ago. We can see Riverside Park, the Hudson River and the New Jersey shore out of our window. We can read news and keep up with friends and family with phone calls and Zoom meetings. Yet we can’t open our apartment door without fear that droplets of the deadly virus may still be hanging in the air of the hallway or in the elevators. Our management asked us not to order unessential packages or to visit with staff or residents in the lobby.

Outside, people cross the street in both directions, often not keeping the requisite 6 feet apart. Bicyclists pass walkers. Not everyone wears a mask. A few pull their masks down to smoke. It is not relaxing to walk in the park.

“How much is a human life worth?” asks Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “Our behavior directly affects the number of deaths in our city.”

Mel and I are protecting ourselves and others by not going out except for a couple of early morning runs he made to a deli to refill our dorm-sized refrigerator and get more staples. We also ordered from Target. Then I agonized over letting a young delivery person risk exposure to the virus versus risking it ourselves.

Three residents in our building have had COVID-19. We pray for our apartment building staff who travel on subways to work. And we worry about the safety of mail carriers and store clerks. I’ve also lectured my siblings and Midwest friends about their need to take more precaution than they seem to do.

We’ve found plenty to do and haven’t gotten bored, but sometimes getting out of bed seems useless, and it’s hard to pray or make what few decisions we can. Sharing our tiny apartment space challenges us almost every day. We try to avoid reading statistics about deaths and newly confirmed cases of COVID-19, yet we are strangely fascinated by the pandemic.

I talked to one pastor who said it’s something like watching a movie. I see his point.

Jason Storbakken, our pastor at Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship, like the many other church leaders I’ve interviewed (MWR, April 20 and May 18), has shown tremendous leadership in keeping our congregation connected and growing as Christians. On our Zoom meetings we see each other’s faces, and I can hear speakers’ words much better than I can in the meetinghouse, with its high ceilings.

On weekdays we meet for contemplative worship and Bible study, and on Sundays we have short breakout groups and long times of sharing joys, concerns and prayer. Once a month we study a theological topic. I feel nurtured, inspired and appreciated for taking part. No one has to travel to our house churches. Some changes we are making may be good for us even after the pandemic subsides.

Still, a cloud hangs over the city, even on sunny days. Everyone knows someone who has died. I hear ambulance sirens day and night.

Susan Miller
New York

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