“The governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important, essential places of faith to open right now for this weekend.” –– President Trump, May 22, 2020 (as quoted in the New York Times)
Now that we are well into the COVID-19 pandemic, and “shelter in place” orders are morphing into “safer at home” declarations, and debates continue to rage regarding what is “essential” and what should be open to the public, and how, etc., churches all over the country are engaging in their own processes of discussion, reflection and evaluation. Except, of course, that many churches never really closed. Churches, like Old South, may not have in-person worship or meetings, but we have been well and truly open all this time, moving ourselves to online platforms.
We know we are important, and essential, even if for a relatively small group. We also know what it means to have common sense, and what it means to look out for ourselves as well as others, to love God with all our heart, as well as our neighbors as ourselves—most of us, anyway. We also know the significance of kindness, thoughtfulness and the oft offered refrain from Jesus: “Do not be afraid.”
For this past Sunday’s worship, Old South once again held an online Zoom service, with probably the best attendance we’ve had in a long time for the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. The “first weekend of summer” (when there are also lots of graduations, social gatherings, and moving “upta camp”) does not usually include robust worship attendance. This year, however, we had better than usual attendance numbers. Not as many people went away this year, and even some of those who had gone away (within the state) were still able to join us—since we worshipped online.
We know we are important, and essential. But, that doesn’t mean that we are eager to do anything reckless or stupid about the health and well-being of the congregation, or the community in which we live.
The average age of the Old South community is somewhere in the 70s. I can’t possibly consider in-person worship, at least at this point, for a community largely of those most at-risk. Even with no evidence of community transmission in our county, I can just imagine worship where everyone brave enough to attend worship in the sanctuary is sitting rigid and apprehensive, worrying about sneezing and/or coughing—or the sneezing and coughing of others in the sanctuary—with no choir to sing and everyone at appropriate social distances, not able to do more than nod at each other.
Gathering in our sanctuary at this time wouldn’t feel any better than our online worship. In fact, I suspect that it would feel worse. Sure, it would be nice to be in our lovely sanctuary and to see each other in physical form (rather than in those Brady Bunch boxes of Zoom). But, we all know we are in the midst of a global health crisis, and we all know that we must act and behave in a responsible, loving, and prayerful manner.
We have learned, essentially, that we don’t need our building to be church. We don’t need the sanctuary to worship.
We know we are important. And, we are essential, for the small group of people who have found a spiritual home at Old South. We are responding in that way, led by the Spirit who draws us in, no matter how we gather, in order to empower us to be sent out, even if the sending looks a whole lot different than it did a few months ago.
The President, if he had bothered to go to church this weekend, or if he had ever actually paid attention when in church, or stopped treating church-goers just as political pawns, maybe he would have a better idea of what essential actually means, or better yet, what a life of faith actually looks like.