August 15, 2020 | News by Father John Tober
Dear St. James’ Family—
As we begin our 5th month of isolation, I’ve heard rumblings recently about people’s frustrations with the steps the churches and the diocese have taken to fight COVID-19. Believe me, I share them: they’ve hampered my ability to do my job and to re-prioritize my work repeatedly. The tasks I can do take twice as long or more, and I feel I can only do them half as well.
I’m frustrated that by and large outside New Mexico (and even here at home) the response has been so lax. I’m frustrated that 5 million people have contracted this disease and 160 thousand have succumbed to it in the US, far outstripping every other nation on earth. I feel penned in as the states on each side of us have twice as many cases, 8 times as many, 22 times as many cases.
I’m tired of sitting at home, or in an empty office. I’m tired of eating at home. I’m tired I can’t travel or visit friends. I’d like to see and hug my daughter, but if she comes here from Germany, she can’t return, so we have to communicate by text message, and I'm tired of that. I’m tired of tending to the people of St. James’ by phone at best; by word of mouth at usual; answered by silence at worst. I’m tired that parishioners in the hospital—when I hear of them—are comforted, at most, with a phone call.
I’m tired of sitting in an empty church and preaching to a camera. I’m tired of constantly reinventing the service. Video services were too extempore when done live in my dining room, so I learned how to record them. The sound and video wasn’t good enough, so I bought a camera once, and then a second time to improve them. There was no music, so I learned to record the services and stitch together videos that included music from our choir and lessons read by our laypeople. I moved back to the church because the services were still too informal… I guess our dining room wouldn’t have been good enough for Jesus’ last Passover meal, but OK; we moved back into the church. Introducing others into the production means working to others’ timelines, and that’s meant adjusting my work and schedule and tasks on a weekly basis, or more frequently. Sunday morning now happens on Wednesday afternoon… unless someone can’t make it, then maybe Thursday. Or Friday. It means at times doing repeated takes of the service, sometimes two and three times—sometimes a day or two later, bumping other obligations. I’m tired of the lack of regularity.
I assure you, I am as tired and frustrated about our current state of being as anyone. However, the things that I do—the things that the parish does—we do not for ourselves but for others. We are a Matthew 25 people: “Truly I tell you, as you did it to the least of these my brothers [and sisters], you did it to me.”(v. 46). That’s why we wear masks; only secondarily to protect ourselves, but primarily to protect others. I wear a mask to protect the people I encounter, moreso than myself. I would much rather participate in services corporately, but doing them online is the mask we have to wear.
The Episcopal Church is not a congregation-based denomination. The church building doesn’t belong to me. It doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to the church, and is owned by the diocese. The parish holds it in trust from the diocese for the work of the people and the glory of God. The decisions the vestry and I make about the property—from the upkeep of the parish hall to the loose change at the bottom of the collection plate, the diocese entrusts us to make wisely; not for comfort, not in pursuit of our wants, but for the good of the people and the work of the church. In the church there is a hierarchy. Everyone—at least the clergy—answers to someone. I work with the other priests and deacons of the diocese and answer to the bishop. Our bishop and the other bishops of the province work together and answer to the Presiding Bishop. We all also answer to various councils. I am obligated to obey the counsel of my bishop whom I truly believe faithfully—in consultation with the other bishops and with the guidance of the presiding bishop—discerns the will of God for the good of the church, the well-being of the people, and the betterment of the Kingdom of God on earth.
Our polity, likewise, is hierarchical. As a citizen of the state, I’m bound to follow the laws of the state and the guidance of our elected officials. The governor of NM has set out orders that people traveling into NM quarantine for 14 days. She’s directed we test if we show symptoms. She’s directed that restaurants close their dining rooms. And she directed that churches close for corporate worship at the same time that restaurants close, because we are a non-essential business. That is a true statement. The building across the street from me as I sit at my desk is not essential. We don’t need that building to have a relationship with God, even if it is convenient for our relationship with each other. But that convenience does not make it essential.
When the stay at home rule was relaxed, COVID cases in NM immediately began to spike, so we were closed again. Here’s the latest executive order for you to review: https://www.nmhealth.org/publication/view/rules/5919/. Managing governmental departments is what the governor does. And we entrust her to make sound decisions based on their advice. If we’re wise, we will also follow their advice and abide by the government’s directives. It’s worked so far: that’s largely why NM has an infection rate of 3% instead of 7% like CO, or 15.5% like AZ, or 16.2% like TX, and morbidity rates commensurately low. It’s our job to keep infection and mortality rates low if we can, not to react to them after they bloom.
What we are about at this time is managing risk. The governor does it. Bp. Hunn does it. The vestry and I do it. Each of our families do it. Some risks are extremely dangerous; some less so. Eating in a restaurant is a significant risk; that’s why restaurant dining rooms are closed. Sitting in a church is a significant risk; that’s why the governor has directed they close, and why Bp. Hunn and the leadership of the parish abide by that direction. At his direction, and with the advice of the Church Pension Group (who hold our liability insurance policy) St. James’ is also abiding by this direction.
The church could be held liable if a breakout of COVID-19 begins at St. James… something that, despite the planning we’ve done to limit risk when we are allowed to open, is still a significant risk. Let’s think about “what ifs.” The majority of our parish are in the most at-risk demographic; that’s a fact. What if 1 member of our parish gets infected? What if someone who doesn’t show symptoms (or doesn’t show them yet) comes to a service and… 5 people are infected? What if an otherwise healthy person is infected and then takes COVID home and infects their immune-compromised spouse? Or their kids? Or their parents? Let’s say only 1 of those 5 people shows severe symptoms, but she lives alone and languishes, but becomes too sick to reach her phone and dies alone in her home? What if that one person infected is the priest who a week later distributes Communion to the 25 people who show up for a service?
Or let’s say someone is infected and goes to the hospital in respiratory distress. Who is going to visit them? No one. Or if they die; who will come to the funeral? No one. Or if the priest is infected. Who will do services? No one.
Some will say this is living in fear. Maybe they’re right. I think it’s being pragmatic. I’ve faced my own mortality enough times to understand the frailty of my own condition. I’ve mourned the probable death of my wife frequently enough to not relish doing it again. I’ve visited enough hospital patients on vents to not wish that on anyone. And I’ve celebrated enough funerals to not look forward to the next one. An honest appraisal of risk and taking steps to mitigate them isn’t a sign of fear; giving up hope is fear. You know where I’m not afraid? At home. Do you know where I can best manage risk? At home. Do you know what is guaranteed not to transmit COVID? An internet connection. Is it ideal? No. Believe me, I know. But it offers hope. It offers knowledge that I am suffering a restriction for the good of others and hope that I will not become a vector for a rampant disease.
Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days. This is our 40 days; and perhaps for us they only count on Sundays. I hope not. God the Son sojourned on earth for 33 years. We will surely not wait that long. I don’t know when we will be able to return to corporate worship; I wish I had a crystal ball that would tell me, but I don’t. COVID-19 does not answer to me, or Bp. Hunn or the governor. If it did, we’d be in a much different place. We answer to COVID-19. We react to COVID-19 because it is uncontrolled. To date, of all the states in our union, NM has largely done well; better than most. I understand the fatigue we are all feeling. I know the impatience to return to a normal life. The hard truth is, we have to develop a new normal. Now is an opportunity to re-imagine what normal means.
What can we as a church learn from this to enhance our spiritual faith? Our church family and our world are being given tribulations just as personages in the bible (Job, Paul, Jesus, etc.) were. God uses these to help us in our faith and spiritual walk with God. As I said above, we are a Matthew 25 church. That is who we have been as a denomination since 1789; as a faith since around 30AD. St. James’ has been a safe haven during crises, and a respite for people in the actual and metaphorical desert for almost a century and a half. Sometimes that haven means the building; but mostly, it means the people. What we are doing now is not new. And what we are doing right now hasn’t really changed in several months. It hasn’t changed because the threat is still a very real one.
That doesn’t mean nothing is happening; it just means there’s not much news. There’s not much news because Bp. Hunn has been on vacation. The directives of the governor haven’t changed remarkably since June. The executive committee and the vestry have worked on protocols for opening the church. It’s still not done; but volunteers don’t necessarily work to my timeline.
The question has been asked about holding services outside. That’s a great idea… in the Fall. Right now, it still gets up to 100° by noon which is not good, again, for the vast majority of our parishioners. The diocese and CPF will still require us to socially distance and wear masks. But human nature dictates that some people will not follow the rules. Just look at the pictures of crowded hallways on the first day of school. At least twice I’ve walked into the church to find the alarm off and someone sitting in the chapel, despite the church being closed. What’s the answer when people don’t follow the rules at a service? We also have logistics to consider. Who sets up? Who cleans up afterwards? I’ve been asked about renting a canopy. Well, the cost would be around $XXX.XX. Where is that money coming from? Are we willing to pay that once? Once a month? Every week?
The church is not a building; it’s the people. It’s an idea that we have shared through the ages: that we can give of ourselves to make life better for our family and our friends and even strangers. Sometimes Jesus did this by being with people; having dinner with them or preaching to crowds. Sometimes Jesus did this by walking and talking with just his small group of disciples. Sometimes he did this by leaving everyone behind and being by himself. We take our name from the Apostle, James the Greater. Maybe now we need to take our understanding from a different James: James Trotter, the titular character of James and the Giant Peach. We need to try looking at things in a different way.
Maybe instead of self-pity, we should ask ourselves, what can I do to make this experience better for others? Maybe instead of demanding the things that we want, we should start considering what others—or our society—need. Maybe instead of moping or griping, we should take some self-agency. Despite calling them once or twice a week, when my parents ask me why I don’t call more often, my response is, “Phones work both ways.” Are you angry that something isn’t being done for you? Maybe it’s a sign that you aren’t doing enough. We should do rather than complaining that nothing is being done for us. Maybe instead of giving into the frustration, we need to embrace our isolation as Jesus did, and commune with God, trying to figure out what God wants us to learn from this experience.
The church must remain closed, because we have the obligation to care for the least among us. Right now, that care means isolation. I don’t like it, but it’s like taking cough syrup; it’s what’s necessary. We have to love our neighbor, which means dropping a note in the mailbox or calling on the phone, but not risking them with infection by visiting in person. We need to love our neighbor which means patience through these tough times, reaching out to see what we can do to help those in our church family and doing what we can to protect each other. The least we can do is prayer. And for that, we don’t need to be in the church. Our understanding is not that of Moses and the Israelites: that God lives in a box that we carry around or that stays in the church. God is everywhere. God hears prayer everywhere. We can all use prayer, including me. Including you. My prayer right now is that we may all have patience in our isolation.
2 weeks ago, we celebrated the feast of our patron. Jesus asked James and his brother if they were strong enough to drink His cup. By that he meant suffering martyrdom. The world, the state, the church is not asking you for martyrdom; we’re all asking you to live, instead. Are we not strong enough to drink that cup, even for a little while?
In His name,
The Rev. John Tober, Rector