Waiting for a Covid test is more than just standing in line. It’s an act of mercy.

People in the Bronx borough of New York City wear protective face masks outside an urgent care facility Nov. 17, 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic. (CNS photo/Shannon Stapleton, Reuters)

I stood in an immeasurable line in downtown Washington one morning in November. At least it seemed immeasurable at the time. There were hundreds of people in line. The wait was over three hours.

Like a treasure hunt, the line mapped around D.C. corners, over cracked curbs and past driveways dotted here and there with orange cones.

All stood in line with the same purpose: to be tested for Covid-19. Knowing the results will help me do my part to help slow the spread and reduce the burden on overwhelmed hospitals.

This was a once-in-a-hundred-years line, winding, stretching, turning.

None of us standing in line this morning could have imagined this line one year ago. A year ago, we were all going in a thousand different directions. Many were busy wanting to be first, pushing ahead.

It was a line of faith as much as it was a line of science. And perhaps more so, it was a line of hope. Hope is learned in inches, or it is not learned at all.

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Today, we were all moving in the same direction.

Pause and move forward.

The only thing longer than the Covid-19 testing line on this cold morning was the patience of those who stood in it. We waited our turn. No one pushed. It was a line of faith as much as it was a line of science. And perhaps more so, it was a line of hope. Hope is learned in inches, or it is not learned at all.

We waited, paused before nature itself. No one in line made demands; there were no complaints, no rushing. No one explained why they needed to be first. No one blamed each other. No one lost their temper. No eyes rolled at the wait, and not one sigh was heard. There was no craning or straining to see what the holdup was. Hope waits its turn.

[Related: A Coronavirus Prayer for this Weary Winter]

Even the jackhammer drilling into a driveway 20 yards away was not annoying. The jackhammer’s pulverizing insistence never conquered the quiet patience of the line. Each person seemed to realize, without saying it, that health takes time—that safety, security and recovery take time.

It was a witness, not a line.

Pause and move forward.

The line was unconquerable, stretching along block after city block, marching around the Jericho that is this lethal virus. No one gave up or walked away. We kept walking. Steadily. We knew where we were going. Standing in line was more than standing in line. It, along with wearing masks, washing hands, contact tracing, self-isolating, disinfecting public spaces and quarantining, was taking on the character and proportions of a corporal work of mercy.

The line was unconquerable, stretching along block after city block, marching around the Jericho that is this lethal virus.

This is especially true given the asymptomatic spread of Covid. You can have the virus and not know you have it. Moreover, you can have it and feel fine. You can have it, not know you have it, feel fine—and still give it to someone else who will get it and not feel fine. In fact, the person you give it to may die from it. What you do not know can kill others. Getting tested in the face of asymptomatic spread is a work of mercy.

I might have been the only one thinking that the line was a lot like the line for the confessional—meditative. By simply standing there, we said a lot: that we are needy, that patience is worth it. We confess our dependence, our absolute vulnerability. Standing in line for, not against, one another.

Pause and move forward.

In the final hour, even the jackhammer gave up. The driveway, now 60 yards away, was by then all silent gravel. The hardness is cracked and broken, dispersed. Gentleness is the jackhammer for the heart. And lines, especially long lines, teach gentleness. They open a way through the heart.

I might have been the only one thinking that the line was a lot like the line for the confessional. By simply standing there, we said a lot: that we are needy, that patience is worth it.

The line turns. No one demands fun or food or fuss. No one takes advantage of our shuffled wait to make a point or take a position. No one insists to have their say on this or that. We wait for health.

And we wait for a vaccine. Not all vaccines are wonder drugs, especially in their first year. Patience is long-term or it is not at all. And so, for now, endurance and acceptance furnish the key ingredients that can save lives: Avoid crowds, implement and observe mask mandates. Skip holiday gatherings. A naïve denial that demands otherwise risks becoming implicit eugenics, a lethal stubbornness determined to have its own way while sacrificing the weak. Superiority cannot deal with reality, especially difficult realities, especially a crisis. Superiority thrives on denial. Unfortunately, so does a crisis.

The line itself is a treatment of another sort. The line detoxifies and removes pride. Pride hates lines. Pride cannot wait. Pride thinks it should be first. Pride moves on. And so, a spiritual work of mercy emerges, too.

Pause and move forward.

The line I stood in that morning was not immeasurable because it stretched out for over three hours. It was immeasurable because it pointed to hope.

There is something humble about a line. And there is something resilient about humility. We learn things waiting in line that those standing in first place rarely do. Lines change time. Other things yield. And silently, the line brings what seems to escape us everywhere else: unity.

The line I stood in that morning in downtown D.C. was not immeasurable because it stretched out for over three hours. It was immeasurable because it pointed to hope.

Lines connect. Lines create solidarity. Lines, as they curve and connect, reassemble hope. This line says people care. We are here for one another.

We wait together. We pause together. We turn corners together and slowly unwind our culture’s silly, unsettled spell. We trace slowly an unseen map. We move forward toward health, toward a turning point, toward unity.

One step at a time.

More from America

– A Coronavirus Prayer for this Weary Winter
– Good (and a bit clichéd) Jesuit wisdom for pandemic spirituality: Just let go.
– I’m a priest and public health professor. Here’s my advice for rethinking the holidays this year.
– Who should get the Covid vaccine first? Our answer must not neglect the poor and marginalized.

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