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'Our faith can provide us': Nebraskans find signs of hope, love and life during coronavirus

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'Our faith can provide us': Nebraskans find signs of hope, love and life during coronavirus

The Rev. Dave Korth thought he’d have more time to take motorcycle rides, to pull books off the shelf he’d long wanted to read.

The truth is, as a religious leader during the coronavirus pandemic, he’s busier than ever.

More online meetings. More desire from his parishioners at Sacred Heart Church to connect. More conversations with his mother, Margaret, who had to celebrate her 87th birthday without him.

More people with anxiety, worry, fear, too. More COVID-19 case models to track, more news alerts to read, more cotton swabs stuck so far up our noses they tickle our brains. More, so much more, meditation on our own mortality.

And here it is, Easter.

A joyous moment in the Christian calendar, the uplifting final day of Holy Week, when the crucified Jesus Christ rises from His tomb, declares victory over death and invites all who believe to join Him for eternity. Korth will preach on Easter, he predicted, to a larger audience than usual.

“What people need from their faith right now is exactly what our faith can provide us,” Korth said.

Stained Glass

Staff member Jim Smejkal stands to take communion at Kountze Memorial Lutheran Church during Sunday service in Omaha. The church conducted services via online streaming as people could not attend because of measures to limit the spread of coronavirus.

They just won’t be in the church building. They’ll be at home, watching on the Internet, exhorted to stay socially distant so as not to contract or further spread the coronavirus that has already taken more than 20,000 American lives and more than 108,000 worldwide. Church on Easter is typically full of color and flowers and pastel dresses, large brunches and plastic eggs hidden all over the grounds. The coronavirus has nixed much of that — and a lot of other things.

A pandemic prompts these questions: What does faith look like in the age of the coronavirus? How does resurrection — be it in Christ or just the resumption of normal life — play on a day just before the peak of the virus is projected to hit Omaha?

People representing a cross section of the city — with different religious traditions — acknowledged what they had lost.

For Omaha South High soccer star Abdi Adan, a devout Muslim, it was a chance to defend a state title with what some believe could be the best team in state history.

For Katie Broman, executive director of the Omaha Community Playhouse, it was the opening of a beloved musical, “Bright Star.”

J. Coco General Manager Scott Thornton lost some of the best months for business at the highly acclaimed restaurant on Dundee’s southern fringe.

Creighton University theologian Thomas Kelly lost the connection with students and colleagues.

“That sense of community you get when you walk into an office, pour a cup of coffee and say hello,” Kelly said.

Saint Cecilia Cathedral

A bird flies through the fog near the towers of Saint Cecilia Cathedral in Omaha.

Korth and Temple Israel Rabbi Brian Stoller both miss the personal interaction with their congregations, a corporate body, in unison, pushing into their faith, the warmth and cheer that radiates from a look, a shared laugh or even — almost unthinkable right now — a handshake.

There’s a temptation to stay stuck in that moment of sorrow, Korth said. It’s an honest emotion. A die-hard Creighton basketball fan, he was fully “bummed out” that the Jays’ potential March Madness run was snuffed out.

But Korth presses forward. On Easter — and every day after — there is something to gain.

“The devil wants to isolate us. He wants us to feel isolated. But God wants us to be connected, so don’t give into that temptation of feeling isolated,” Korth said. “We need to continue to reach out.”

Rabbi Stoller prays frequently on Psalm 118, the last of six Psalms in the Hallel, often recited on Jewish holidays like Passover, which started Wednesday with a Seder meal and continues through this Thursday. Verse 5 of the Psalm, Stoller said, speaks specifically to this moment.

I called out to God from the narrow place. God answered me in the broad place.

“Each of us is calling out to God from the narrow place of our isolation from each other — our confinement in our homes — and God is found in the broad place, the world of interconnectedness that we’re finding through technology,” Stoller said. “We’re experiencing God differently than we’re used to doing it, but even as we’re isolated, we’re not alone.”

Zoom meetings as a blessing? Just maybe.

We’re grieving, said Kelly, a professor of systematic theology at Creighton whose work focuses on Christians making real what they say they believe. He’s seen people at every stage — denial, anger, finally acceptance that the virus is here and the shutdown is real. To get there, he said, means admitting how little control we have and how much more there is to understand about COVID-19.

It takes wrestling with loss to find meaning in new places.

“People who define themselves by power and prestige and possessions are now defining themselves by whether or not they’re healthy, or whether their family is healthy and whether they have enough,” Kelly said. “So as people are pushed inside, we’re pushed into time alone, into thinking about the bigger picture and our place in it.”

• • •

The Easter Bunny

The Easter Bunny waves to families as they drive by at the Hy-Vee near 144th and Stony Brook Blvd. in Omaha. The grocery store usually hosts an Easter egg hunt, but went with a drive-thru Easter Bunny visit this year to encourage social distancing in response to the novel coronavirus.

Parents were already making T-shirts for the inevitable run at Morrison Stadium. Adan isn’t sure he would have gone that far, but, yes, Omaha South’s soccer team was going to be great, maybe the best ever, a team full of experience and speed and playing styles from all over the globe. Adan, captain of the All-Nebraska team as a junior, was the senior showing his younger brother, Yussef, the ropes, and Emmanuel Palga, who had spent years in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, was returning from Salt Lake City to play for South. Palga and Adan had played together as boys. Their pairing now as teenagers was likely to be dominant.

And Adan could see the joy his team brought to South Omaha, the energy of a vibrant, diverse neighborhood behind the Packers.

“You’re walking around South Omaha, and because I have this blond hair, people come up and ask to take pictures with me. I’m just thankful I can bring joy to this many people,” Adan said.

Adan’s club coaches told him to keep an eye on the pandemic months ago. But he didn’t expect a cancellation of the entire season or to spend the last few months of senior year at home, studying on a computer. His soccer regimen had been drawn down to running in Miller Park and getting in as many “touches” as possible with Yussef wherever they could find an open field — Norris Middle School and Omaha South were popular. Now, as of Wednesday, Omaha parks are closed to everything but running.

Abdillahi Adan (copy)

Omaha Creighton Prep's Paul Weist, left, pursues Omaha South's Abdi Adan during the 2019 state soccer final.

The pandemic has pushed Adan deeper into his faith. Muslims are supposed to pray to Allah five times a day, and Adan’s father, Mahadi Sheik, has set a good example. If Adan’s up in his room playing video games, his dad calls him to prayer. Sometimes, they’ll go to a small, family mosque, as well.

“I always pray for my family and close friends to be safe from this pandemic,” Adan said. “I go in depth with him for three or four minutes, five times a day, I’m telling God, ‘If there’s any way you can speed up this virus, please.’ ”

Thornton, at J. Coco, waits, too. The restaurant is doing robust takeout business, but it’s a fraction of what it normally makes for its staff of 24, and the coronavirus will wipe out their best month, May. The Berkshire Hathaway meetings in early May? Gone. Creighton graduation? Gone. UNO graduation? Gone.

“But the thing you miss the most, that’s easy, it’s the people,” Thornton said of the restaurant’s regular customers. “We’re kind of a little Dundee family, for sure.”

J. Coco

Scott Thornton is the general manager at J. Coco, which is missing out what are usually some of its busiest months. 

Broman feels the same about the group of artists and patrons who make up the Omaha Community Playhouse experience. She recalled a meeting to address the coronavirus in the beginning of March that seemed “silly” two weeks later, when the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended no more than 10 people gathered in a space. That put an end to the March and April calendar right then.

“To have to tell everybody, ‘Stop what you’re doing; this show’s not going to open,’ was a heartbreaker,” Broman said. “These people who have been working for so long on these dream roles were devastated.”

For Broman, this moment is even more poignant: She’s 36 weeks pregnant with her second child, a girl. She’ll deliver while the city remains under threat.

“When I have her, if I’m sick with the virus or my husband is sick with the virus, she’d have to be quarantined away for two weeks,” Broman said. “That’s a hard pill to swallow with a newborn. And when will she meet her grandparents?”

Broman slows the flood of questions by focusing on letting go of what’s out of her hands.

“I’m definitely a person of faith,” she said. “I guess I carry a peace with me, knowing there’s a higher power, and things that are out of my control are just that.”

St. Joseph Cemetery

A crucifix at Saint Joseph Cemetery that overlooks the town of Dodge.

Kelly, the Creighton theologian, draws a distinction between optimism — expecting a good outcome based on evidence — and hope.

“Hope is looking out of despair and saying, ‘This is not the end here,’ ” Kelly said. “Hope is a gift. Anybody can be optimistic. Hope is different. In our tradition we call it a gift of the spirit. Because there’s no rational reason to hope. But we do hope. More than joy, and more than victory this year, I think I’ll experience it as hope.”

Christians, said Korth of Sacred Heart, have to “lean more than ever” into hope. An easily contracted, sometimes fatal virus that can strike family and friends — in nursing homes, at parties — can shake anyone’s foundation.

“No matter what darkness comes our way, we have to look at it through the eyes of faith that gives us hope,” Korth said. “If we are going to take that opportunity, we have to be intentional about it, instead of taking it for granted.”

So actions — faith in deed — speak louder than words. Small, good things become sweeping gestures. At a recent service, Korth rose from his chair during the final song, “We Will Rise Again,” and came up behind the sign language interpreter to mimic a flying eagle.

The acts of kindness Korth sees in the community take on deeper meaning.

“When you see people live it, you realize, ‘Oh yeah, this isn’t something they got us to believe in graduate school,’ ” Korth said. “This is real.”

A conversation with a little-known neighbor. A longer walk. Window curtains flung open to sunrises. A new meal recipe, met with the appropriate curiosity and grace by family. Chalk drawings with Scripture verses. Drive-by birthday parties. Takeout on Tuesday. More Zoom and FaceTime calls than you ever thought you could endure. Sewing masks. Wearing masks.

Easter Kids

Brothers Landyn and Brantley Dougherty stop to say hello to the Easter Bunny at the Hy-Vee near 144th and Stony Brook Blvd. in Omaha. The grocery store usually hosts an Easter egg hunt, but went with a drive-thru Easter Bunny visit this year to encourage social distancing in response to the novel coronavirus.

Kelly volunteers at Holy Name, making lunches. A family dropped off 200 bags of cookies and brownies recently. Why? Because they were baking.

“What we do is so much more important than anything else right now,” Kelly said. “Reaching out to others in comfort, compassion, care. You see it coming out of people, and it’s beautiful.”

The Omaha Community Playhouse can’t hold in-person shows, but it will livestream two events on April 17 and April 24.

Adan, the soccer player, lives on the north side of Omaha now, but still heads over to the south side often, cruising 24th Street. He saw a lady selling peanuts in the drive-thru of a store. He walked over and bought two large bags for $6.

“She’s just trying to make some extra money because she lost her job,” Adan said. “I don’t even eat peanuts, so I’ll give them to my family. I’m just trying to look out for people any way I can, and I had a couple extra dollars.”

Stoller’s act was one of transparency; the rabbi invited congregants into his prayers held in his basement at 7 a.m.

“My basement is a mess,” Stoller said. “There are toys all over the place. But in the dimension of Zoom, you just don’t care about any of that stuff. You don’t have to put on any kind of airs or conceal your house is a mess or you haven’t brushed your hair. I get up, my hair’s sticking up all over the place, I’m in a T-shirt and who cares?”

Brian Stoller

Rabbi Brian Stoller with Temple Israel speaks during a memorial service in 2018. 

He puts his iPad on a music stand as 15 to 25 congregants follow along. The prayers in a siddur, the Jewish daily prayer book, are the same words each day, but a prayer spoken three months ago takes on a different power in this moment.

“Each day is an ongoing, living vocabulary,” Stoller said.

Faith, it says in the Book of Hebrews, is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. Noah, Abraham and Moses, the 11th chapter of Hebrews goes on to explain, were commended for stepping out in faith, for believing God in the most remarkable circumstances.

The story of Exodus — celebrated during Passover — is one such moment, God delivering the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, in part through 10 plagues, the last of which strikes dead the firstborn of all in Egypt — even livestock — except those who marked their houses safe by the Lord’s command.

Measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus, Stoller said, actually tie back to the first Passover.

“It’s out of isolation that the Jewish people were born into freedom,” he said.

Freedom seems fleeting and limited in a moment when America is effectively shut down, millions have been laid off from their jobs, playgrounds and beaches are closed, sports are canceled and we live life 6 feet apart, preferably behind masks.

But everyone interviewed can visualize a moment when the coronavirus has been stamped out by medicine — or at least controlled — and their daily experiences, if not entirely what they used to be, resemble routines again. And yet it’ll all feel new, too, their former lives dipped in the vibrant ink of gratitude for having regained some part of life that had been lost.

Adan thinks about that first group gathering of players for a full-fledged game — whether it’s official or not — and knowing everyone on the field has been waiting months for it, healthy and hungry, to play his hardest and best.

“Every team in Nebraska is going to feel great being able to be out there and play with my brothers and my friends and everyone,” Adan said. “It’s going to be a good time.”

Broman imagines the electricity of an opening night at the playhouse — she dearly wants it to be “The Color Purple” in late May, weeks after her daughter is born — with the curtain raised and the energy pulsing between performers on stage and an audience spread out before them, starved for a few hours of performing arts.

Omaha Community Playhouse

Omaha Community Playhouse staff are excited for the excitement and electricity when the playhouse reopens.

“When we all come out of this, people are going to need the power of theater more than ever,” she said.

Stoller loves the new morning basement minyan, but nothing is a perfect substitute for in-person, corporate prayer, all lips moving as one, which is impossible on Zoom because, well, we’ve all learned what happens when everyone talks at once on Zoom.

“It’s hard to put into words not having personal contact with other people,” Stoller said.

Thornton of J. Coco predicts the restaurant comeback — for kitchens that can withstand the extended financial hit — will “last awhile,” when gathering restrictions are lifted, small celebrations at each table adding up to a big celebration, all at once, for the freedom to eat, drink and absorb the mood of the night. A city of full dining rooms and barstools.

J. Coco

Staff at J. Coco look forward to when their dining room is full once again.

“Just sitting at the bar with a drink and an appetizer, talking to random people you don’t know,” Thornton said. “That’s why we do what we do.”

He wonders when it’ll happen. When? How can he — or anyone at all — put grief in perspective if there’s no definite time frame for resurrection?

“You’re an intelligent person, you know it’s going to end, but when?” Thornton said. “Someone tells you something’s two weeks away? Two weeks away is a long time now. Feels like forever, you know?”

The wait brings people out of their shells, too, Thornton said. He sees more people walking and talking — at socially acceptable distances — than ever before, even last week, when it was cold. He sees it in group chats that stay light and funny, or the regular customer who lingers curbside, for an extra five minutes, just to talk. Our desire to connect, care and communicate. Building blocks of what makes life rich beyond mere survival.

The coronavirus pandemic, said Kelly the theologian, is the rare thing that plays few favorites. Almost anyone can contract COVID-19 and a wide range of people have tragically suffered and died from getting it. Coronavirus doesn’t care about your bank account, he said, or job promotions or houses owned or community reputation. The pandemic’s reach is deep and scary.

“We are finite, this life will end, and things like this remind us that’s the case,” Kelly said. “It’s definitely heavy.”

But the pandemic has produced perseverance, too, Kelly said, a “resilience” in people “who finally realize that the illusion of control we had over our life was just an illusion.” That understanding, Kelly said, presses him deeper into his Catholic faith, the foundation of which is built on Easter, the morning that Mary Magdalene went to Jesus’ tomb, saw it empty, and reported the news back to Christ’s disciples. She returned and, according to the Gospel of John, wept even as two angels, sitting in the tomb, talked to her. When Jesus appeared behind Mary, she at first didn’t recognize Him, until He spoke her name.

For Mary in that moment, and Christians worldwide, Jesus had risen, indeed.

“The ultimate word — if our beliefs are true — are that love and life will be victorious,” Kelly said.

Cross

A representation of Jesus Christ hangs on the cross at Saint Joseph Cemetery that overlooks the town of Dodge.

In that space, hope springs. It shines a light to a weekend in the Rev. Korth’s not-too-distant future at Sacred Heart, when the virus has loosened its grip, the most restrictive measures have fallen away, and the congregation park their cars on surrounding streets to return to the cathedral at 2207 Wirt St., filing through the wooden double doors.

Once inside, parishioners often gravitate toward the same pews out of habit and love; Korth has grown accustomed to seeing the same faces in certain spots, knowing their life stories and reading those faces for a range of emotions. Sorrow. Agreement. Disengagement. Worry. Delight.

One Christmas, while on the Winnebago and Omaha Reservations, Korth held Masses during a fierce blizzard. Just one man — who Korth laughs really shouldn’t have been there — showed up. The Mass went on. And that one man was a most powerful audience for a story on Jesus’ birth.

It’s one thing to preach to a camera. It’s another to see a message take hold in the eyes of a believer.

That moment will return one day. Another Easter. As Korth imagines it, his voice drops and breaks a little.

“Oh yeah, there’s going to be a lot of tears of joy,” he said. “Yeah. Even thinkin’ about that.”

He stopped for a second.

“Oh, man,” he said. “Yeah. I can definitely visualize that.”