Interviewed June 11, 2020. Interview edited for clarity and length.
Leslie, 57, has been the Director of Young Adult Ministry and Sustainability at PRUMC since 2006 and an Associate Minister since 2013. She’s married to Porter Watkins and has two children, James and Clara.
How did the realization of what was happening unfold with you, the fact that the church would actually be closing?
It felt like an avalanche, it went so fast. On March 8th, we had Bishop Sue [Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson is the leader of the North Georgia Conference] here for a Sunday town hall for the entire district, with both laity and clergy invited. So there were about 200-300 people in Grace Hall to hear her talk about the upcoming General Conference, which was at that time still scheduled for April. Leading up to that, some of us here at PRUMC were having conversations like “Do we elbow bump Bishop Sue? What’s the right way to greet her?” I was in the service that day and I chose to elbow bump, maybe for the first time. It felt very strange for me, because I’m a hugger. Bill had invited clergy to lunch with her, so we were all sitting at the table with her, talking about what seemed to be about to happen. Everything was so uncertain, so unknown, almost a “This can’t be real, it can’t be happening to us” kind of thing.
Then you flash forward to the next Sunday, which was when we were supposed to have the Disney Forum but cancelled it, and when we advised no touching beyond an elbow bump during the worship service. And then from there, in one more Sunday, we’re at our first worship service online. So we went from asking “Do we elbow bump Bishop Sue” on the 8th to having nobody in the Sanctuary on the 22nd!
How did that first service feel to you, as a clergy member?
I was part of that first service, and it was very emotional. A few members were there who came anyway, maybe 10, and then we did have a baptism that day. But still, the difference. It just shifted really fast. I remember being very tearful, because of where we were and not knowing what was next.
And yet, I support that we are doing this. It is the absolute right thing. I’m proud of our leadership, our bishop and all the leaders who said, “Yes, people’s health is more important than us gathering.” In some places across the country you’re seeing this feeling of “You can’t take away my right to worship and gather”, versus what’s really happening, which is “We are choosing to do this for the greater good”.
But I’m not seeing that “taking away” view in our congregation. We are giving everyone the opportunity to worship online, and the Holy Spirit is still present – even though we’re not together in person. That has always been the case.
How has your day-to-day routine as a clergy member changed during the isolation?
Basically, what we had to do, like teachers and everybody else, was learn new technology really fast! That includes things like how to talk in front of a camera, which I have to say is very different and very intimidating. I’d rather talk in front of a million faces than one camera! Having to learn that and how to do it well for different things – services and Zoom classes and so forth – has been a big focus.
Bill has been great, because he’s supported building the technology so that we can do this to our level of excellence at PRUMC. We want to do things well.
I love that we’re still able to gather at a distance in our Sanctuary, and that our Sanctuary is big enough to make that possible. The choir has been amazing. It looks from the screen like they’re next to each other, but they are spread apart. The caliber of music with a limited number of people has been unbelievable.
How do we make people feel things are hands-on when they aren’t? That’s the hard thing. We make phone calls and text. We email and reach out. I mourn. We want to be around people, and there’s a grief at not being able to. I carry grief with me because I’m not able to see people. I just miss them. So the trick is working with that, staying upbeat and hopeful, but also carrying that grief for ourselves and for other people. We are there for other people, too.
What do you think we need to learn from this time of isolation and upheaval in the world?
If you mean what we should do differently, I would say to not be in such a rush. I hope we can slow down and not fill our calendars so full. That we can take a true Sabbath at least one day a week. During the isolation, I’ve had a lot more time for introspection, prayer, reading the Bible, studying. That part of it, for me, has been really, really good.
I think about how it is our fourth commandment, to take a Sabbath. And I think about how foreign this quarantine was at first, when we had to just be still. I wonder: if we’d all been better about taking a Sabbath before, would we have been better-equipped emotionally for this quarantine time?
So I hope to be mindful, to choose carefully what I’m going to do next, to not feel like I have to stay busy all the time. We’ve had great, quality family time, thanks to not having to commute. Clara is home for her last summer before college, which has been wonderful for me but not so great for her because she’s missed her friends! James lives now in Denver and couldn’t come home for a scheduled family event in May, so we haven’t seen him since Christmas and that’s been really, really hard. I live around the corner from my mom and dad, but I haven’t been able to go into their house and hug them for months. The reality for me is that relationships are what is truly important, and I will be putting those at the top of my to-do list from now on.
We live where there’s a flight path overhead, and the quiet without the planes has been extraordinary. The birds woke me up one morning recently, they were so loud! I’ve always said this about creation: creation will heal itself. The earth is trying to heal itself. It feels off-balance for us, but the earth is going to obey the natural laws and try to cool itself down.
One final point that’s important: I think I can speak for all of our clergy when I say just how grateful we are that we have been so supported in this. We didn’t want to let the congregation down, and we have felt so loved and supported by our members. And I’m just very grateful for that, very grateful that people are still coming and worshiping and doing small groups and wanting to give and help other people. That’s been such an inspiration.