Some romance their future wives with jewelry. Some with fancy restaurants. Some with dining and dancing. I romanced my future wife with buckets of mud and mops. We met courtesy of Ann, a good friend of mine from church youth fellowship who befriended my future wife in their college dormitory. Ann had hoped she could match another friend with Elaine, but he couldn’t make the party. I could. I did. It started off promising. Three months later Hurricane Agnes struck. With us home for the summer, our church fellowship rallied and spent most every July weekend traveling to Wilkes Barre to help in the recovery efforts. We got to know each other cleaning out flooded houses. That mud smell returns every now and then.

How do I flood thee? Let me count the ways. Since coming to Danville in 1989, we’ve faced a few floods together. Floods have a way of bringing people together. Before the town flood system was installed, I remember shoveling sand into bags alongside surgeons, high school football players, guys from the street department. We worked together against the common threat, willing to rescue our neighbors, sharing pumps to drain a neighbor’s basement. It is what you do at a time of trouble, threat and emergency. This is the duty and privilege of community mobilization. We’ve had a few floods since. My favorite was when raw sewage backed up into my buddy’s basement. When a buddy calls, you go. That was a fun day, almost as entertaining as the flood when my sump pump broke down. The water won over me carrying pails upstairs.

Who remembers the worship services held the evening of 9/11? Singing together, offering our thoughts and prayers together, mourning together, standing together, patriots together. We cooperated. We collaborated. Together we faced the common threat to the common good, shoulder to shoulder.

This feels different today.

At a recent gathering, a fellow was dismissive when I balked at shaking hands with him. I offered my elbow instead.

He quipped: “So you’re one of those afraid of this virus thing. I’ve been through worse. We’re fussing too much over this coronavirus.”

I later tried to explain to him that it’s not about his health, it’s about the health of others. What did grandma counsel? An ounce of prevention….

A wonderful member of my congregation died after an excruciating battle with cancer. When hospitalized during a bad time she was agitated at how visitors were required to gown up, putting on gloves, masks, eye shields. It made her feel so dirty, so unclean, everybody protecting themselves from being contaminated by her. We finally were able to convince her that this protocol wasn’t required to prevent her from contaminating us but from us contaminating her. With her lowered immune system, she was endangered by us.

The fellow who shrugged at my caution at shaking hands is a fine fellow, but his attitude seemed irresponsible. And that is why it feels different today. If it were a flood, he’d be the first out in a boat helping his neighbors. But this virus, this threat separates us. This threat doesn’t pull us together, it wants us selfish. It’s forcing us to cut ourselves off and look out for ourselves and our own. We avoid each other, we hide from each other. I better get mine before there’s nothing left. It’s about me rather than about us. Ammo is sold out. There’s the real danger, this insidious panic. This moat and mine mentality. My neighbor is my competitor. My neighbor is my threat, even if my neighbor is a friend of mine. The danger is each other.

It doesn’t have to be this way. It shouldn’t be this way. It cannot be this way. How we handle this emergency is a choice. We must make the extra effort to be neighborly. I’m proud of one small church taking advantage of their smallness by preparing to maintain steady communication with each other about each other’s needs. If someone runs out of toilet paper, another member will share some of theirs. If an older member is worried about going to the supermarket, another member will shop for her. If a nurse or grocery clerk needs child care so she can go to work, another member will help. It is what you do for each other. Regardless how individualistic the threat is, we are in it together. The question isn’t: Who is my neighbor? The only question is: Have I been neighborly?

The Rev. Robert Andrews is retired pastor of Grove Presbyterian Church in Danville. Read more of his work at robertjohnandrews.com

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