PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Church Is More Than A Building

My congregation never closed. … Nor did the church.

Since we began this time of Great Separation, the church I serve, Emanuel Lutheran in Hartford, Conn., has been alive and well.

We have had worship — real worship — each week.  It may have been prerecorded, but God was present and Christ was praised — through song, children’s sermons, virtual choirs and prayers and readings from members in their homes.

Currently, many members gather Sunday mornings  to watch it together on Zoom. We also have Monday Noon Prayer, Wednesday Holden Evening Vespers and Sung Morning Prayer on Friday morning, all via Zoom. We have people from all over the country joining us on YouTube and being fed by the Word of God and the joy of Christ’s presence.

Each week, members of my congregation reach out to each other with phone calls as part of shepherding groups. They read or write devotions, and they pray for one another. They are living out their baptismal calling.

They are also caring for the wider community — we have a food pantry where people come and volunteer safely with social distancing. We serve those in need in our neighborhood. We went from a small pantry that was open one or two times a month to a weekly pantry providing food for numbers two or three times what it had been. We are also packing bags of food to be delivered to the elderly of Hartford.

Members are sewing masks and we are dropping them off at low-income senior housing places for people with disabilities and providing them for our neighbors in our very urban location. We have created a puzzle exchange with the church as a dropoff spot, and we are sharing puzzles with the senior housing facility next to us. When members die — nine and counting since this began — we send cards and make calls of support.

And we pray. Boy do we pray. We pray for each other, for the world and for direction in this challenging time.

As a pastor, I can tell you I have NEVER worked harder in my 30 years of ministry and my team, the staff of the church, would all say the same. We are not on a vacation — we are pouring our lifeblood into feeding the Spirit of Community that is alive and well.

Do we miss gathering together and seeing one another? Absolutely. I long for the day when we can worship and praise God together in our sanctuary. My heart aches that I can’t see my flock. But we are alive and well and living out our mission, even if we aren’t in the same space.

We are ANYTHING but closed. And to suggest otherwise is blasphemy.

My congregation has a reopening team that consists of leadership and members who are medical and mental health professionals, as well as folks who represent both older and younger members of the congregation. They have been reading materials about issues with aerosols with singing, the concerns about projected voices and what that means, and how CoVid 19 is spread.

They are reading through materials produced by the bishop of the New England Synod of the ELCA and watched a program where noted epidemiologist (and Lutheran) Michael Osterholm spoke specifically about the concerns we need to address if we are going to have worship safely in our buildings.

As our congregation looks toward reopening our building for worship, we are weighing the spiritual and the physical needs of our congregation and considering things like how we need to clean the space or disinfect and how do we justify a “lottery” for worship if we have limited space when we believe all are welcome. We are looking at safe social distances and what that means in our sanctuary, how and if we can have music and how do we honor our values if we limit who is there.

It is a delicate balancing act we are all trying to accomplish right now — what is best for our space, our people, our situation. Our bishop has repeatedly told us “one size does not fit all” and urged us to show caution. Having buried more than a few people who have died of COVID-19, I do not want to add anyone who might have contracted it during worship in our sanctuary to the list.

So into this very challenging situation, where our leadership is seeking to thread the needle as perfectly as we can, comes a very uninvited bull into our china shop, saying we need to “Open our churches” this weekend and turning what was already an incredibly difficult negotiation into a political nightmare.

And I’m furious!

First, because we have NEVER been closed. The church, as the old song goes, “is not a building where people go to pray. It’s not made out of sticks and stones and it’s not made out of clay. You can go to worship, but you cannot go to church. You can’t find a building that’s alive no matter where you search.” (We are The Church)

The church is alive and well and we are worshipping. It is an insult to the vitality and creativity that the Holy Spirit has provided in the last several months to imply that what is happening isn’t real or meaningful. To say that we are closed is an offense to God.

The truth is, we won’t be going back to what we were before this pandemic. Some things have changed and we can’t go back. And that isn’t entirely bad. “Behold I am doing a new thing” the prophet wrote in Isaiah 43:19 when the people returned to Jesusalem from exile, and I believe that same thing is true for us now. We are in the midst of a rebirth and I for one am excited to see what will end up happening, to see how God is going to find a place for resurrection in the midst of all of this death.

But the second reason I am furious is because we do not need to throw political divisiveness into our decision-making. Now, instead of the already challenging job of trying to negotiate a way forward while we deal with the science of COVID-19 transmission, it has suddenly become a partisan issue.

The body of Christ needed this like a hole in the head. In a world where we are told, “Beloved, let us love one another for love is of God” (1 John 4:7), suddenly whether one has worship in the sanctuary or not has taken on political ramifications.

The powers and forces of evil are going to have a field day with this pronouncement. It is yet another way to inject a spirit of division into our world. The demons rejoice and the angels weep as we turn a public health concern into another reason to be angry.

I am a pastor who seeks to serve a diverse group of people whose politics are all over the map. But I can assure you, when and how we begin worshipping in our sanctuary will not have anything to do with whether they are red or blue, but if they might turn purple and die because of it.

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