New Ways of Doing
Early on the afternoon of March 12, 2020, I received a call from one of the social workers of the Mamaroneck School District. She informed me that later that afternoon the announcement would be made that as of Monday, March 16, all schools in the district would move to remote learning due to the pandemic. She was very concerned that funding might not be approved in time to continue to continue the free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch program to the 987 eligible students, and could we help? Later that afternoon, the clergy and lay leadership of the church received word from Bishop Dietsche that, effective immediately, there would be no more in-person worship. In a matter of a day, life as we knew it as the church and the community changed for the foreseeable future.
As a priest, I believe that the church must be accessible and relevant in the world; never did I imagine I would rapidly and radically need to live out that belief in a new way. Immediately after agreeing to find a way to keep feeding students who would otherwise go without the food they counted on to thrive, I reached out to the other houses of worship in the area. Within an hour, we had a solid team of seven: our congregation (St. John’s, Larchmont); Larchmont Temple; St. Augustine Catholic Church; Larchmont Avenue Church; St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Mamaroneck; St John’s Lutheran; and Mamaroneck United Methodist Church. Through parishioners who owned restaurants in Manhattan, we were able to set up a relationship with US Foods, and by the following Monday, we had enough nonperishable food, and a team of church and community volunteers organized to prepare the first 2,500 of the bags of food that would be delivered twice a week to support the students. This food bag prep and delivery continued every Tuesday and Thursday for six months, until the students returned to school. The participating houses of worship contributed outreach funds, members of their congregations donated, the community donated, and several foundations contributed. When the regular breakfast and lunch distribution picked back up, $120,000 had been raised and over 10,000 bags of food had been distributed.
In addition to this work, several of us at the forefront of outreach came together to form a “Coalition of Community” as a more effective way to attend to current and anticipated needs. This coalition is comprised of local community organizations, houses of worship, and school social workers who have worked together to provide food and other COVID relief to those in need and at risk. Indeed, one of the blessings during this pandemic has been the community’s increased awareness of the need to work collaboratively to use its members’ resources, volunteers, and specific gifts to have the largest impact for good. The local houses of worship have also continued (remotely) the long tradition of celebrating Easter and Thanksgiving together and look forward to discovering more ways to come together, long after the pandemic is over, to say our prayers and glorify God.
As for St. John’s Church itself, we immediately went into virtual worship mode, thanks to our talented and dedicated staff and our priest associate, the Rev. Dorothy A. Greene. The first two Sundays were pre-recorded services, but by the third week we were “zooming” from our homes both on Sunday and for four mid-week services, taking this opportunity to re-engage in the daily office. Thanks to a parishioner with experience as a professional broadcaster, we were blessed to create powerful pre-recorded Holy Week and Easter services that included families’ artistic interpretations of the Stations of the Cross. By mid-April, we zoomed Sunday services from the church; then, when the Bishop permitted, in-person services began both outdoors and indoors following the diocesan and state guidelines. We now have a more sophisticated audiovisual live stream system which enhances the services and will be a part of our worship life for the future, along with the mid-week Zoom and pre-recorded services.
We have been blessed to have an increased participation in church attendance this year, including newcomers; I believe that this is because virtual and in-person offerings have provided broader access to worship than in previous years. We have learned never to take for granted the ability to gather to sing, explore scripture, pass the peace, and break bread together. Recognizing the need to be in relationship with God and with one another, people have been more intentional about “showing up” in worship and in staying connected to one another.
We have learned that while we could not always gather in person, our campus spaces, both indoor and outdoor, allowed for immense outreach. We erected three large tents on our back lawn, with lights and heaters, as additional outdoor classrooms for our nursery school when it became clear we could reopen the school safely this past fall. This has enabled us to hold modified parish events and to welcome outside groups to use our outdoor spaces for gatherings, which has been a gift for this community.
Another blessing this past year has been neighboring Episcopal clergy staying connected on a regular basis—lifting one another up, while respecting how each church was carrying out its respective mission and ministries. Clericus and Zoom opportunities with the bishops and diocesan staff have been very meaningful, as well. We are not alone; we are part of something bigger than ourselves.
The Very Rev. Cynthia Kittredge, dean and president of Seminary of the Southwest, describes the pandemic as a pilgrimage–as a winding and often unchartered journey, containing blessings, challenges, and learning more about who we are and who we are called to become as beloved children of God. I have found that description very helpful. Being the church in these times of fear and division in our nation requires creativity, the willingness to try something new, acknowledging whether it is a “keeper” or not, and the commitment to prioritize the importance of being in relationships. The church is called to be a prophetic beacon of healing and hope to both churched and unchurched people who are intentionally searching for a safe community in which to ask the hard questions, and a place to find solace, hope, and light. May we continue to be a church that is accessible and relevant in these times and beyond.