It was a day in time! I was driving across the border, leaving my beloved family in Armenia to return to my beloved work in Georgia, to be among the people who I am humbled to serve as the director of Caritas in Georgia. Normally, the border crossing is full of cars and people. Not now. It was totally empty. My heart seemed to stop for a moment as I sat behind the steering wheel and assessed my environment. As I stepped out of the car and walked to the customs office, I began to think how we as human beings think we can control everything. Until in one moment, when something uncontrollable happens, we become so helpless and fragile.
The border police checked my documents and escorted me to my home in Tbilisi, where I am now in self-quarantine. The roads were full of police and military personnel as the town of Marneuli, which is located along the way from the frontier to the Georgian capital city, remains in lockdown. The police escort and the military check points reminded me of the war movies I had watched as a child.
The number of coronavirus cases is not very high in Georgia, largely due to the severity of the containment measures imposed by the government. Culturally, the Georgian people are not known as generally submissive or compliant. But now they are observing the rules and protocols, perhaps because the penalties for those breaking them are very high — or the effect of fear is too great.
Georgians are living under intense pressure, as the fear of the virus affects every aspect of their economic, psychological, social and spiritual lives. This fear is not about how many people have been diagnosed or if or how people are obeying the protocols in place to protect them. Rather, it is a fear of the unknown, as if an invisible substance has surrounded the earth. And while invisible, this substance creates very visible distancing among people, which for our Georgian — and Armenian — culture is antithetical. It starts dictating new norms that are quite artificial, yet people follow because this fear has great power.
There are children of Caritas, boys and girls who benefit from our many social service programs, who live at the Caritas center, where my home is located. These are “my children.” Before the pandemic, every time I saw them, they would run to me, hug me, talk to me. And that meant so much. This time, after being with my husband and daughters in Armenia, and escorted by the police to ensure my quarantine in Tbilisi, I had to escape my children to avoid contact. But they were hesitant to approach me; they had been warned already of the danger of approaching me.
To be “dangerous” is not a pleasant feeling. It was awkward, and my heart skipped a beat for another moment that day.
Put simply: I cannot hug my children. We cannot embrace; we cannot approach one another closely; we have to wear protective gear when interacting, and keep distance, distance and more distance. Yes, it is important to follow the protocols, but a Caritas vocation calls for us to be close, to listen, and to be present physically, remaining with those who suffer. But social distancing makes this all especially difficult, even artificial. It challenges our vocation, our call to be a Christian and our very humanity. Our only consolation is knowing that, by observing these protocols, we are caring for and protecting one another.
When members of the Caritas team — volunteers and staff — deliver food to the doors of those men and women who once came to our soup kitchen, they have to leave as soon as possible. When our nurses enter homes to check on the well-being of our elderly or special-needs patients, they must be fully covered. Our patients barely recognize their caregivers under their protective gear. I hope they do not feel as I did when the doctor at the border checked on the status of my health before permitting me in the country: I had this weird feeling of not being safe to others.
To minimize the fear and the awkwardness, we have taken some of our activities online. This is not a problem for our administrative work, but creates real challenges for our pastoral activities. As our current president, Bishop Giuseppe Pasotto, Latin Catholic apostolic vicar of the Caucasus, wrote in his letter to Caritas: “All of this is the first time for all of us. This is a new experience … that is forcing us to live our vocation, our service and our relationship with God and with our brothers and sisters in a surreal way.
“A church cannot exist without relationships, contacts and surroundings. We miss being ‘summoned.’ ”
Yes, we miss being summoned greatly. We miss being in our churches. We miss the sounds of our sacred liturgies, the sweet scent of incense and the power of prayer in unity. And we miss receiving Jesus in the Eucharist.
Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned from this. We have started to value things we have always taken for granted — the simple things we used to carry out but now find so difficult to implement. We have learned that so many things we once considered important are in fact so unimportant. We have recognized that those we once pushed aside in the regular pace of life are the most important to us. In these days our most constructive fear is the fear of losing them, and this pushes us to show and tell them how we love and cherish them.
We have learned that, at the end of the day, everything is in God’s hands — and not in ours.
The charism of Caritas is the belief that every human being is of value, and that we have to serve them unconditionally. Now is the moment, when times are uncertain and fear grips our hearts, that we serve the poorest of the poor, trusting in the mercy and love of God, and clinging to the hope that all this will come to an end soon.