by Sarah S. Scherschligt

I lived in a rural village in Malawi, East Africa, as a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 90s. There, I experienced the power of communal lament. When someone died, the women in the community would stop everything and start to wail. They would bawl for hours. Neighboring villagers could hear the grief-stricken sound from far away and join the mourning.

For some, it had little to do with a natural expression of grief. It was more performative, like joining a song in progress. Sometimes, to my ears, the cries seemed artificial and manufactured. I came to realize there was great wisdom in it. Taking on an outward, physical manifestation of grief helped people move through it. It cued emotional release. It was cathartic.

As Jesus approached Jerusalem, knowing it had become a disobedient and fractured community, he lamented. (Matthew 23:37).

A month ago, as we approached the first anniversary of the coronavirus outbreaks, I felt a strong, physical urge to grieve out loud and with other people. I have cried plenty of private tears through this covid year and have had days of numbness too. I’ve even released my primal screams into the void when I think no one’s listening.

Still, I missed the communal, in-person funeral for the losses of a year. I wanted to sing mourner’s songs and grieve as a body among other bodies. I wanted to join a chorus in proclaiming, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” I longed to hear other people’s wailing help me tap into my sorrow so that I could let it out and make space for something new.

As a pastor, I’ve learned to trust that if I need something spiritually, other people do too. I started thinking, “how could we gather to lament?” I thought of having a spaced drum circle where we could wear masks and make music together in safety. We would gather to lament.

On the anniversary of the coronavirus shut down–the day that I announced that the church building would close indefinitely–a group of 20 people gathered for a drum circle outside our church’s narthex.

For an hour, our leader encouraged us to put our emotions onto the surface of the drum. She taught us a heartbeat rhythm and invited us to speak names and losses into the space between beats. Tha-thump (Peggy). Tha-thump (Jerry). Tha-thump. She said, “Don’t worry if you lose the beat, we’ve got you.”

She kept it going. Some of us novice drummers couldn’t name names and keep a beat. If we got lost, we could always find the rhythm again. Tha-thump. Tha-thump. I could let go, trusting the drumbeat held me. Somewhere along the line, I realized I was being gathered in by God.

The noise grew, and we started to jam. We fed off one another, and while I could tell what sounds I was making, I also could hear the sounds were part of a cacophony of expression. At one point, tears poured out of me, along with grief, sorrow, anger, and pain.

As I learned from mourners in rural Malawi, something important happens when we gather to grieve. After the drumming, I thought of Jesus crying with a desire to gather his people. I knew that we had released something important. Jesus did gather us together, and our sorrow would not remain forever. There was lament. There was catharsis. And then, there was peace.

Discussion questions:

1. Lament means to express sorrow. What do you lament about the past year?

2. In what communal forms of mourning have you participated? How have they helped you?

3. Is there something you need to grieve that you are resisting? How would it feel to let God gather you fully?

4. Describe when you have been surprised on the other side of grief to find new joy or peace?

Closing prayer:
Dear God, you lament for your children in all the losses we experience. Help us trust you with our sorrow in things large and small. Gather us in communities where we can express our grief together and help our communal lament lead us toward a deeper joy. Amen.

Sarah S. Scherschligt is the pastor of Peace Lutheran Church in Alexandria, Va. She’s also a mother, amateur potter, environmental activist, and frequent contributor to Boldcafe. During the Coronavirus, she has written daily reflections called “God Holds You.”