by Rev. Bill Gupton
It has been roughly 10 weeks since I postponed the remainder of my sabbatical and returned to our Heritage community. It feels more like 10 months. I don’t know about you, but time itself seems to be out of kilter these days.
When I rejoined our community, those 10 short (long) weeks ago, you had just cancelled in-person worship services, and the life of this church was just beginning to be transformed by the emerging pandemic known as COVID-19. Now, there are 100,000 American casualties of this pandemic – nearly twice the number of American who died in the Vietnam War. By the first day of summer, more Americans will have died from this virus than the total number who perished in World War I.
Here at Heritage, I am thankful that, thus far, we have not lost anyone in our immediate church family. But do not be fooled – those in the Heritage community who have contracted COVID-19 and developed symptoms have suffered greatly. Even when it is not fatal, this illness can be agonizing, painful, incredibly scary, and cruelly unrelenting. Church members who are recovering from it tell of ongoing physical pain and frightening new medical flare-ups. No, Mr. President, this is not a hoax.
We must take this virus and the dangers it poses to our health and our lives very, very seriously. Which is why I continue to advocate for an abundance of caution and a level of physical separation that is, admittedly, almost antithetical to the warm, embracing, intimate type of community we have created together at Heritage Church over the generations. It breaks my heart – as I know it does yours – to be unable to gather together in our sanctuary, to be unable to hug one another, to be unable to share tears and smiles in person or to help raise our children in person or to break bread together – in person. Yet it is precisely because of the Love that is the spirit of this church – precisely because we honor and seek to protect the health and well being of each and every individual (no exceptions) – that we must remain apart. For the foreseeable future. It is the only way for us to be safe.
My dear friend and colleague Rev. Amy Carol Webb, who serves one of our Unitarian Universalist churches in Florida – where the reckless rush to re-open in now in full swing – put it this way recently in a web post: “Let us be very clear in this moment: We at River of Grass UU Congregation cannot and will not be compelled to violate our ethics, conscience, and values with the demand that houses of worship meet in person before science and health advisors declare it safe to do so. We remain true to our purpose … without risking the lives of ourselves, our neighbors, or the most vulnerable among and around us. We believe in love. And science. We teach that bodies are sacred – ours, and yours, and everyone else’s – and are to be respected and protected. So, no. Though we ache in our very bones to be with you, we will wait until it is safe to gather in person, however long that may take. We love you too much” to do otherwise.
In that short statement, she speaks for me, and for many in our congregation with whom I have spoken in recent days. I realize there are differing – and strongly held – views on the matter of “re-opening,” but I know as well that several church members have told me that they will not feel safe or comfortable returning to group gatherings until there is a proven vaccine, and they have been vaccinated with it. I honor and sympathize (perhaps even empathize) with that position. Each of us must make tough calls these days: whether to wear a mask when we go out, whether to go into the grocery store or hardware store, whether to go to work (if we are lucky enough to still have a job, as the economy staggers forward) – and yes, whether to meet with others from the church or our other circles of support.
As you make those hard decisions, I want you to know that you are held in an invisible embrace (what our UU Principles call “the interconnected web of all existence”). That the Love that is the spirit of our church reaches you and touches you, even now. No matter where you go. In your basement. At Kroger’s. At the beach. In moments of sadness and despair. In moments of joy and celebration. You are loved. You are part of this Heritage family. And I am grateful, to share that with you.
Be well, my friends. Be safe. Be healthy.