It all started a few weeks ago. We were on our normal Monday 5:00am rosary walk around the neighborhood. The university had just implemented a new policy that said any student organization who had three students test positive for COVID-19 would be shut down for two weeks. Normally very few people wore masks on our rosary walks, but because of this new policy everyone was wearing a mask this time…everyone except me and a few other guys.
Our student organization was now requiring masks at all events, indoor or outdoor. Wearing a mask outside was not something I was going to do, especially as a fearful response to the university’s new policy. The thing was, after the rosary walk our chaplain would always invite everyone into his house for coffee. Once inside, the masks were off. Everyone was in close quarters and many were touching and hugging each other. The masks were clearly being worn for the sake of appearances. This was evident in other ways as well, such as the way students spoke about them or in the banning of pictures with students not wearing masks from social media posts.
Later on the day of that rosary walk, my team director mentioned that she saw me not wearing a mask. She informed me that because it was my job to be at this event and that a mask was required, I would have to start wearing one. I acknowledged this, but I didn’t agree to it. It bothered me that I was being forced to wear a mask outside, especially when everyone went inside right after and took off the masks anyways. If people were in close quarters in an indoor environment, what was the point of me wearing one outdoors where there was plenty of space and fresh air? It didn’t make sense to me.
As I thought about it that week, I started putting together an argument for why I shouldn’t have to wear a mask at outdoor events. First of all, there is not much evidence that masks even do anything when being worn outdoors with plenty of space, and even this evidence is disputed among medical professionals. One could easily make the argument that masks are actually hurting more than they are helping in this situation. Physically, they restrict the flow of oxygen and create an environment for bacteria to flourish. They also create a barrier to communication, and making everyone wear them all the time will likely have sociological and psychological consequences. We are already having a hard time communicating with each other. Making everyone wear masks only makes things worse. They also cause people to be suspicious of each other. If one wears a mask, people can’t read that person’s facial expressions or identify who the person is. Masks strip us of our individual identities. They destroy trust, which is the foundation of relationships. When choosing whether to wear masks or not we should be weighing all of the consequences.
Another reason for not wearing the mask is that it is being done out of fear. Fear is the enemy of freedom. There is so much fear in our world as it is. We don’t need to perpetuate it even more. The media has created so much hype around the danger of COVID-19 that it seems to be the only thing anyone considers when making decisions anymore. When you look at the actual statistics, COVID-19 is not nearly as bad as the media has made it out to be. The CDC recently updated estimated infection fatality rates for COVID-19. Here are the updated survival rates by age group:
Less than half of one percent of people under the age of 70 die from COVID-19. Just over five percent of people over the age of 70 die from it. Are our methods for handling COVID-19 reasonable considering what we know? Does it make sense to put blanket restrictions on the entire population? I can understand implementing things that will help those who are older or more vulnerable, but healthy people shouldn’t be forced to follow strict guidelines across the board, especially when there are other consequences to those actions. Have we looked at depression and anxiety? How high are suicide rates right now? It should be easy to see how mandating masks and social distancing isolates people. Are we factoring that into our decisions?
That brings me to my next point. Many of the world’s leaders have abused their power by using COVID-19 as an excuse to exercise that power. I’ll state it again. Fear is the enemy of freedom. We could put everyone in bubbles and keep them locked away from the public and they would be perfectly safe, but sometimes we have to risk our safety for the sake of freedom. This is where I really started to draw the line. I began looking at other situations around the country and the world. In California, churches have been so restricted that they have effectively been shut down. Even singing is forbidden. Singing! What kind of draconian world outlaws singing? In Australia, there are drones that fly around and enforce mask use, ushering in a new level of surveillance and policing. In China, there is a social credit score that determines such things as your ability to get a job, travel, or take out a loan, all depending on how good of a citizen you are…aka how compliant you are. Is that the kind of world you want to live in? That is certainly not the world I want to live in.
This next point might seem like a bit of a stretch for some people, but the mask and some of the other things that were implemented due to COVID-19 are also very symbolic. The mask, for example, is a symbol of oppression. Covering the mouth is an indication that we are not allowed to speak freely. It could also be seen as representative of the fig leaf, something to hide our shame. Requiring people to use hand sanitizer before they enter a building could be seen as a sort of ritual washing. People are considered “unclean” until they go through with the ritual. This isn’t to say that these things don’t have real practical applications. It is simply acknowledging that there is a symbolic nature to them too, and that shouldn’t be disregarded. Symbols affect the way we see the world.
On top of all that is the very fact that we are trying to control something that is not in our control. COVID-19 has been painted out to be an evil rather than something morally neutral. Everyone who follows the guidelines and restrictions is considered a hero and everyone who doesn’t is considered a villain. Politicians blame each other for their respective cities having higher rates of infection, and they boast about how their actions were solely responsible for lower ones. Come on people! That is pride. We do not have control over this virus. Some cities were bound to have a tough time with it, and others weren’t. So much of the stress surrounding this virus is due to people trying to control it. Only God can do that. Let us turn to Him and trust that He will get us through this.
That is ultimately what we need to be doing right now. We have been totally focused on the symptoms in our society and haven’t gotten to the root of the problem. We must repent as a nation for all of the evils we have committed. Over 60 million babies have been killed in the womb since Roe v. Wade. Greed has infected every aspect of our lives. Sexual immorality is rampant. People are totally focused on themselves. We have brought all this upon ourselves by the culture we have created. Repenting and turning back to God is the only way we are truly going to be free from all the problems we are dealing with. “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14)
After pondering all of these things, I decided that I was going to stand firm on my decision not to wear a mask outside. That was where I drew the line. I drafted up an email with all the different reasons I came up with for not wearing a mask and sent it to my team director. We had a conversation a couple days later. She informed me that she had forwarded the email on to our regional director and that I would still have to wear the mask because it was part of my job. That wasn’t going to change my mind. Shortly after this conversation I received a call from my regional director. He said that he understood my reasoning, but that I would still have to wear the mask. He told me that even if it was hypocritical or stupid, I should simply do it out of obedience. When I stood firm in my position, he said that this wasn’t a big enough issue to take a stand on. He also told me that no one would care if I do this and that it wasn’t going to accomplish anything. He suggested it would be better if I just complied so that I could stay on campus and continue the ministry. Again, I wasn’t changing my mind. I knew that staying true to my convictions was more important than any work I could possibly do.
From here there were a lot more of the same types of conversations with other people in leadership positions. I would be told that I wasn’t able to do my job if I wasn’t at these events, and I would reply that I was standing firm on my decision not to wear the mask. As I prayed about it, my decision to stand strong was confirmed many times through scripture and conversations I had with trusted friends and family. However, I would be lying if I said there weren’t multiple times I wanted to cave in. Some days the doubts were crushing. “Is this really worth it?” “Maybe I really can accomplish more if I just comply and stay in the ministry.” “What am I going to do if I lose my job?” This was one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever wrestled with. I knew it would be easier to just wear the mask, but I couldn’t seem to give in. I continued to pray and ask God for guidance. It seemed like every time I did this I would be encouraged to stand strong or gain some new insight into the situation.
I started realizing some other things about the Church and FOCUS (the organization I worked with) that didn’t sit right with me. The mask was symbolic of something deeper. This effort to project a certain image so that others would not get upset had ingrained itself in many other areas as well. I realized there were a lot of things we had to do to keep up appearances for FOCUS and the Church.
That led me to think about the mission itself. This mindset seems to have been adopted here as well. It was evident in all the events and things we did. There was a lot of emphasis put on outreach through parties, dinners, and other fun types of events. There is nothing wrong with these things in themselves, but it seemed like we were trying to win people to Christ in ways that were always comfortable. There was never anything we did that could have upset anyone. When I read the Gospels, I see the disciples going out and sharing the gospel publicly. The things they said and did were so controversial that often riots and uprisings were started. Many of them were thrown in prison. I don’t see them throwing parties and playing games to try and win people to Christ. In our day and age the Church has started using worldly activities as a means to facilitate having “church.” It becomes more about fundraisers and carnivals, and less about the gospel. We should be careful not to fall into the trap of making “church members” rather than disciples.
So how did this happen? I don’t know, but I realized that there might be too much of an emphasis on money in the Church. We are concerned that we will lose funding and won’t be able to continue doing church things, and we start to compromise on important issues so we can continue receiving that funding. We rationalize it by saying that if we have money, then more people will be able to come to church and hear the gospel. This approach is backwards. We should first proclaim the truth of the gospel and everything we need will be provided to us. Money isn’t bad in itself, but when we put it ahead of the gospel, it starts to corrupt the way we act. It causes us to compromise. “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:31-33) We are called to seek first the kingdom of God.
As a missionary, I fundraised my own salary. Don’t get me wrong, this requires a lot of dedication and hard work. However, most people who work for FOCUS are pretty well-off. We are able to have nice cars, buy homes, support large families, and save money for retirement. In other words, it is quite comfortable. Again, those things aren’t bad in themselves, but it is a problem when we make them our top priority. There is this mindset that “I need to make sure I have everything taken care of before I set out on mission.” When Jesus first sent his disciples out to proclaim the gospel, he told them to take nothing with them. They were to be totally reliant on God and the hospitality of the people they went to. Being a missionary isn’t supposed to be something that sets us up for a comfortable life with good retirement benefits. We are supposed to be living witnesses of God’s faithfulness, regardless of our financial situation. We are supposed to live in a way that shows that this world is not our home, the Kingdom of God is.
(As an aside, I want to be clear that most of the missionaries I know are great people with awesome hearts. They truly desire to help college students and others. I also don't think the fundraising is bad in itself. The issue I’m pointing out is the worldly mindset that is infiltrating the Church. It is not the fault of the missionaries. For the most part, they are faithful people who love Jesus.)
After meditating on all this, I realized God was calling me out of FOCUS. It just wasn’t a good fit for me anymore. The conversations I was having with leadership weren’t going anywhere, and it felt like everything was dragging on. It was causing stress for my teammates and I wasn’t able to fully give myself to the students I was working with because of all the uncertainty. So that sealed it. I put in my formal resignation and that was it. I wasn’t expecting all this to happen the way it did. I didn’t think the end of my journey with FOCUS would look like this. I don’t want to make it seem like FOCUS was an awful organization or anything. They still do great work. My time working with them provided opportunities to grow in many ways and I learned a lot. I’ve made some wonderful friends, and I always felt cared for. It is not easy to walk away from that. However, I believe the Lord is calling me to something else. I have a certain intensity to the way I live my life that I don’t think was being met by FOCUS. This doesn’t mean their methods are wrong. They just don’t really mesh with my personality or the way I see the world.
So here I am, setting out into the great unknown. It is a bit scary not having much direction, especially in a world that is full of uncertainty at the moment. However, there is a peace and a joy in the freedom that I have right now. The entire world is before me and all I can do is trust that God will lead me where He wants me to go. Please pray for me!
William Joseph Scheremet