May 18, 2020
Dearly beloved Body of Christ,
Even before the current pandemic lock-down of our city occurred, Old First’s elders met to discuss how to keep our congregation safe. I remember that first meeting—only two months yet a seeming lifetime ago!—when we discussed whether and when and how we might close our building. I remember being rather laissez-faire at the beginning of the meeting, thinking we could wait and see, and then completely changing my mind as we discussed scenarios together. We decided to suspend services sooner than we had to—both to protect our most vulnerable members from possible infection and to be able to provide around-the-clock shelter for our guests in the social hall, a shelter which would normally close at the end of April but could remain open indefinitely.
As our shelter continues to provide refuge during these uncertain times, I think about the ways in which Old First is a refuge for us as members. It’s harder for some of us to “feel’” that sense of safe harbor when we can’t gather together. We miss being able to touch base with each other, to shake hands or hug each other during the Passing of the Peace, to sing and pray with each other in person. As we are “sheltering in place,” suddenly some of our homes feel less like a refuge and more like solitary confinement or—if you are suddenly spending 24 hours a day with the people who live in your house, overwhelmingly lacking in solitude and privacy. Either way, we miss each other, we miss the tangible expression of our community—our quirky Body of Christ made up of such amazingly diverse people who really would never have any other reason to be in the same place at the same time except for church. And now we can’t gather as that physical Body of Christ. And it is increasingly obvious even to the most optimistic that this is no snow day which abates after a reasonable amount of time.
As states and cities make decisions about when and what and how to reopen, Michael and the elders have been reading and listening to the studies and modeling and exhortations that come to us from front-line workers, scientists, and our denominational and ecumenical sisters and brothers. We know that our decisions need to be grounded in our care for each other and in our special care for those most at risk in this time of pandemic. From what we can tell now, it does not seem like Old First will be gathering in person anytime soon. We need to settle into our Zoom worship for a season… or more. We are hearing about the possibility of small groups worshiping and outdoor worshiping safely when the Governor announces Philadelphia has moved into a less dangerous phase. But we are simultaneously hearing that singing and even perhaps speaking in unison, as well as anything akin to a fellowship hour will not be safe. Beloved Body of Christ, as your Elders, we want you to understand: there’s not any quick fix to this pandemic nor a quick return to church life as we knew it before.
Therefore, we know that right now, our work is not to reopen the physical church building, but to create more opportunities for refuge and connection for our congregation. These connections–when we bring our concerns to each other in companionship groups and pray with each other–are not virtual! They are the actual living, breathing Body of Christ. When we hear each other’s voices on Sundays, in the “social hour,” in the chat, in the prayer rooms, in the words read and shared during the service, we are the actual Body of Christ. When we reach out to each other by phone or text or offer to help shop or cook or run errands, we are the Body of Christ. For real.
The elders are doing our best to support Old First’s capacity to Be the Body of Christ during this time when we are separated physically from one another. You can help by letting us know what you need or the ways you imagine Old First can engage our congregation. I believe that this is a time for creativity in our expressions of care, and I believe that our work now will not only carry us through until we can physically be together, but will teach us ways of caring for the Body of Christ beyond the pandemic.
Yours in faith, hope, and always love–
p.s. WE WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU!! Please call any of us with your ideas or concerns!
Bobbie Benjamin Winston Bramwell
Joanna Robinson Janice Smith
Pat Malley Tony Merlo
Yiwola Awoyale Meg Bigelow Alexa Sherr