Images source: Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue website
I was in midtown Manhattan yesterday, my first trip back in three months.
Having lived in NYC for most of three decades, the lockdowns – worse here than perhaps anywhere in the US – finally drove me out completely. I love NYC, so it’s personally quite hard to watch what is happening now. Those still living in the zombie city will defend it (as I would have done) and go out of their way to describe how it’s “getting better,” “not so bad,” or “almost back to normal.” What I see is something different.
The crowds on midtown avenues remain at half pre-lockdown levels, with both tourists and executives staying away. The vaccine mandates and COVID “health passports” required just to sit at a bar or restaurant seem to be effective deterrents to both. Those who remain continue to wear masks outside on the street – a sight that has all but disappeared in most of the country –, even when walking alone or taking opportunity to cycle in newly segregated bike lanes.
The city itself, having required vaccines for all municipal employees, now faces a stand-off with police and fire department unions and a sick-out staged by the thousands of unvaccinated workers who effectively remain conscientious objectors. Citibank, one of NYC’s largest employers, just mandated vaccines for its US workers, regardless of natural immunity. I hate to say it, as I was once one, but New York’s bankers will be less prone to stand on principle than either New York’s finest or New York’s bravest.
What troubled me most, and why I bothered to write, was what I saw as I passed St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue. The sign on the door read, “Vaccination proof required for all visitors upon entry.”
I had attended St. Thomas for years, and would occasionally take advantage of the weekday noontime Eucharist service to quickly break away from my work at 30 Rock. I’d do this to find some peace, and to remind myself that there were more important and valuable things in life than business deals and worldly success. At these services, bankers and bakers, princes and paupers, hedge fund managers and homeless, would find themselves shoulder to shoulder at the alter as equals in the eyes of God.
Today, however, many of these same people are not allowed to bend the knee before God at the altar of St. Thomas, receive communion, or even darken its doors, not because of some unrepented and horrible sin against God or the church, but because they remain unvaccinated. Something is fundamentally wrong when the penitent soul is unable to find comfort or solace in a house of worship, for this or any other reason.
How is it that our society has determined that it’s acceptable to segregate and discriminate against the unvaccinated? And, even if civil society does, how dare a supposed house of God – always and forever in opposition to the “might equals right” values of Caesar – keep anyone away for political reasons from the sacrament and the chance to humble one’s heart before God?
But then I realized that St. Thomas is no longer a house of worship. It’s a museum; a mausoleum for the dead of heart, who want to keep kissing the icons of a cultural tradition devoid of meaning. As the saying goes, “Religion is what happens when the Spirit leaves the building.” All that is left is an empty shell.