May 29, 2020
There’s been a lot of conversation on the subject of “Re-Opening” lately. It’s not every day that church attendance is a national issue!! But in this season of Covid-19, everything, even church attendance (that might lend to the spread of the virus) is of concern to all.
St. John’s like other faith communities must grapple with whether or not to gather, as well as when and how that could happen. This truly is about loving one another and our neighbor – a faithful work Jesus called us to do. Gathering too soon or before we have thought through all the procedures and implications, could cause great injury to our beloved community as well as those we will be in contact with outside the walls of the church building. Some of the things we most love doing when we assemble in our beautiful sanctuary – singing, responding in liturgical unison, sharing holy communion, greeting and sharing the “Peace” by touch - all of these can potentially spread the virus.
Just today, following the Governor’s lead, Sacramento County has now loosened its Stay-at-Home order. Houses of worship can, under specific (and rather Draconian measures), resume activity on their campuses. The numbers allowed for indoor activity is 25% of capacity. For us, that number means something around 100 – and Sacramento County must approve the measures St. John’s puts in place to reduce risk of virus transmission before such indoor activities can resume.
On the national scene, some of our brothers and sisters in Christ have been clamoring for reopening, asserting rights and privileges. St. John’s has not approached the conversation in this way. Instead, we are attempting to discern our call and responsibility using the framework of our faith rather than national or political categories. Christians resist the language of “reopening” because, in fact, the Church (which is you, by the way!) has never been closed. While St. John’s has had to find new and creative ways to “gather” for worship and education via online technologies, (and we freely admit we have not done so perfectly) we definitely were not closed; the staff and lay leadership have been working hard to plan and implement these offerings. We have responded to the moment and, at least from my perspective as Director of Missional Strategy, we have been faithful.
We’re all antsy; it’s been 10 weeks since we’ve worshiped together in our sanctuary. But the question before us is not whether to “reopen” but, “Where would God have us go; what does God wish us to do from here?” The question is not what our government will allow but what does our faith require? So, we continue to be guided by a very simple faith tenet – that we collectively and individually are to love God with everything we’ve got, and our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-38). And don’t forget Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan that establishes the broadest possible definition as to who our neighbor is who needs our help. Following Christ means true interest and action to care for our neighbor (and ourselves too by the way).
Therefore, because the spread of the virus is very much a threat to our neighbor, we have determined that now is not the time to resume worship indoors. As September nears, we will look again to see if worshiping together in our sanctuary is the right call. For the next three months (June, July and August), we believe our calling is to focus our efforts in worship and outreach in four specific ways: (1) online, (2) outdoors, (3) in memorial, and (4) serving our neighbors in need.
1) Online: Technology can serve God’s purpose and has been a gift that we have underused prior to this pandemic. It is a great outreach and inreach tool to keep in touch with our home-bound members and touch the lives of strangers and those at a distance. We will continue to offer “Worship in Place,” exploring more live worship experiences as well as the prerecorded Sunday offering. Think of it like this – we just opened a new campus - St. John’s Online!!
2) Outdoors: Good information indicates that gathering outdoors is safer than congregating inside. We will still need to maintain social distancing measures, but they are nowhere near as onerous as the restrictions for what we do inside. Our first offering will be June 7th, Holy Trinity Sunday, when we will have “Drive-In” Communion in our parking lot. After you worship online come to the church campus with your own bread and grape juice (no open containers in your car!). You will enter via the alley on 17th Street through the back gate into our parking lot (not garage) and prepare your heart and mind and body for Holy Communion. We will have two time slots that day – 10am to 2pm and 5pm to 6pm during which we will host a series of “tables” of limited numbers of cars for 10-minute communion liturgies, during which you will serve your own communion in your car. Your pastors will split the times for presiding over the consecration of elements. We are thinking of other ways we can gather outside to worship; – and to get you excited about that future event, please know that our most talented Director of Worship & Music, Steven Johnson, is working on this new future offering.
Please standby for more details via email Wednesday, June 3rd.
3) Memorials: Gathering in person in places we hold sacred can be a source of amazing comfort for families mourning a loved one who has died – it’s a closure moment at this fundamental transition point of life. After prayerful discernment, we decided that will seek permission from
the County of Sacramento to gather in the sanctuary for funerals and memorial services. These will also require new procedures -- temperature checks, social distancing, no congregational singing or touching, facemasks required at all times, guest list with the names and contact information of guests for contact tracing purposes. We will limit the number of attendees, never exceeding governmental allowance, and the duration of such services to 1⁄2 an hour. Why open our sanctuary in these very limited ways and not for worship? Because online and outdoor gatherings are insufficient for these mourning families, and with these strict guidelines (that we think regular worship attenders would not tolerate well), we believe we can be of great service to our members and neighbors in need.
4) Serving Neighbors in Need: There are certain things we might be able to do responsibly to help those in most need in our community. For example, we are trying out opening Goethe Hall as a Cooling Station on certain summer days to provide relief from oppressive heatwaves. We will require masks and social distancing measures, symptom assessments, and cleaning procedures. We realize that it’s not perfectly free from risk, but worth doing to ease suffering in our City this Summer.
This is our 4-point plan for the summer, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. I also hope you see that “reopening” is not necessary, because we have never been closed. Faith is lived out in the home, in the workplace, on our streets, and in this world that God loves so very much. And when it’s safe again, faith will be lived out again through worship in our sanctuary. That day is coming, but, until then, we have our focus for the summer – St. John’s Online, Outdoors, In Memorial, and Serving Our Neighbors in Need. Thanks be to God for such good and worthy endeavors. St. John’s – open, as it has always been!
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Pastor Frank Espegren