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Sharing Stories about the World, in the Time of Coronavirus

When I was a little girl, I hated wearing sunglasses. I remember the physical discomfort I had when I was forced to wear shades that distorted the colors of everything I saw around me. I preferred to see things just as they were meant to be seen.

In my 20s, when I was a serious long-distance runner, I couldn't stand to run with music in my ears. It wasn't that I didn't like music— I did (I do). But, when I ran through the busy urban streets or quiet residential neighborhoods, I only wanted the unmuffled sounds of the world around me. I preferred to take in the sounds just as they were meant to be heard.

Journalism is nothing if not a study of the world just as it is.

I am a journalist.

Journalism is my life's work, my vocation. For the past 20 years, or so, I have spent my days and nights working to share stories about the world with anyone who would care to read, watch or listen. Now as a journalism professor and newsroom adviser, I spend my days and nights working with students who also seek to tell stories of the world as it is. The gritty, the terrible, the goofy, the shocking, the political, the sweet, the traumatic, the miraculous and the inspiring— these are the stories of the world around us. I have never shied away from any of them. If a story seemed too tragic, I would remind myself and my students that someone needed to tell the stories of the victims and the heroes. If a story seemed too sweet, I reminded myself that we all need a dose of hope to keep going.

I have never turned away from the news. But right now, contributing to everything else that is unprecedented in our world, I find myself wanting to look away. COVID-19, the coronavirus, is global and threatening. The stories of medical professionals on the front lines are harrowing and they feel uncomfortably close. Living through a pandemic is unfamiliar and unexpected for many of us. The act of adding up the symptoms of those I love and praying for a test not to come back positive is terrible. Tethering myself completely to my home for the foreseeable future feels blessed but also so strange.

My work is very different now, too. The student journalists who usually fill up my workdays are scattered and the newsroom now exists only in a Zoom window and text message threads. These students work hard, but for the most part, they now work alone. The magic of the student newsroom still exists but it is less palpable than before. So, what does a journalist do when the desire to see the world just as it is, feels like just too much?

For the past weeks, I have found myself drawn back into the story of the Israelites and their wandering. In the middle of stay-at-home orders, it seems absurd to find some comfort in the story of the Israelites. On the heels of slavery and plagues, God's people wandered for 40 years. Across those decades, they doubted, they divided, they lost and then reimagined their faith. And, yet, they were delivered. The Israelites were finally delivered to the Promised Land. Even before the wandering stopped, God's people were delivered over and over again. Even in the wandering, there was provision. Even in the wandering, there was community. And even in the wandering, there was redemption.

In Exodus 16:4-5 we read, "Then the Lord said to Moses, 'I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions. On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days."

What is provision? What is manna? My world right now is bigger and smaller than it was a few weeks ago. I have food, health, income, and a home. I am not wandering, yet, I still wonder. Where are we going and what will deliverance look like? I remember that I have my physical manna, and I am OK. And so, my journalist instincts kick in, and I am brought back to the stories of the world as it is today. The heroes, the fighters, the complexities of science. I am with my students, as are my colleagues, helping these young journalists to tell and share these stories of our world. I have a safe distance from the front lines of this virus, and so I seek to understand the experiences of medical professionals and other essential workers who are helping those in need. These stories are difficult, but they are telling us about the world as it is right now of the needs of God's people and their stories of hope and pain.

Today the stories are my manna, just as they always have been.

Elizabeth Smith Dr. Elizabeth Smith is an assistant professor of Journalism and the director of Pepperdine Graphic Media at Seaver College. She is the president of the California College Media Association and on the board for the Associated Collegiate Press. She is married to Ian Godburn and is a mom to Sadie and Harper.