2,953,747: Global COVID-19 deaths as of April 12, 2021 
2nd: 2020’s rank among the warmest years on record 
172,000: Migrants apprehended at the US-Mexico border in March 2021 
2.6 times: the relative rate of Black people killed by US police as compared to white people, from 2015-2020 
1,000,000: Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China detained in reeducation camps since 2017 
The U.S. public is served a steady diet of numbers. This year, the menu greatly expanded. In addition to daily numbers about the stock market, political polls, and unemployment, we devoured numbers about COVID-19 infections, deaths, and positivity rates. There were also numbers about the rate of incarceration for Black American males, about migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, and about global sea level rise.
There were so many numbers to consume, numbers that spoke of disaster. And in this age of the Anthropocene, no disaster is merely “natural”: all are tinged with the flavor of human malice, greed, and stupidity.
Numbers are helpful, even necessary. Throughout this plague year, they have helped us make decisions that could save lives. They have helped us calculate the risks involved in what were once mundane acts: shopping, exercise, visiting friends and family, working at the office, and praying at houses of worship.
Modern, neoliberal societies like ours use numbers not only to communicate facts about markets and the weather, but also to account for the deeper stuff of humanity: success and failure, happiness and grief, life and death. Yet more often than not, the daily barrage of numbers has masked the suffering, traumatized people who are enduring these overlapping disasters.
The moments of humanity that did manage to peek through the dim veil of numbers often revealed tragedies more unspeakable than numbers could convey. It was in these moments that disaster became real. Disaster was visible on the face of George Floyd as his last breath was taken from him by Derek Chauvin, and in the rare but horrifying photo essays from inside hospital COVID wards. It was audible in the songs of protest and the rituals of socially-distanced funerals. It was palpable in the parched California ground and forests of ash. Disaster, in the end, cannot be accounted for by numbers alone.
But it remains difficult to talk about disaster without recourse to the coldness of numbers. As philosopher Maurice Blanchot wrote in his aphoristic 1980 book, The Writing of the Disaster, disaster “is the limit of writing.” It seems to rob us of the ability to inscribe our world with meaning. While enduring disaster, one realizes that a world that once made sense no longer does.
And yet, in a world that has stopped making sense, something must be done to keep the forces of irrationality and senselessness at bay. Something must be done to make a home in a world bent on eviction. Even as it robs us of the words, disaster demands that we give an expression that can account for the sense of irreversible loss and, often enough, unshakeable hope. In so many ways, this kind of expression—from the depths of disaster—is sacred expression.
In my own research into early Christian responses to disaster, I have discovered that it is precisely from disastrous situations that new traditions are born: new prayers, new songs, new rituals—or, at least, new ways of doing the old. This is because disasters make it necessary to create new ways to adjust to a world that no longer makes sense, to remember a past made strange and foreign, and to pray to God when it seems God is distant, absent, or (frighteningly, perhaps) nearer than ever.
This issue of the Yale ISM Review explores sacred expression amidst disaster. The expressions discussed in this issue, from painting to preaching, singing to praying, shine a light on disasters from the inside, from the places where numbers cannot go. These are expressions that reach out toward the infinite in grief, desperation–and hope.
In This Issue
The first section of this issue considers rituals created to respond to disaster. The rituals here discussed respond to two very different moments of disaster, but both knit past, present, and future together in profound ways, showing the work of memory and hope that ritual can do in these moments.
New disaster rituals are always connected to what came before. As LeRhonda Manigault-Bryant writes, rituals “live deep within us, waiting to be unlocked.” Rituals can connect the present with the past, the living with ancestors who have passed over. In her moving essay, recounting how she cared for her mother as she passed over, Dr Manigault-Bryant explores the ritual practices she retrieved from an unforgotten past and recrafted for the present moment of death and dying in a COVID-19 world. In the process, both she and her mother were changed.
The destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE shattered existing forms of Jewish worship. But as liturgical scholar Ruth Langer shows, rabbis recast Jewish worship in new verbal forms, drawing lines of continuity with Temple worship. Hearkening back to memories of Temple ritual, they transferred what was salvageable to new forms of prayer. Alongside old prayers, Jewish communities created new expressions of penitence, mourning, and lament for the disaster, but also new expressions of messianic hope that God will end the ongoing catastrophe and restore an ideal earthly existence.
The second section of this issue of the Review homes in on congregational life. This year, two disasters in particular–the pandemic and the ongoing disaster of racism in American society–have confronted worshipping communities to a degree unprecedented in recent memory. How can congregations best respond to the realities of worship during disaster today? Our authors examine this question as it relates to singing, preaching, and community life more broadly.
Perhaps the most noticeable change in the life of worshipping communities this year has been physical separation and the use of streaming technologies. This format, created out of necessity to respond to the risks of gathering in person, possessed the real advantages of accessibility and mobility. I could visit churches and see friends I haven’t seen in years! But it had its disadvantages as well. The digitalization of communal worship and the absence of physical, face-to-face encounter created a strain in faith communities.
The sense of community so important for religious congregations is rooted in the experience of response and reciprocity, an experience that was sorely missing this year. Choral director and music educator Robin Freeman examines what this has meant for group singing in congregations. Singing during streaming services, whether in a nearly empty church building as a soloist or alone at home while watching a livestream, often lacked the reciprocity and feeling of community inherent to group singing. Freeman shows that group singing sessions on Zoom, despite the technology’s limitations, can allow for the reciprocity and responsiveness that streaming worship is missing. Even if the physical elements of community are elusive, real sociomental spaces of community are possible through digital technology.
This year has not been a year for congregations to learn new music. They have had to rely on the songs they already know and, as scholar of liturgy and music Antonio Alonso discusses in his article, on the memories those songs contain. How have those songs’ memories prepared congregations for this pandemic year? Alonso calls for those in charge of making and curating music for congregational worship to be better stewards of the community’s musical memory. This means taking stock of memories we admit and those we deny in a congregation’s repertoire, and being willing to give up one’s place in the center of communal memory.
Marcia Mount Shoop, a white female pastor and theologian committed to racial justice in churches, writes about the road she has travelled to dismantle racism in her majority-white congregation. It is a road of radical inclusivity, equal sharing of power, partnerships and trust-building, and servant leadership. This article provides a rich example for congregations—especially majority-white congregations—looking for a place to begin to cultivate antiracist practices in worship and beyond.
The proclamation of the word is another dimension of congregational life that has been greatly affected by this year’s disasters. To better understand the role of preaching during the twin pandemics of COVID and racism, I sat down with two scholars of preaching and liturgy: Lisa Thompson and Andrew Wymer. Our conversation centered around these questions: what does it look like to preach during these twin pandemics? How can the preacher connect to the embodied experience of traumatized members of their congregations? How can the pulpit be a place where equity is embodied and promoted? In addition to discussing these important issues, Lisa and Andrew offer helpful advice for preachers to take care of themselves, even as they minister to those around them.
This issue continues with two photo essays. Both direct our attention to works of art created in liminal spaces: occupied Palestine, and the U.S.-Mexico border. These are spaces deeply affected by ongoing disaster where creation is an act of survival.
Margaret Olin, a scholar of art and visual culture, writes about the portraits that populate the outdoor walls of Dheisheh, a Palestinian refugee camp near Bethlehem. These striking public portraits created by local artists depict the faces of martyrs. These were local men and boys killed by Israelis while caught in the act (or under suspicion) of throwing stones or Molotov cocktails during demonstrations, or even simply helping wounded Palestinian demonstrators. This disaster art is complicated, to say the least. Olin reveals the dense layers of significance these martyr portraits hold, from the political and the artistic to the familial and religious.
Valarie Lee James’s photo essay shows us art created by migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border that demonstrates the “inexorable relationship between hope and fear” in the in-between space of migration. As volunteer Arts Coordinator at Casa Alitas, Tucson’s primary short-term migrant shelter, James facilitated art projects where traumatized refugees used the language of art to communicate when words often failed. Even as they bear witness to tragedy and ruin, these pieces display seeds of hope beginning to bloom.
Environmental ethicist and theologian Daniel Castillo closes this issue of the Review with the “One Final Note” feature. He asks, what can sacred architecture teach us about how to engage the climate crisis? Do stained glass windows and secluded sacred spaces direct our attention away from the earth, pushing worshippers to indifference toward habits of consumption and exploitation that continue to damage it? Castillo responds in a way that might surprise us. While some sacred spaces can sometimes seem to embody a reclusive escapism, he shows that the “flight from the world” can become an impetus for liberating engagement with the world on a more profound level.
Finally, I would like to extend my sincere thanks to Dr Gennifer Brooks and Dr Roberto Goizueta for offering their professional and editorial insights for this issue, in addition to our editorial board.
Mark Roosien is Lecturer in Liturgical Studies at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School. He is a scholar of liturgy, theology, and ecology and translator of Russian religious texts. He is working on a book, based on his dissertation completed at the University of Notre Dame, tentatively titled The Discipline of the Land: Earthquakes, Liturgy, and the Environment in Constantinople. He has two forthcoming translations of the Russian theologian Sergius Bulgakov, The Eucharistic Sacrifice (University of Notre Dame Press, 2021) and Spiritual Diary: 1924-1925 (Angelico Press, 2022), the latter with Roberto De La Noval. He is an ordained deacon in the Orthodox Church in America.
 Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, 7.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Recommended Citation: Roosien, Mark (2021): “Guest Editor’s Introduction” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 6: No. 1, Article 1. Available at https://ismreview.yale.edu.