No Anniversary Sunday, But Still Welcoming & Faithful: Old First E-pistle 07.09.15

No Anniversary Sunday, But Still Welcoming & Faithful: Old First E-pistle 07.09.15

Since I first read about plans for the subway and the el, the regional rail and the speedline during the Pope’s visit, I have wondered if we will be able to gather for worship on Sunday, September 27. I can’t explain all the details of — or even the reasoning behind — the mass transit strategy, but it seems only the ‘furtherest” outlying stations and then a very few stops in Center City will be open for picking up and dropping off passengers.

Truth be told, the vast majority of us drive to church on Sundays. But that same article warned of many, many street closures and promised the impediment of center city traffic.

Of course, traditionally, that’s the week we would normally celebrate Anniversary Sunday, the 288th celebration of our founding. What then should we do?

That first article I saw advised that walking will be the best bet. And it should be the time of the year for perfect walking weather. Now, I can — and do — walk to church fairly often. Cutting through Chinatown, it’s about two miles and takes about 30 minutes. But I’m more hardcore about self-powered transportation options than the average church-goer. I’m also paid to be at worship on Sundays!. And I live within walking distance. You can’t really walk to Old First from Chestnut Hill, Sicklerville or Wilmington!

The question really is: will we even be able to get to church? Or, with all the inconveniences, how many will bother to come?

I’m not adverse to ridiculously low-attendance Sundays for cause (as opposed to random, no reason, low turn-out Sundays which annoy and depress me!). For example, I like bad winter weather Sundays, when only a handful of us show up… even if they aren’t any good for our collection plate (do you make up missed Sundays in your offering?). One ice-stormy Sunday in March — when the brick sidewalks really were treacherous death traps and we ended up with 22 for worship — one of our leaders pointed out from a financial perspective, “The collection couldn’t even cover the heat this morning.” But we all sat up in a circle at the front of the Sanctuary, and we began by everyone introducing themselves. And a whole bunch of people learned new things about each other (for instance, how many connections this church community has to UPenn.)

But the challenges to worshiping on “the Pope’s Sunday,” September 27, keep piling up. On my flight back to Philly Monday night, a friend, Ed, from Old Swedes Church, shared an article titled, 8-foot Fence to be Built in Philadelphia, Setting-Up Pope Perimeter. (I like that — a “Pope Perimeter!”) On September 21, there’s talk of erecting a 4 and ½ mile fence will be around an area of Center City so that security sweeps can be performed repeatedly prior to and during the weekend the Pope is in Philly. The exact location of the fence is not yet disclosed, though I think I heard somewhere that is could be river to river, Girard to South.

And, we are warned: cars could be restricted for 4 blocks either side of the fence; there may be checkpoints; it is uncertain if cars will driving within this perimeter. The mayor was quoted as advising, “visitors and residents should be prepared to walk for miles.”

Is it possible that the Pope’s visit could preclude Old First worshiping on Sunday, September 27? We need to see how plans are actually going to work out and how they will affect travel and transit, but it’s possible.

Think about that: the worship of one faith tradition could actually prevent others from gathering for worship! Lord knows, it’s happened before, in much more dire situations: for example, the persecution of one religious group by another, so that it was actually unsafe for ‘unfavored’ religious folk to be together or in public.

But this possibility also reminds me the contemporary arguments being raised by religious folks who claim the exercise of their faith is impinged upon by other people leading their lives and exercising freedoms guaranteed by law. Primarily, it’s conservative folk complaining that the values of a diverse, secular liberal democracy (and individuals rights under the law) are offensive to their faith — primarily the liberation of queer folks and women’s right to choose. Their argument is that the practice of their beliefs is curtailed by their neighbors’ living. So much for any sense that one’s neighborly goodness is more defined by another’s situation than oneself! The tweet by conservative commentator, Eric W. Erickson, was as pointed as it was illustrative: “My religion trumps your ‘right’ to employer-subsidized, consequence-free sex.”

Hobby Lobby not wanting to offer insurance for their employees through the national healthcare plan that includes certain birth control coverage. Bakers and Hardware store owners refusing to serve queer customers. Catholic Hospitals that receive public funding but will not provide abortion services. Don’t get me started on how ridiculous a situation we end up in if we let the “bosses’” (loosely applied) beliefs dictate how an employee or customer is able to live her or his life.

So, how will we respond if the Pope’s visit does turn out to cancel Anniversary Sunday? What if we really can’t get to church that morning? Would we complain the Pope is getting an unfair advantage… and the use of a lot of public services and space?

Or would we figure out how to work around it all? Because as Christians, we believe that what one does to be a good neighbor?

I’m not sure how yet. But we’ll figure it out. Maybe we’ll try worshipping from our homes that Sunday. Or send everyone to mass on the Parkway. And we’ll certainly “transpose the feast” (to borrow a page from Catholic tradition) for our Anniversary Sunday, either celebrating a week early or later when we can all be here.

The best suggestion — or at least the funniest I’ve heard yet — came from my friend Rudy. He suggested: “Thinking the best way to deal with the absolute madness that will be the Pope’s visit to Philadelphia is to: 1) be out of town 2) rent my apartment, and 3) donate the proceeds to Women’s Medical Fund and William Way LGBTQ Community Center.

Well, if we’re wondering how to have church that week, maybe we could adopt Rudy’s strategy as a community-wide bit of Christian hospitality and witness. You know 288 years is nothing in comparison to the Roman church, but providing space for weary pilgrims and supporting the equality of women and queer folk… it would be both welcoming and faithful, our way of being church.

See you in church this Sunday (I’m back),

Michael