Thursday, March 19th, 2020, will be a day I’ll never forget.
My team and I landed in Southern California in the midst of the most widespread pandemic our world has faced in my lifetime. After we arrived at our (not small) hotel, we discovered that our group of four people accounted for 20% of the people staying there that night and that we were being cared for by a team whose jobs were coming to an end because the hotel would be closing in 48 hours.
Even after days and weeks of hearing about cities and sports leagues shutting down, that’s the moment when COVID-19 became real to me. Talking with the hotel staff whose lives had just been turned upside down was more than sobering. We heard the stories of people who were trying to figure out how they were going to survive on unemployment for the next few months. We listened to the restaurant manager who was worried about her employees. In these pain-filled conversations, I had this overwhelming clarity that it was time to lean into the truth that our world will never be the same again.
Though it seemed in that moment that things couldn’t get much worse, the electricity went out in the hotel as a part of rolling blackouts happening in that part of California. And, then we checked our phones to find that we also didn’t have cell service. It was an eerie feeling sitting together in the dark with strangers who, through these awful circumstances, somehow felt like family members. We were cut off from the world and huddled together, but we were in this together. This is our new reality, folks!
Later that evening, after a long day of working, we wanted to support the restaurant in the hotel before it closed for the foreseeable future. We found a table, sprayed Lysol all over it, and washed our hands. That’s when we had the conversation that shook me to my core.
Our server for the evening, after working in that restaurant for over 20 years, was trying to keep a positive outlook about her forced furlough that would begin the next day. As we talked, she told us why our hotel was shutting down in the next few days. It turns out that our it was going to become a quarantine location.
Um. What? A quarantine location. Is this even real?
My stomach sank and I didn’t know what to say or feel. A quarantine site. People would need a place to leave their loved ones behind and be physically sectioned-off from the rest of the world for the sake of public health.
After dinner, I went to my room and saw something that I’m used to seeing multiple days each week, but never paid much attention to. It was the room number sign for the room I was given for the night. Room 716. Though the sign was affixed nicely to the wall, it may as well have jumped out and punched me in the gut: I’m the last person to sleep in this room before the quarantine begins.
I walked into the room, set my stuff down, and laid down on the bed. Laying there in that dark room, I became consumed with the next person who would be asked (or required) to stay in Room 716. Someone who may end up being very sick. Someone who may have infected others. Someone who will have to contend with being physically separated from other people for a while. Someone who may become known as “Quarantined Person 716.”
In my early career, I worked full-time in a church with people that often could only think about themselves. When I left that world, I always wondered if I’d ever have the opportunity to pastor again. I wondered if I’d be able to find my purpose and affect the world beyond the walls of the church in some significant way.
As I left Room 716 early the next morning, I channeled my inner-pastor and prayed a blessing over that room, whoever it may be for, that they would find peace and love and that they would know somehow that someone in this world had their back.
I couldn’t stop thinking about them throughout the day. What would the soon-to-be quarantined person in Room 716 look like? Or, maybe it would end up being a family? A couple? I just couldn’t get the questions out of my head.
Though I’ll probably never get to meet them, I feel a deep connection to the next inhabitant of Room 716. I also have a deep hope that somehow I might be able to affect their lives in some small way. Or, maybe, by me living a life of generosity and hope towards all of the strangers that have become like family in these times of crisis, perhaps the goodwill will come back around to the Room 716 dwellers somehow.
At some point, I’ll write more about why I was in California and why it was important enough to leave my wife and children in Ohio behind during these anxious times. As I sit here looking out the window of my seat 41k feet in the air, I am thankful for my calling and my purpose. As this pandemic grows and you find yourself living in what feels like a strange land where normalcy is no longer a thing, please remember:
Be you, live generously, and embrace all the humans around you like they’re family.
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