Emptiness in the age of refugees and coronavirus


It is a quiet weekend. For many, a time of respite in the midst of busy lives and not unwanted enforced rest. But for many others around the world, a time of fear, even panic. The enforced isolation has brought also news of loss of jobs, however temporary, or the dilemma of children needing care with parents needing to work. But what vastly different needs around the world right now, with a growing refugee crisis that may or may not overlap with the health challenges going on with the virus spread.

I am reading a book at present titled Emptiness: feeling Christian in America by John Corrigan. It is a fascinating historical study of the place of emptiness in the culture and history of the United States. Much of the author’s analysis could also apply to cultures around the globe as well, as he describes the importance of seeking emptiness from all the clutter internally, yet also finding a fullness that is often so elusive.

Emptiness can be so scary for many. To sit quietly in silence and allow emptiness to be felt can bring moments of sheer terror. Many in these days are self-quarantining, unplugging from crowds but filling the spaces by plugging into binge watching their favorite shows. That is not totally bad, unless it fills space better left empty. What an opportunity we have right now, to go deeper into places we normally have no time to go to.

Yet for many in our world right now the coronavirus is the least of their problems. I am astounded sometimes by how many millions of people around the world literally live paycheck to paycheck, often with no savings. That is even without the threat or reality of the loss of jobs because of the coronavirus. And for so many, social distancing is not possible. Not when you are homeless, or living in an apartment with ten other family members in one or two rooms.

And what about the refugee crisis, which is getting only worse? According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in the last decade alone the global displacement of people due to wars or political instability has risen from 44 million to 71 million! That far surpasses the World War 11 total of 60 million displaced. The Syrian civil war has now caused 6.7 million refugees and it continues to climb. That number doesn’t even include the 800,000 that have fled the Idlib province in recent months with renewed fighting between Turkish and Syrian forces.

These 71 million, coming from places like South Sudan, Myanmar, Afghanistan are not able to socially distance themselves. They have gained some physical distance from the immediate suffering, yet carrying with them the trauma and grief of all they have experienced. It is so easy to lose sight of them in light of the very real challenges of the coronavirus. Yet they are not going away, and they are also part of our world.

So we find an emptiness within. Freedom from clutter, from internal hoarding. Can we fill that emptiness with the laments of prayer, of love? Lamenting a world so needy, so broken. Can we find time right now to consider with mourning our world, not only socially distanced due to war or instability or coronavirus, but spiritually needy as well?

Here are several ways we can fill our emptiness with the laments of prayer and action. I borrow these and adapt them from Father James Martin, a Jesuit writer and social commentator:

1) Resist panic and fear. Instead of filling our lives right now with the panic of uncertainty, come to a place of peace and be a peacemaker in your world however possible. Resist the walls that can so easily be built, and reach out in new ways.

2) Do not demonize people but reach out in love. This is especially true for those on different political or religious sides. Even before the age of coronavirus, there already was way too much social distancing due to hatred or misunderstanding. Let that stop. Pick up the phone and call those that you have disagreed with, ask forgiveness of those you have shunned or wronged.

3) Care for the sick. Many are going to those that are elderly, making sure they are cared for. What about the refugees around the world? This is not the time to forget them, but to reach out to them even more. May this coronavirus crisis bring even more generosity and the lament of love and action than ever before.

4) Pray with lament for a new world to be born. To lament is to grieve, to pray for a new world be birthed out of the shifts and shakings of the old. I love to pray with this phrase I have learned from the Anglican tradition, “Lord in your mercy, hear our prayers”. “In your mercy, hear our suffering, come and answer in Your great steadfast love for the world You have created.” To lament is to grieve but with hope, to cry out with faith that change can really come.

5) Trust that God is with you. These are not easy days. They are days of uncertainty, of anxiety. For many, living near the poverty line or in poverty, they are days of increased pain. For 71 million displaced people, and millions more living in fear and terror in homes that are unsafe around the world, the simple message of hope and peace coming from knowing that they are not alone is powerful. Though often feeling empty, we have a message of hope to offer. We lament our broken world, but we lament with hope of God’s presence and mercy even in suffering.

6) Don’t distance yourself, whether socially or physically, but find ways to be actively present in new ways to those around you. These are not times for isolation, but for love. Yes there may be a need for wisdom in how we gather, but that does not mean we can’t find new ways to show love, justice and mercy.

These are challenging days in our world. Many are suffering, many are broken. But in all of it there is hope, there is life. There is a good kind of emptiness, and don’t be afraid of it. There is a time to flee the crowds for the depth within. To find new resources within and together to face the greater challenges ahead.

We are in that time today.

3 thoughts on “Emptiness in the age of refugees and coronavirus

  1. Thanks Steve, I appreciate your admonition to be actively present. We don’t have all the answers, but we fellowship with a global community. We may find those answers collectively.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. There is a old Celtic prayers which I know to be encouraging :
    ” You are the peace of all things calm
    You are the place to hide from harm
    You are the light that shines in dark
    You are the heart’s eternal spark
    You are the door that’s open wide
    You are the guest who waits inside
    You are the stranger at the door
    You are the calling of the poor
    You are my Lord and with me still
    You are my love, keep me from ill
    You are the light, the truth, the way
    You are my Saviour this very day “


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