Dear Partners in Mission:
On Wednesday May 13th, in partnership with ELCA Coaching and Briarwood Leadership Center, I helped to moderate a weekly coaching call with over 125 leaders from across the ELCA. This meeting featured reflections on the impact of COVID-19 from Bishop Yehiel Curry (Metro Chicago), Bishop Kristen Kuempel (NW-Intermountain), and Bishop Paul Egensteiner (Metro New York). The reflections of these bishops (a recording will be available here by next week: https://www.elcacoaching.org/covid19). Their stories and witness of struggle and also hope were powerful and encouraging. What stuck out to me most was the uneven impact of COVID-19 across our various synod territories geographically, racially, and socio-economically.
Bishop Egensteiner told us of the tragedy of a single congregation in Manhattan, St. Peter’s, who have received national news attention because 39 Latinx and 5 Anglo members of this 400 member mixed ethnicity congregation have died from COVID-19. Died not because they went to church but because, not unlike meat packers in the Texas panhandle, to care for their families they had to go to jobs where they were exposed to the virus. Yet in other parts of even his largely metro synod there are areas largely untouched by outbreaks of disease and death.
This uneven reality is felt across NT-NL’s vast territory, and geography is no predictor of impact. Some of our communities have seen the impact of COVID-19 significantly, and others have had very few cases and impact on daily life. As a result, decisions about when and how to go back to in-person worship are going to vary widely. I have appreciated when you have communicated with my office to ask questions and seek counsel on various aspects of opening up for in-person worship. That so many of you have read the guidelines prepared by the TX/LA bishops is also a sign of the value you place on our counsel. Thank you for that trust and appreciation.
The patience and thoughtfulness that you are putting into communicating with your communities and asking for their input is also commendable. It is good to ask when people would feel comfortable coming back to worship. Your staff at Briarwood have been doing that same work as they consider how best to serve you with summer programming. The reality is the feedback is mixed and unsure. Reflecting the uneven experiences we have had.
Yet to have that data and personal connection in these challenging and divisive times is vital. Partisanship and heated rhetoric have put congregational and ministry leaders in a challenging place. Seemingly simple actions such as wearing a mask, or sharing a news article, or what guidelines you follow, have become interpreted as partisan statements. Understanding this, I want to continue to resource you for this important work. Your conference deans and I this week have looked over and commend to you this set of considerations that you should think about before beginning in-person worship. Additionally, the ELCA Worship team has put together this very comprehensive guidance, including good suggestions for worship music alternatives to communal song, which has the potential to spread the virus among you even more quickly (Spanish translation coming soon). Before you take any (more) action in moving towards plans for coming together for in-person worship, please read these documents thoroughly.
Crises do not create cracks in a society or institutions, but they do expose them. The uneven experience of this crisis, its ravaging impact on certain communities, particularly those marginalized by institutional racism or societal neglect, shows these cracks. When our elderly in nursing facilities are exposed and die disproportionately to others their age, we must think more critically about how we care for the aged. When communities in poverty and communities of color, even within a single congregation, are disproportionately impacted, we need to consider how we value essential workers in the compensation they receive. To care for our neighbors means we must take seriously WHY, when you have been so adept at moving community online, we hunger to come back together physically. What is our motivation? And then establishing that we must ask HOW we will include those who cannot take the risk to come to this gathering.
Why and How we gather are vital considerations. As you deliberate, I urge patience, caution, and the priority of care for neighbor. The Word of God is powerful and is being proclaimed in our congregations and ministries each and every week. This is the living Word of God that spoke creation into being. When the proclamation is made “for the sake of Jesus Christ your sins are forgiven,” whether in physical or online community, it is this Word of God that makes it so. Sins are forgiven; life and salvation are given.
This crisis has changed us and exposed cracks in our collective narratives. You will not go back to what was, and while that brings grief and expands our collective vocations, that is also good. We can pivot and move. Vital and thriving ministries such as our NT-NL Secondary School of Theo Ed (SSTE) / Escuela Secundaria de Educación Teológica and Parish Lay Ministry Academy, who have met onsite at Briarwood, have moved fully online. While we long to meet again in this beautiful space highlighted in the ELCA Churchwide synod assembly video (if impatient go to 3:28 in the clip), these ministries can function and thrive online. They adapt as we all adapt.
Change and adaptation, an end to our assumptions of normal, is good because we have a God who, in God’s living Word, is constantly seeking and calling us to change. God calls us to repent, to turn around. To be God’s people here and now. To be faithful in our time. Following the example of Esther who was, so many years ago, called to act for such a time as this.
God bless you in your deliberations. Please be in touch with my office as you discern and communicate so I am aware of your plans. If you can, please consider a gift or bidding on an item for the Briarwood online gala this Saturday May 16th. These gifts, particularly monthly sustaining gifts, enable you to sustain our investment as a synod in this ministry and support loyal and committed staff in uncertain times.
In all of this, know you are in my daily prayers. God’s Word is active and alive in us and through us. The Church, God’s baptized people, are in the world, and we are still #InMissionTogether.