A Wish for You
By Reverend Rebecca Bryan
We’ve had to make some critical, potentially life-changing decisions for this church over the last few months. When we closed the building in March, in response to COVID-19, someone said to me, “That means we won’t come back until next fall. We can’t survive that.”
“I know,” I said in return. “It feels that way….and, we must do this, for we are each other’s keepers. We have to do what we can to keep each other safe, to live into our Unitarian Universalist values, and to make the difficult, but right, decision.”
Now we face that same decision again. Do we open the church building this fall? I wish I could say, “Unequivocally, yes.” Believe me, there is nothing I wish for more than that. And yet, the answer is “no” because we believe in science, as well as faith, because we follow the epidemiology in caring for one another, and because we are committed to the wellbeing of all people. We will not be returning to church this fall in the way it used to be, and how I know we all wish it could be. But that is not the end of the story, far from it. We will be returning, just differently — differently from how it used to be and differently from how it has been for the past three months.
So, let me start with the most important part of the line in the sand. Let me help you understand what this message is saying before we get into some of the possibilities.
We will not be resuming large gatherings in this building, this sanctuary, which includes “normal” Sunday services, until public health standards tell us it is safe to do so, or at least much safer than it is today. We will follow best practices for minimizing transmission of COVID–19, which does include avoiding large indoor gatherings. We are not alone in this decision. The Unitarian Universalist Association is not holding indoor large group gatherings until May 2021, and in fact, the UUA is recommending that congregations follow suit, and many are. Colleges and universities are struggling with this. Harvard has recently said that they will most likely be returning online. Even Broadway is closed through at least December of 2020.
Our decision not to hold large, indoor group gatherings for the foreseeable future is based on a recommendation of the reopening team and is fully endorsed by the Parish Board, including outgoing and incoming members, as well as all of the staff. I want to thank Jeff Bard, Judy Fayre, John Mercer, and Merryl Maleska Wilbur, who, along with Kristen Fehlhaber and myself, make up the members of the reopening team, and I’d like to thank the members of the Parish Board and staff for all of your faithful and thorough discernment of this very difficult decision. I assure you it comes from a place of love and concern for the safety of our congregation, your families and friends, the community at large, and our staff.
This decision supports our Unitarian Universalist values of affirming the worth and dignity of all people and caring for the interconnected web of life of which we are all a part. Other churches may be doing differently, but we believe that by putting our values into action and leading by example, we are acting as the moral leader our church has long been. People are looking to us, I promise you. So this decision not to hold large, in-person gatherings also allows us, all of us—you, me, and the staff—to focus on what we can do to be the church we are called to be, which is a lot. As difficult as this is, this time period presents many gifts and unique opportunities.
We won’t be meeting in large groups in the sanctuary, yet we hope to be, and plan to be, meeting in small groups outside. This may start as early as July and continue as long as the weather permits. The reopening team is working now on guidelines that will allow small groups to do just that. This might include, for example, reserving the patio outside the lower meetinghouse for your small group to meet, bringing your own chairs, sitting at the X’s placed there so that there is a safe distance, and knowing you wouldn’t have access to the indoor bathroom.
We’re looking into holding small, alternative worship services outside in September and October. These will be new and additional ways to worship, not replacing Sunday morning worship, which will continue to be livestreamed. We have begun imagining how we can bring you all the traditional services virtually, including the flower communion, pet blessing, and, yes, the Candlelight Service. Plans are underway, and they’re going to be spectacular, though I understand different. We are committed to honoring and upholding the traditions of this congregation, just with some creative, new modifications.
Next church year will be ripe with opportunities to deepen individual relationships. We aren’t making any promises yet, but are considering things like offering small, safe walks together or with the staff or myself. We are even exploring how we might be able to make this sanctuary available to individuals by reservation. This could be a few scheduled hours during the week when a small number of people could sign up in advance and come and be here, sit in this space, to meditate or pray or simply be. This would only happen with our ensuring that public health safety measures are followed and precautions taken.
And there are so many other things that are possible, that are YES AND, something I talk about a lot. YES AND.
I’ve learned a lot as a minister over the last few months since we’ve closed the church building. The thing I want to say today is that I’ve learned that church is not a one-size-fits-all thing. Those days, if they ever did exist, are gone at least for now and, I believe, forever. Gone are the days when church was simply coming here on Sunday and sitting for hours, but that was church. And everyone came, and that’s what you did. It’s a good thing that that is no longer the case. Parishioners—you—have different situations, you have different preferences, you have different needs. It is my challenge, our challenge, in this shared ministry, and our privilege and joy to do our best to meet those differences.
When it is time, and as we can do it safely, we will return to being together in this building—first individually, then in small groups, and someday in large group gatherings right here. Won’t that be a glorious day? But even then, even when we are all back here together, we will be streaming Sunday services, streaming them so that those folks who can’t leave their homes, or who are in a rehabilitation program, or who live in other states, or maybe who just want to, can watch from where they are. Online church is here to stay. Virtual church and in-person church are not mutually exclusive; they are complementary. Virtual church, for example, is allowing us (and I get very excited about this) to get the word out about our faith and the principles of Unitarian Universalism in a way that we have never done before and we would not have been doing. There are videos of Sunday services that have been watched 600 times. Who knows who’s hearing those messages, when so many people think there’s no church for them? We have folks participating regularly now who live in other states and at least one other country. That is a huge gift to them and to us!
I also know that we need to create additional ways other than Zoom for people to connect next church year. I get it. For some of us, it’s not our preference, and others of us have just been “Zoomed out.” So, this might be phone calls, letters, one-on-one Zoom meetings (which are very different), and safe, outdoor meetings. It can also include hearing different and more music, as we bring in musicians through the Internet and video.
What we all needed at the start of this pandemic is not what we need today, and it will not be what we need moving forward. At the start of the pandemic in early March, we all needed reassurance, we needed the ability to connect virtually as often as possible, and we needed help adjusting to what was happening. So, we had videos galore, daily emails, online programming, and care pods of small groups meeting online. The staff did everything we could to help groups and individuals find their way in this new reality. Because Justin and I knew that with all the dramatic changes you needed some familiarity and certainty, we kept the worship liturgy basically the same, even when we knew how hard it is to sing hymns at home alone. We are already considering how some of that might be different, and better, next year.
Now, after three months of living with this pandemic, your needs are different. We know that. As I said, you want more than Zoom. You crave deep personal authentic connections. I wonder if you are ready to start having post sermon discussion groups or other deep dives into religious and theological issues, as well as issues of social justice, with online discussion groups.
This time is also making other gifts possible, for example, the collaboration that has happened with the Newburyport Clergy Association. It’s fantastic. I am so excited because I know many of us are interested in doing more of that in each other’s places of worship over next year. That brings me to tears. That’s a gift. We can collaborate with other Unitarian Universalist congregations, meeting remotely, with distance no longer a barrier. Maybe we can create worship services in which two or more of our congregations offer a joint UU service. Imagine having our youth and children making videos for us all to enjoy and raising their voices so we hear and learn from them.
There are many ideas and opportunities. We can’t do them all. We won’t do them perfectly, and we can only do it with you, together. This time, starting right now, could be the year that brings you closer to this religious community. You could choose right now to make the decision to come closer, not move away, to get involved and be a part of the unfolding that is happening. In fact, I invite you to do that right now. Commit to engage. Commit to being a part of our adapting, evolving, and flourishing. Commit to making this congregation and our faith all that it can be during these times.
The times will end. Between now and then, these are very full times. There is a presidential election coming up this fall, in addition to COVID-19, which is not going away and which we know may produce a second wave. There is energy around Black Lives Matter and ending systemic racism, and work on climate change that we are called to engage with and be a part of.
Also, over the next year, your life will go on. Some of you will receive health diagnoses. Others will get married. Still others will start jobs, and others will lose jobs. You will wonder about the meaning of life, how to forgive those who have hurt you, if there is God, and what that means. I want to be here for all of that with you. Those are community things, church community things.
Next year, I will preach. Justin will play the organ. Classes and meet-ups will happen. We will gather in many and varied ways. We will get through this pandemic stronger and more connected. And we will do everything we can to keep everyone safe.
We get to choose what church looks like next year. Imagine what can happen between September 2020 and June 2021. We could start planning for our 300th anniversary. We could work on reimagining the religious education programs and partnering with those working for racial and climate justice. We could use our space and our building and our skills in creative and necessary ways during these times. We could write poetry, make music, and listen to one another. We could mediate, pray, and cry and laugh, together.
We could, and we will, because we are the First Religious Society, Unitarian Universalist. We have a long history behind us and a strong foundation beneath us. We have each other. We have love. We are blessed.
I love you all. I wish for you, each of you, the best possible summer. I wish you everything your heart desires, your mind imagines, and your being longs for. I wish for all of us peace, good friends, and love, always, as individuals and as a congregation.
Stay in touch. Send your ideas and questions to the reopening team at reopeningteam@FRSUU.org. We’re going to do this together. Be in touch with one another. When someone comes across you mind, reach out to them. Do it every day. Sign on to our less formal Zoom summer services at 10am on Sundays. And hold close, until we are all together again.
Amen and Blessed Be.
Questions to ponder, discuss and hold…
What do you wish for this summer?
What is your wish for our world, and what is one small thing you can do to help that come true?
What two words best express your heart’s deepest wish?