Growing up in Michigan one of the most fascinating stories I remember learning was that of the Edmund Fitzgerald—a massive ship that mysteriously sank in Lake Superior during a brutal storm the night of Nov. 10, 1975.
For those who’ve never been to the Great Lakes, it’s hard to imagine how a storm on a lake could sink a freighter over 700 feet long. But Lake Superior is no ordinary lake. Reports indicated the waves that evening were 35 feet high. Theories as to what caused the ship to sink vary but the Edmund Fitzgerald went down in 530 feet of water only 17 miles from the safety of Whitefish Bay. The entire crew of 29 was lost.
As a child, I visited Whitefish Bay multiple times looking out over the endless blue grey water imagining what it must have been like that dreadful night. What a terrifying experience for those men, trapped in a deadly storm in the dark of night unable to see anything or anyone beside them. What ran through their minds? Thoughts of wives, children and parents they would leave behind? Where did they find courage and hope in that moment? Did they?
For Christians, thinking about ships caught in storms brings to mind the gospel accounts where the disciples find themselves in the middle of a tempest. Jesus, asleep in the boat, is awakened by them as they plead with him to save them in their distress. He asks why they are afraid, questions their lack of faith and rebukes the seas bringing calm. The disciples are amazed.
This story was important to early Christians who, in the midst of persecution, found in this account reassurance of Jesus’ saving presence despite severe tribulations. Such stories provided hope and allowed them to persevere radiating a joy that drew others to the faith despite the grave consequences faced for being Christian.
I think for many of us, 2020 has been its own kind of dark frightening storm with waves of uncertainty, fear, and alienation, rendering us blind to the other beside us. From a pandemic, to social unrest, economic hardship, divisive politics—it goes on and on. We, too, might wonder, where is Jesus? We know in faith he is always present, but sometimes in order to recognize him we first must come face to face with our own frailty.
There’s something about a crisis that pulls away the veneer that too often covers the substance of who we are individually and as a society. It lays bare our social soul and reveals that which ails us. In its own way, that’s a gift because we can’t heal that which we don’t know or acknowledge is broken—and we are broken.
Between social distancing and political toxicity, we’ve felt our souls starved of their deepest desire—the intimate and life-giving connection we both crave and experience in belonging to one another.
My professional life is lived at the intersection of politics and religion. And while I’m the first to insist on the necessary role politics plays in helping shape a healthy society, alone and disconnected from its purpose it is incapable of healing the woundedness that surrounds us.
Though politics can seem like a stomach-churning exercise in futility, it is a noble endeavor and not one to be left only to those who walk the halls of capitol buildings. Being faithful citizens doesn’t end with the return of one’s ballot. Standing with those on the margins of society, defending human dignity and promoting conditions that allow all people to thrive—therein lies our mission. With the next legislative session just around the corner, it is essential that people of faith bring their voices into that process.
Given the pandemic, the months ahead will present serious challenges for many in our midst. Some are poor, some are rich. Some we know, others are strangers. But, one thing we all have in common is our deep need to be loved and connected with others.
When things in our world seem overwhelming, frightening and beyond our control, it is essential we return to what we know at our deepest core. As Christians, what we know is that we are made in the image of a God who loves us—one of total life-giving love—a love that compels us to step outside of ourselves.
During this time of COVID, each of us should make a deliberate effort to accompany those who are struggling—a parent forced to juggle work and remote learning, a person suffering from depression, the business owner facing new financial strains. It is in these encounters where Jesus comes to us awake and present, offering his grace to calm the storms, reminding us that we belong to him and to each other.
The crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald in the darkness of that November gale couldn’t see the person beside them. Thank God, we can.
Matt Brower is the executive director of the Montana Catholic Conference. He advises Montana’s Roman Catholic Bishops on matters of public policy and represents them before state and federal lawmakers. He is a licensed attorney and holds a degree in theology from the University of Notre Dame.
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