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Centennial Speaker Series: Faith During the Time of COVID-19

On Monday, May 11, Branson hosted the second event in our virtual Centennial Speaker Series: "Faith over Fear: Spirituality During the Coronavirus Pandemic." 

For this second conversation, we welcomed back Distinguished Alumna Rev. Sally Grover Bingham '59 and Distinguished Alumnus Rabbi Dr. Bradley Artson '77 for a discussion with Branson Director of Admissions Nathalio Gray. Together, they discuss their faith-based life paths and how each of them is currently looking to spirituality and community during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a joy to listen to their ideas and reflections, grounded in different faith backgrounds, in interaction with each other.

The conversation kicked off with what binds us all together – Branson. When asked whether there was anything about their experiences in high school that brought them to where they are today, they both concurred. It was at Branson, Sally responded, that “I learned how very important relationships are. Four of my closest friends are women I went to Branson with, and that was 55 years ago and we’re still good friends.” Sally was also an athlete at Branson and the captain of the Blue Bonnets. She learned about “cooperation – I became a team player.”

Brad reflected, “There’s no aspect of my personality that wasn’t birthed at Branson – my love of science, the sense that I could be creative, that I could risk trying to be athletic, the ability to reach out and have a circle of caring friends ˆall of that informs everything I do as a rabbi and gave me the courage to turn to the universe and expect that kind of love and embrace as well.”

Nathalio asked Brad and Sally what they see as their most important work right now and how that may have shifted during the pandemic. 

Brad talked about distinguishing between the mission and the task. “My mission is to augment the image of God in each and every human being and to bridge the gap between the world that God wants this to be and what it is,” Brad explained. While this mission hasn’t changed, he sees his task, or his method, as “trying to come up with ways to help people know that they’re still loved and still connected, and for them to see their act of sheltering in place as an act that they give, to others and themselves, to show love and responsibility.”

Sally, who has been a powerful advocate for climate change and environmental issues, said that much of her own mission has been “to convince Christians that if you say you’re a Christian then you are an environmentalist.” She added, “It is my faith that drives my environmental and climate work; you cannot say you love God and your neighbor and allow for creation to be harmed.” 

Responding to how COVID-19 has shifted her work, Sally pointed out that it has actually provided some interesting lessons about our relationship with the earth. From cleaner air and water to dolphins in the canals of Venice, Sally said, the pandemic has been “showing us that a different way of life is possible” (even if it’s not the way in which we’d like!).

Nathalio also asked Sally and Brad to talk about the ways in which we can develop deeper connections during this time of extraordinary disruption. Both have found themselves rooted in their immediate surroundings. They’ve found themselves connecting with their neighbors more deeply, especially now that they have the time for longer conversations. They also both agreed that the internet has provided solace and connections in new ways – whether through remaining in touch with their faith-based communities who are streaming services online (like San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral) or simply getting together with a group of Branson friends on Zoom. 

During this time of intense physical separation, Brad noted it might be worthwhile to think about “all kinds of ways in which we can make present in our hearts those who are not physically with us.” He explained, “When I pick up a book of prayer that my grandparents left, they are with me and I am with them.”

And how are Brad and Sally staying hopeful during this time? It turns out they’ve both found comfort in similar ways, the first being the introduction of new faith-based routines. While he doesn’t normally have time for it, Brad has found himself able to fully embrace Judaism's call to prayer three times a day. “When I have a rhythm of having to touch base with God and my own interiority and having to use the poetry of my ancestors to do it, that opens me and feeds me,” he said, adding, “I also have been meditating every day.” Sally has also developed a new routine of joining 20 people online for a prayer each morning led by her cathedral.  

Both Sally and Brad also highlighted the importance of staying active, or as Brad put it, “being in our bodies and being of our bodies.”

We are so grateful to Sally and Brad for joining us, inspiring us, and helping us reflect in these difficult times. 

Watch their discussion.