May 20, 2020
When I was a kid, my family took a summer vacation every year. We camped, because with seven kids and two adults, spending money on motels was out of the question. Plus, my parents loved being away from everything, out in the woods or by the lake. That was back in the day before cellphones and all that they’ve changed in our world.
In the early years, we had a big army tent for the kids and a pull-behind travel trailer for my folks. We went to national parks and forests, to lakes and to the mountains, and once or twice to big cities (but we camped far from the city lights).
We kids never really knew much about the place we were going – we just piled into the station wagon with our books and crayons and travel bingo games and prepared for a long drive. We’d fight over who got to sit by the window, and beg for a cold pop whenever we stopped for gas.
When we arrived, as soon as we had helped with the chores of setting up a campsite, we were off to explore. We didn’t have GPS or maps or much in the way of boundaries; we just went off into the woods or down by the water to see what was there. When we found something that everyone else needed to see, a whoop or a holler would bring the others. Sometimes that discovery was a cool tree to climb, or a good swimming spot, or a big rock to clamber up. Other times, it was a ranger station or campground office – with vending machines! Whatever we discovered became part of our mental map for the place. It became a landmark that oriented us.
We always went together. Well, almost always. Only once do I remember being left alone in those explorations: we were playing on a huge rock in the Colorado mountains, and we had an argument. I was about eight years old. My older brothers and sister left, and before I realized it, I was alone. I can only imagine my parents’ distress when my siblings arrived at the campsite without me. I didn’t remember where our campsite was, but I knew how to get to the road, and I knew that if I started walking, I would either see our campsite or the Ranger Station. So I started walking. Before long, I saw my father hurrying down the road to meet me and take me back to our camp site.
I’m thinking of that event because as I’ve prepared to write this letter to you, it occurred to me that where we are now is much like those times I knew as a child. We had a home, but we were far from our familiar neighborhood. We were travelers discovering a place by walking around in it, not by reading about it or following a map. We didn’t have a particular destination in mind – we just walked out to see what we would find. And we were together – never in my memory did we start out alone. And even when I was lost, my father came looking for me to guide me back. I didn’t know what my next steps should be, but he did.
The last time I wrote a letter like this, I told you that we would not be meeting together until May 31, 2020, Pentecost Sunday. When the Session made that decision in mid- March, we felt we were being extremely cautious. It turns out that we were overly optimistic. In our meeting on May 12, the Session decided that we would not be gathering together in person for worship for the foreseeable future. Perhaps we can worship in person by fall, perhaps by Rally Day, but we are not counting on that. Here are the factors that we took into account (not necessarily in order of importance):
1. The governor’s plan, “Restore Illinois.” In that plan, Phase III allows for gatherings of ten or fewer, and some businesses re-opening on a limited basis. According to news sources, we may be ready to move to Phase III by the end of May.
2. The nature and composition of our gatherings. When we gather for worship in our church building, we naturally greet one another with handshakes and hugs. We sing and pray and listen to others sing. We have fellowship, where we share food and coffee. And we are mostly older people. Although we have a good number of younger folks in our worship services, most of us are past 60, and many of us have other health challenges that make us vulnerable. We average about 70 or 80 people on a normal Sunday. The idea of coming in to worship – in strictly limited numbers, masked, with no choir or singing, with a six-foot radius around every individual or household, and no socializing before or after worship, and a plexiglass screen in front of the pulpit – sounds far less appealing than what we are doing now. And no one wants to be the person who stands at the door and stops people from coming to worship because we’ve exceeded the count.
3. The health and safety of our staff. As you know, everyone but the office administrator and the pastor is part-time, with other commitments and connections. We are not interested in overworking our custodians or putting any of our staff at risk. All of our staff would be concerned about the possibility of being the vector who unknowingly infected someone in our church.
4. The number of other groups that meet in our building. The sheer numbers of people coming and going, and the overwhelming cleaning needs and health risks posed by those groups (we don’t and can’t monitor who comes to these groups), are such that we would put our worshiping community at risk. While some of our recovery groups are meeting, and taking required precautions, we do not want to encourage all the other groups to resume.
5. The good reception of our online worship, and our connections via Zoom, phone, email and mail. We’ve had great feedback about our online worship; there will be much to continue and carry forward into the future. Average views of worship online, considering that some views engage more than one person in a household, would indicate that we have more people tuning in to online worship than usually appeared for it in person! In some ways, we are more connected than ever. Our Session has taken care to connect with everyone who regularly attends worship, and we have had some opportunities to reach out and connect with those who have never attended in-person worship but who are connecting with us online. We now have online giving available, and several people who are never or rarely in our worship service have sent donations to our church.
In view of all these factors, Session has authorized me to appoint a Next Steps task force. This group will soon begin gathering (virtually, of course) to explore some crucial questions for our congregation about our identity in Jesus Christ in this time and in the future. We will be seeking to engage every one of you in our work. A small part of that conversation will be about when we gather again in person. The larger task will be to explore the big questions:
As a church, we’ve come together to this unknown place. There will be much to see, and many new discoveries. We will explore together, and we’ll be careful not to leave anyone alone in the woods. If by chance we begin to feel lost, we know that Jesus is with us, to lead us home.
Grace and Peace to you and your households from the Session,
Pastor Christina Berry, Moderator; Gail Dancey, Clerk; Jeff Brown, Meli Cangahuala, Al Connelly, Diana Day-Schreiner, Loretta Densmore, Mary Jo Edge, Barry Flint, Wanda Martens, Vicki Olson, and Lisa Zacharski