Podcast: A Chaplain, a Deacon, a Rabbi and a Buddhist Walk into a Pandemic

For the Judeo-Christian religions, mid-April – the time around Passover and Easter – represents one of the holiest times of the year. In a typical year, millions gather together to celebrate seder or Easter Sunday, but this year, COVID-19 means sheltering in place. The inability to gather with friends and extended family, and the indeterminate duration has caused anxiety and restlessness for many.

Podcast Editor Allen Murabayashi ’90 and Kim-Hee Wong ‘14 spoke with Punahou Chaplain Lauren Medeiros; Transitional Deacon Jenn Latham (whose husband is Punahou President Mike Latham ’86); Rabbi Ken Aronowitz of Temple Emanu-El in Honolulu; and Bishop Eric Matsumoto of Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii to learn how they are counseling their own congregations.

* We reached out to Hakim Ouansafi, Chairman for the Muslim Association of Hawai‘i and Executive Director of the State of Hawai‘i Public Housing Authority, but he had to tend to emergency matters with the State and was unable to reply to our request for an interview until after the podcast was edited. We look forward to future opportunities to talk with Mr. Ouansafi.

You can find Punahou’s Team Up podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Simplecast and Google Play.

Podcast Transcript:

AM: Thanks for joining our Team Up podcast produced by Punahou School. I’m Allen Murabayashi, an alumnus from the class of 1990. A few days ago, Punahou’s Director of Communications, Robert Gelber from the class of ’92, called me up. President Mike Latham thought it might be interesting to explore the idea of religion in the time of COVID-19, especially given our proximity to Passover and Easter. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure I was the right person for this episode because I’m not religious. Ironically, I actually grew up going to a church where Chaplain Medeiros’ father led the congregation, and I have fond memories of our discussions. But I moved away from the church over the years. Not a loss of faith, but perhaps a shift to a more humanist perspective. But in a time where many of us are looking for answers to the uncertainty of the pandemic, I thought the conversations would be at the very least insightful. With the help of Kim-Hee Wong, class of ’14, we quickly interviewed a few religious leaders at Punahou and beyond its walls and, well, found comfort in their words and guidance.

Lauren Medeiros: Aloha. My name is Lauren Buck Medeiros. The children call me Chaplain Medeiros, and I’m a chaplain at Punahou School – in my 25th year actually.

Ken Aronowitz: I’m Ken Aronowitz and I’m rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Honolulu.

Jenn Latham: My name is Jenn Latham, and I am a transitional deacon in the Episcopal Church.

Eric Matsumoto: My name is Eric Matsumoto, and I’m the current bishop of the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii, which is a Buddhist organization here in Hawai‘i.

AM: We don’t presume that you know the historical origins of various religious events, so we asked the experts to explain.

LM: Easter in the Christian tradition is one of the High Holy Days of the entire year, because it is when we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus who died on Good Friday and was raised on Sunday. Churches throughout Christendom celebrate that triumph of life over death.

JL: For Christians, Easter is really the big day, because the resurrection is really key to the message of Christianity. What that message is that death doesn’t have the last word.

LM: The fact that the Sunday before Easter is Palm Sunday, which is another celebration, and then you have Easter, which is a huge celebration, but then you leave out all of that week in between where you really descend into some really dark and difficult places, which to me for right now, especially in this year, takes on such new and glorious meaning if we could even go there and dwell there in the sorrow and sadness. Because then, the celebration is all that much sweeter.

KA: It’s a celebration or it’s called of the time of our liberation. Meaning that 3,000- plus years ago, children of Israel who had been enslaved in Egypt for hundreds of years were led by Moses and Aaron and Miriam and ultimately God’s presence out of Egypt and out of slavery. Of course, the Passover story culminates with the dramatic parting of the Sea of Reeds, where the people literally walk across on now what is dry land and literally walk to freedom.

AM: One of the perennial questions of all religions is why is this happening? We often search for causal relationships, especially in the face of tragedy or hardship, but my conversations suggest an incorrect framing of the question.

KA: Rabbi Harold Kushner years ago wrote a bestselling book, which is still very popular today, and people always get the title wrong. They say, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s, ‘Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.” I’m like, ‘No, the name of Rabbi Kushner’s book was, ‘When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” We don’t know the why. I don’t pray to a God whom I believe strikes that person with cancer or that person’s house burns down a wildfire and that person’s doesn’t. We just don’t know. Life happens. We don’t know why a cell mutates or something, or a coronavirus affects someone much more severely than someone else. But, when bad things happen to good people is really I think what we as human beings can wrap our brains around in our consciousness around.

JL: My reading of scripture is not that God causes these things to happen, that God makes these bad things come so that he can punish or God can punish us, but rather God is always present. My faith tells me that God doesn’t cause these things, but God is in what we do with them. God is in our response to them, my response to caring for other people who might be feeling stressed out or feeling the effects of being isolated, I think especially of our elderly people who their only connection with other people may be going to the grocery store and now that’s taken from them. How do we reach out to people like that who need contact with others, but for whom it’s too dangerous right now?

LM: The cartoon that I came across recently had two people talking to each other and saying, ‘I want to ask God what God is doing about the coronavirus.’ The other person says, ‘That’s a great question. Why don’t you ask?’ The first person says, ‘Because I’m afraid God will ask me the same thing.’ The idea of what are we doing in this time, are we flailing around in despair or are there things that God and God’s love in us can be doing to weather this storm, to be together, to serve and to be the light in the midst of whatever darkness is surrounding us?

EM: What can I do to help or change a situation? Let’s keep in mind that all contributions don’t have to be large or huge endeavors that with hundreds or thousands of people, even if it’s just one person, you’ve made a difference.

JL: There are numerous things that we can do as Christians to reach out into the world that don’t actually require our physical presence. There’s a church here that in the summer I attended and they have a volunteer group who are calling every person once a week on their list just to check in and see how people are.

KA: Well, we are called Israel. Israel literally means to wrestle with God. People at the time, especially survivors, and those didn’t survive wrestling with the aftermath of the Holocaust, how could that possibly happen? How could a just God allow that to happen? People wrestle with this all the time and wrestle with their faith. What I encourage people to do is get in the ring. Don’t just close the door altogether, but really wrestle with it. That’s what we do, we wrestle in study of the Torah of the first five books of the Bible. We wrestle with those words. What comes out of that ideally is meaning that we can integrate in our lives and make our lives more meaningful and more fulfilling.

AM: The inability to gather with friends and family combined with the indeterminate duration of the crisis has caused anxiety and restlessness. Many seek comfort in scripture and faith brings strength and hope amid uncertainty.

LM: The other story that comes to my mind right away is Jesus in the boat with his disciples calming the storm. Jesus is in the boat. There’s a huge storm. The disciples are nervous and scared and sure that they’re doomed. Jesus calms the storm and really calms their hearts as well. I think the piece of that story that speaks to me right now is the fact that Jesus was in the boat, did not make that storm go around it. But the fact that Jesus was in the boat is the way they got through it. Having a faith tradition, having something that is with us in this time can be of such strength and encouragement. Knowing that Jesus is in my boat with me can really remind me that Good Friday isn’t the end. There’s something that’s going to come later that can give me great hope for new life.

EM: In the Buddhist sutras, it speaks of faith as something that removes greed, fear and pride. It teaches courtesy and to respect others. It frees one from the bondage of circumstances. It gives one courage to meet challenges. It gives one power to overcome negativity.

LM: Like that story of Jesus in the boat calming the storm, I think that’s in the Bible to remind people when I’m in the midst of the storm, that there was a time when that happened and they survived.

EM: Let us have hope. Let’s not despair. Let us be resilient.

AM: For the non-believers, what message can religion impart at such a time?

JL: There are many people who say they’re spiritual but not religious. And then, there are people who say I’m not even spiritual, but I would argue against that. I think we all are spiritual. We just find our spirituality in different ways. For someone who’s spiritual or who’s not religious, spirituality means making sense of your life in the world, making sense of what you’re supposed to be doing with what you have.

LM: All three of us chaplains are constantly talking about how grateful we are to be part of a school community that welcomes, throws our arms open wide to every faith tradition, not just the Christian principles on which the school was founded, but affirming the worth and dignity of every individual (that’s in our mission statement) and very literally meaning those of other faiths. Now in this time and age in our whole society, those who would consider themselves of no specific religious faith, but I would say those people would probably take offense of being accused of not having any faith or having no spirituality, whatever your expression is, there is a depth of meaning that transcends any one faith even. What are the things that unite us? What are the things that enliven us? What are the things that heal us and give us hope? That’s faith.

KA: Having a belief in a greater than myself is a healthy thing. I think if we all thought of ourselves as a center of the universe in the world, I think it wouldn’t be a good thing for the world or for each of us for that matter. I think that whether you look at the greater as a divine Holy Presence, which we most commonly call God, or whether you find meaning in serving God’s creations and concentrating on that, including all of us in the world, or if you just think of the greater than yourself as community, that’s good enough. Whatever works for you. Mine is being of service and being a blessing to those around you, especially now.

JL: The other thing I would say is to turn off the news every once in a while. It’s possible to read news 24 hours a day, and I think that can be harmful. I think we need to read a book or listen to music or go for a walk.

EM: The pandemic is very serious. We should know what is happening, but as we also learn about what’s happening in the world around us, another important aspect might be for us to direct our eyes inward and keep an eye on the fear and anxiety level. We can listen how it might be affecting us and how we interact with one another.

KA: The thing to do now is to turn toward each other from six feet away with our mask on, but still to be there to serve the greater however you are comfortable in looking at what that means.

LM: I went back and looked at my benediction from our opening chapel this year. Listen to this. ‘What about those things we don’t consider blessings, the unexpected crises, the changes, the disappointments, the struggles? If everything is blessed, pōmaika’i nā mea a pau, then are these blessings too? I cringe a little bit when I hear troubles referred to as blessings in disguise, especially when you’re in the midst of pain or difficulty, right? But, I also feel the challenge and the call to embrace all of life in its exquisite complexity, the good and the bad, the happy and the sad, the things that go my way and the things that can stretch or challenge me, and maybe especially those things that urge me to be courageous in the face of wrong, to rise up and let my voice be heard.

‘Dear colleagues, what would this year be like for us if we made a commitment to live those words: pōmaika’i nā mea a pau – everything is blessed. What would it look like to take even the struggles, the student that feels hard to reach, the schedule that feels hard to adjust to, the life balance that feels hard to maintain, all as blessing? Please, it feels shallow to #hashtag blessed those moments when we just feel lucky or fortunate. How much more profound is the sense of blessing when it comes from gratitude in spite of whatever may be going on and how much more satisfying to acknowledge our blessedness by turning around to share those blessings and to be a blessing!’

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