'Why, God?': Outlandishly tough times raise difficult questions for Chattanooga's clergy

From the coronavirus pandemic to mass unemployment and natural disaster, how Chattanooga's clergy are answering the question on everyone's minds

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / The home of Brad Jones is seen on Tuesday, April 14, 2020 in East Brainerd, Tenn. Late Sunday, an EF-3 tornado ripped through the Hickory Valley neighborhood in East Brainerd, lifting Jones' house off of its foundation, it landed several feet behind.
Staff photo by Troy Stolt / The home of Brad Jones is seen on Tuesday, April 14, 2020 in East Brainerd, Tenn. Late Sunday, an EF-3 tornado ripped through the Hickory Valley neighborhood in East Brainerd, lifting Jones' house off of its foundation, it landed several feet behind.

With each passing day this spring, the Chattanooga area has been increasingly rocked by the coronavirus and its fallout. By April 1, the number of confirmed cases in Hamilton County had quadrupled from a week earlier and then doubled again, to over 100 cases, by the middle of the month.

Offices closed. Bar stools sat empty. Highway interchanges lived without daily commuter backups. Those who could work from home did, but even then, more than 10% of Chattanooga's workforce was unemployed because of the pandemic.

On Easter Sunday, church pews sat empty. And that very night, a series of tornadoes ripped neighborhoods apart, killing at least 11 people, injuring dozens more and destroying hundreds of homes. In the following days, residents of the most-churched city in America stood in the shattered remnants of their livelihoods, or saw scenes of the wreckage on social media, and inevitably turned to their faith.

In her debris-covered kitchen, Donna Carter struggled to describe the tornado that hit the Holly Hills neighborhood.

"It's a blur," she said. "But I think the Lord helps us forget some of it."

Across the region, there were prayers of thanksgiving and shocked utterances using God's name. But there were also questions: Where is God in all this? And, why?

Searching for God

Faith leaders across the city said questioning God is a natural response in times of crisis. Religious texts across traditions include many examples of this as people tried to understand God's role or presence in a situation. Theologians have cautioned people not to believe God is punishing people because this can lead to ideas that there are superior and inferior people.

People should not believe God is testing them, said Laura Becker, pastor at Northminster Presbyterian Church. Instead, people should find comfort that God grieves with people and feels their pain, she said.

"The best thing is to, first, not to deny the bad things, not to pretend they're not there or that they're not hard," Becker said. "But they're not the only thing. There's space to let people lament and grieve and let hard things be hard but also to point them to the ways that this is a season. This is not forever. And that we've been through hard things before."

(READ MORE: Does God cause natural disasters?)

Rabbi Craig Lewis of Mizpah Congregation admitted in an April 3 sermon that his job title often puts him in the position of having to explain God's actions.

"And it often comes out as apology," Lewis said in the sermon. "I do offer the defense people seek, and sometimes it brings them comfort. But really, it is not my job to defend You. It is nowhere in my contract."

The rabbi said he tries to give people a sense of stability during times of crisis, not to deliver false hope. When people feel helpless, they should do something. Blaming God for something that happened removes personal agency, he said.

"Part of my overall philosophy is that I never want to say or promise anything that I don't fundamentally believe myself," Lewis said. "You can be active to help combat all the problems and difficulties that we're going through. Part of our action is taking action by self-isolating and quarantining ourselves."

God can be part of the response, Lewis said. One of the reasons religious communities transitioned to online services during the coronavirus shutdown was to continue to provide followers with a sense of familiarity. The common songs and prayers return a foundation to people's lives when so much is uncertain, the rabbi said.

"It provides us with a framework that when we feel completely out of control of things, we grasp at something that gives us even a moment of stability and normalcy," he said.

Living and leading through the crisis

Just as the coronavirus pandemic upended life for workers and parents throughout the country, it fundamentally changed the work styles of those in the caring profession. It is harder to see a smile or read facial expressions when people are wearing masks.

They are having to adapt, finding ways to deliver pastoral care through a text message or speaking hope into people's lives through a camera lens. Ministry, at its core, is deeply relational, Becker said.

"It's incredibly hard to do it when some of our regular tools of being in community and sharing meals and giving hugs, just those real tangible, physical ways that we can be present to each other is not what is the advised option or the safest option for people," Becker said.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga churches struggle to stay afloat, keep serving their communities amid coronavirus crisis)

Faith leaders are responding to a nearly unprecedented pandemic with increasingly limited means. Their duties to care for the sick increases the risk of contracting the deadly virus. The people coming to them needing financial support after the loss of a job are approaching clergy who face their own fears about the economic impact of COVID-19. Nearly two-thirds of churches across the country reported a drop in giving, according to a survey released this month by State of the Plate.

The people trained to listen to the difficult questions and accompany those who are struggling are not entering into a crisis situation as an outsider, such as visiting the family after an unexpected death or illness. Chattanooga's clergy are living in the crisis as much as they are responding to it.

The leading priest of a major downtown church was the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Hamilton County. A professor at a Bradley County seminar also tested positive last month. The virus has infected nearly 30,000 people in Tennessee and Georgia and killed at least 1,042 people. And as both states plan to re-open in the coming days, health experts warn there could be a spike in cases.

Ministry of presence

Jim Lewis is often on the scene in times of crisis, carrying out what he calls a "ministry of presence." The chaplain with the Dallas Bay and Chattanooga fire departments and a founding member of the state's Tennessee Disaster Mental Health Strike Team was on the ground after the tornadoes to meet with affected residents.

He said his job is listen, first, and assure people that they are having normal reactions to an abnormal event.

"You don't have to fix it," he said. "You just have to be there and be willing to carry some of that pain yourself."

People Jim Lewis meets with often ask questions about why God would allow the tragedy. As a chaplain, he does not try to answer that, he said, but allows people to express what they are feeling, whether it is anger or sadness.

"I do that because I believe that's how God is," Jim Lewis said. "God is a god who wants to allow everybody to say what they need to say. And the scriptures, the Christian scriptures, are full of that."

(READ MORE: Typically a joyful month, Ramadan begins with somber tones for Chattanooga's Muslims)

In the spirit of trying to help, the clichéd things people often say to those in crisis are damaging, Jim Lewis said. Phrases like, "everything happens for a reason" or "God will never give you more than you can handle" can have negative effects.

"Those are, in this situation, false," the chaplain said. "It's a whole theological lesson to go into those, but they are not helpful right now."

People respond differently to trauma and should give themselves time, especially since the tornado added trauma to an already struggling community, Jim Lewis said. But if reactions are disrupting their lives more than 30 days, or if children are having continued outbursts, they should seek professional help, he said.

Find ways to process and communicate feelings, the chaplain said, and do not be afraid to ask for help.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.

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