I have stepped up my COVID-19 reopening game. I have attended IN PERSON worship services!
Our church leadership decided to try to make some lemonade when the COVID-19 lemons closed our church building. Our church has been operating since 1889. In 1947, a fire destroyed much of the original architecture, but the congregation faithfully restored the structure in 1948. It is common belief that 1948 was probably the last time the building saw any major renovation. There has been the odd vacuuming and some air conditioning repairs, but evidence suggests that the place has been running solely on duct tape and the Holy Spirit for as long as most of us can remember. Our sexton and various volunteers have done a pretty miraculous job keeping the facility standing and presentable (as long as you didn’t look too closely), but there comes a time when band-aids do not suffice to treat a compound fracture.
We have a new junior warden on our vestry. For those non-Episcopalians out there, the vestry is the unpaid governing body of an Episcopal parish. The junior warden is the saint who typically gets stuck with resolving all things property management in Episcopal churches. It seemed a great opportunity to rope in that unsuspecting “volunteer” junior warden to project manage a major renovation. Besides, spending quality quarantine time beautifying and reinforcing our property was a productive use of down time. It also kicked that messy question of whether to reopen the building way down the road. We hoped that, by the time the building was ready, COVID-19 precautions would be unnecessary.
We now know that hope was a pipe dream. As COVID numbers have improved in central Florida, many of the churches in our diocese reopened for public worship with about a gazillion different rules and regulations about safety protocols. Our church renovations nearly completed, our parish decided to ease into official reopening by celebrating the Eucharist in person, with appropriate social distancing, in our parish hall. About a dozen of us pioneers have attended.
I do not know that I felt a particularly strong need to attend in person. Max and I have been watching two services on television each Sunday- his church, which is always a televised ministry, and my church on YouTube. We worship with each other and then meet a small group of church friends for an outdoor BYOL (Bring Your Own Lunch) picnic to maintain our connections and fellowship.
I decided to attend some of the parish hall in person services because I wanted to support the effort to reopen. I wanted our livestream of the service to show that people were enjoying worshipping together safely and without fear. I wanted to help put butts in the seats, basically. It is part of my conviction that “doing isn’t feeling” when it comes to “normal,” but feeling doesn’t start until we start doing.
At any rate, I believed I was going to the in-person service for other people more than for myself. I felt so brave and altruistic. I do not think I crossed the line into Smugness, but I may have come close.
God laughed at my pompousness and then put me in my place.
It turns out, I was missing in person worship services more than I knew. I felt like I was breathing fresh air again, after being in a smog-filled atmosphere for some time. It felt so easy and natural. Of course, it felt strange to not touch anyone. I had to restrain myself from hugging, patting arms, and shaking hands. The social distanced chairs and the mask-wearing is almost not weird now, we do it so much. The priest delivering the host to each of us in our places was different, but felt more bonding than distancing, despite the copious amounts of hand sanitizer he used. There was a brief moment of awkwardness when Max, having grown up in a Catholic church prior to receiving communion in the hand, stuck out his tongue for the priest to place the host in his mouth. The priest and Max both recovered quickly when Max realized that “force of habit” is not a good reason for someone to touch your tongue during a pandemic. No harm done.
I think there was a certain amount of altruism in demonstrating to the people who are on the comfort level fence about returning to in person worship that these differences are easy to manage. The barriers are not as bad as they sound when you get right down to it. Maybe some people are more inclined to participate in our IRL worship services after seeing some of their brothers and sisters jump the hurdles and enjoy the experience.
Still, despite the more altruistic motivators I had to participate at the in-person worship services, I found out that I needed them much more than anyone else needed me. I had no idea how much I missed the presence of other people praying with me. Even though our parish has done a great job of fostering community during this time of separation and I pray with others regularly on Zoom, I found the experience of worshiping with other people in the same room, with the same voice, to be overwhelmingly powerful. My hands might not have been touching anyone, but my heart and soul certainly were. I was sitting on a folding chair. Huge bottles of hand sanitizer figured prominently on the tablescape of the makeshift altar. Fake flowers decorated the space. We had two singers and a pianist instead of a beautiful choir. There were some audio and livestreaming glitches to be resolved. None of that mattered. I might as well have been in the most beautiful cathedral in the world because God was there.
Our church renovations are done now. Last Saturday, a bunch of us spent the morning cleaning the sanctuary for about the eighty millionth time over the past several months. I had it easy. Other people did a great job in an earlier round of cleaning, so there was not as much leftover postwar grime from 1948 as there might have been. The most disgusting thing I encountered was vacuuming up a desiccated creature that was, at one time, either a lizard or a frog. Hey, every house, even a house of God, needs a thorough cleaning every 70 years are so.
We’ll be back in our newly beautified worship space on September 13. I will be there. Pray for us!
What have you started doing “IRL” again that you have been doing virtually since the COVID quarantine? How has it worked out for you? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have a REAL day!