I was hoping for a blunt and unequivocal statement at General Conference, something along the lines of “Wear your d*mn masks!” There are lives in the balance, after all. I didn’t hear that, although I didn’t manage to watch all the talks. But there were some nice things said at Conference, with some rather bold (by Mormon standards) denunciations of racism and racist thinking, for example. There were many comments directly or indirectly responding to the present Covid crisis, in pleasant contrast to last April Conference when the subject was hardly mentioned. So did Conference hit the sweet spot for you? Or miss a chance or two? Or can you no longer muster enough interest anymore to dedicate eight or ten hours of your weekend for the attempt?
The Year 2020 Keeps Getting Crazier
Sometimes the temporal context of a General Conference overshadows the event. I’m thinking of the time President Hinckley, at the Conference podium in October 2001, just a month after 9/11, spoke the following words from the pulpit:
I have just been handed a note that says that a U.S. missile attack is under way. I need not remind you that we live in perilous times. I desire to speak concerning these times and our circumstances as members of this Church.
We live in perilous times again, it seems. If Covid overshadowed this General Conference, at least the leaders who spoke at Conference did a much better job addressing our fears and concerns and personal crises than in April. This time, they achieved relevance. But the context right now is simply overpowering. And bizarre. Almost unfathomable. The “business as usual” format of Conference, even with many relevant comments, just seems out of place right now. Almost everything seems out of place right now. Three observations:
First, maybe the crazies are winning. Am I the only person who now has the disturbing impression that about half the active members of the Church are just batshit crazy? About masks in particular, but the disease may be spreading. Every week or two a media story emerges about yet another public meeting in Utah County where a crowd of mostly Mormons objects to masks and asserts their rights and liberty are at risk. This can hardly be described as a glimpse of the lunatic fringe when the President of the United States has become the standard bearer for the view.
Over the last seven days, President Trump has tested positive, has gone to the hospital for treatment, has seen a dozen close associates also test positive, has engaged in reckless behavior while at the hospital, under treatment and shedding virus (taking jaunts in the car with Secret Service agents and mingling with other patients), has exited the hospital after only three or four days, and has then hiked up the stairs to the entrance to the White House and then … brazenly taken off his mask as some bold but idiotic gesture to America. What universe am I living in? And we haven’t even gotten to the election, the chaotic aftermath, the inevitable court challenges, and the possible transition to follow. Perilous times.
Second, as goes football … The NFL somewhat surprisingly pulled off three weeks of the regular season without any Covid cases, doing more or less daily testing of thousands of athletes and staff. That really was an admirable achievement, and they weren’t in a bubble like the NBA imposed or provided for basketball players. But this last week, Week Four, saw one team with a dozen or two positive tests (game cancelled and rescheduled) and a few other teams with a single positive test. If this gets worse (a likely development?) it could curtail or entirely derail the season.
The story here isn’t about football, which may or may not matter to you. If the NFL — with lots of incentives for all involved to minimize risk and avoid Covid, and lots of resources to throw at the challenge — can’t pull off a season right now, then neither can similar activities. Universities can’t pull off a semester on campus; public schools can’t pull off regular attendance; many workplaces can’t keep their employees healthy and working; churches can’t bring their congregations into their places of worship for an hour or two every week. If the NFL can’t pull off a season right now, then we’re not at the end of the Covid crisis, and we’re hardly at the end of the beginning. That’s a sobering thought.
With an eye to history, remember that in September 1914 every single belligerent country thought the conflict would be short and quick, over by Christmas. Almost not a single person thought it might last four years, cost millions of lives, and in the process destroy Europe as we knew it. Empires fell. A generation was lost. The wreckage of the war led indirectly to the Great Depression, the rise of state Communism in Russia, and the rise of state Fascism in Italy and then Germany. No one saw this coming. It just happened. I hope that rather than continuing to snowball, we (as in we America, or we the world) can somehow get out ahead of Covid and contain it before it continues to compromise one after another of our social and economic institutions.
Third, I was at the hospital yesterday. I was visiting an older family member who has Covid and is in decline. It gets real when it hits someone you know. Perhaps it’s easier to handle for an older person, when you can say that something will get you sooner or later when you are in your nineties. Still, it’s hard to grasp that modern medicine in 2020 can treat some symptoms and relieve some pain and discomfort but can’t stop this disease. Some recover but many don’t, including some younger and otherwise healthy people.
So as I was sitting at the bedside of this family member dying of Covid, a presidential tweet came out: “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.” Huh? Again, what universe am I living in? Lives in the balance, people under fire, blood on the wire. Just wear your damn masks, people. This shouldn’t be an issue, this shouldn’t be a political issue. But somehow it has become so. It just happened.
Let me offer a positive comment at this point. The nurses and doctors have been outstanding. The nurses have offered quick and detailed reports every time we called for an update (a couple of times a day). They have provided compassionate care when family members could not visit. Despite protective equipment and the best procedures, there is some risk to medical personnel. Many of them, as a result, have tested positive, some have become seriously ill, and some have died. They are unsung heroes in this struggle, laboring against an unseen enemy and doing so largely out of public view while the rest of us deal with politics and ballots, schools versus online classes, work versus work from home, and restaurants versus take out. To those who have lost or are losing a family member, I share your grief. To those who work on the front line in a hospital or who have a family member who does so, I salute your courage and sacrifice. God help us all.
Finally, back to General Conference. I don’t think I can offer an objective evaluation at the moment. Yes, they did a good job, a better job, addressing the pressing issues we face both personally and as a faith community. No, I didn’t hear a clear directive, “Wear your masks!” Yes, they carried on with Conference in perilous times and prudently did so again virtually rather than in the Conference Center with some members in attendance. Yes, carrying on with business as usual lends a sense of normalcy in a world gone askew. But nothing is really business as usual at the moment. It doesn’t quite fit the moment.
What insight or comfort did you draw from Conference? Any happy thoughts to share? Alternatively, what frustrations did you feel at what was said or not said? Is that reaction to Conference or to a particular speaker, or is it just anger and frustration with everything else going on in the world?