Susan Collins didn’t realize how afraid people were of COVID-19 until a woman in her building yelled at her for getting too close. Rushing out of her Upper West Side apartment, Collins attempted to get on an elevator that already had two people, the maximum occupancy under pandemic health guidelines.
“She really screamed and I thought, ‘Oh, this poor thing.’ She’s that afraid of Covid,’” says Collins, a Christian Scientist for more than 30 years. She calls people “honey” and “angel” like the words are second nature, often touching her heart when some warm memory comes to mind. But talking about safety protocols in the pandemic makes her shake her head because, for Collins, it’s all just white noise.
“I believe the real contagion is fear,” she says. In her role as a Christian Science practitioner at her church in Midtown, Collins counsels members suffering from mental and physical illnesses with prayer and spiritual teachings from the Bible.
Because of their beliefs, many Christian Scientists encounter people who are skeptical of them, says Collins. She remembers when a woman walked away from her at an interfaith conference as soon as revealed her religion. It’s hurtful, says Collins, but not unexpected.
Melanie Daglian of Midtown says people often speak about Christian Scientists as they do the Amish. “All I heard was, ‘Well, they don’t use medicine’ or ‘Well, they don’t use technology,’” says Daglian, who’s practiced for more than 20 years. “What people don’t stop and realize is there’s a whole theology behind that.”
And that theology is a belief that mental and physical illness can be cured by prayer and Bible-based spirituality. Mary Baker Eddy, who founded Christian Science in 1879, writes extensively on fear being the root of illness and how a God-focused mindset can overcome any affliction. But unlike in the past where Christian Scientists have lobbied for legal and medical exemptions for school-mandated vaccinations, members are now following coronavirus safety guidelines. Pressure from outside communities and a desire to be perceived as law-abiding have led to Christian Scientists engaging with modern medicine in unprecedented ways.
Collins says the pandemic is a crisis of faith exacerbated by a media frenzy promoting fear. “A Christian state of mind is a better preventative of contagion than a drug or any other possible sanitation method. And perfect love that casts out fear is a sure defense,” she says.
But although prayer is always Collins’s first choice, she’s not opposed to getting the vaccine if it becomes mandated or the only way she can visit her grandchildren in California. “If you have to take the vaccination, it can’t hurt you and it can’t help you. And you can’t suffer for being obedient,” she says.
Local Christian Science churches have also adopted this mentality of obedience by shuttering their doors during the lockdown under state law. “We, of course, do not believe in the masks,” says Dora Redman, a clerk at the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, New York City, on the Upper East Side. “We’re doing it to be law-abiding,” she says, adding that the religion calls for Christian Scientists to be “the most law-abiding people in the world” and that following safety protocol is simply a natural extension of this teaching.
Principia College, the only exclusively Christian Science college in the U.S., located in Elias, Ill., quickly closed last March when the virus first started to spread, surprising the student body.
“A lot of people in this community were confused by the institution’s response,” says Delaney Gatine, a junior at the school, “because we are a school for Christian Scientists and because our administration is full of Christian Scientists who are supposed to handle this through prayer.”
But Gatine says the more she reflected on the pandemic, the more she realized taking precautions weren’t about her. They were for the many non-Christian essential workers at Principia, and everyone she encounters outside of her campus bubble.
“I’m not going to tell a non-Christian Scientist, ‘You just don’t have to be fearful, and you’ll be OK and I’ll breathe all over you!’” says Gatine. “It’s loving your neighbor. It’s loving people who are fearful of what’s going on, who would be really nervous if we walked into a grocery store without a mask on.”
Gatine, Collins and other Christian Scientists who comply with public health mandates represent a major shift within the church. Allison of Michigan, a former Christian Scientist, who asked that her last name be withheld in fear of retribution from her religious family, said she has seen a notable difference in how the conversation about medical treatment has changed in the church.
“When I was growing up, people would just disappear for a while and it would be like, ‘Well, he’s dealing with a problem.’ And then it was very shameful when they came back. Now I think it’s a different time,” she says.
Allison left the church after college. Her untreated chronic bronchitis and her family’s hesitation to treat her brother’s punctured lung from a sports injury were strong motivators to finally break from the church, she says. Despite being in regular contact with her family, Allison, who now has children of her own, was initially concerned about exposing her kids to her parents’ views about medical issues. But Allison says her parents have been vaccinated. “Boomers like them want to live. They’re not willing to die for this,” she says.
Allison hopes this is a turning point where Christian Scientists can openly utilize both faith and medicine without facing condemnation. “This coexistence can happen. You can be a good Christian Scientist and go to the doctor sometimes. It’s not like God is going to smite you. You’re not a failure because you’re sick.”