“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:6–7)
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
After a time of deep prayer and studying and in consideration of the increasing concern about the spread of the coronavirus and the fact that many members of our church family would be considered “at-risk,” I have decided to suspend all activities at St. Dunstan’s this week except for Sunday and Wednesday Mass and Misa en Español. For this week, this includes Gospel Project, Children’s Church, and Coffee Hour on Sunday, Morning Prayer on Tuesday and Thursday, Bible Study and BibleJourney on Wednesday, the Feast of St. Joseph, Novel Theology, and choir practice on Thursday, and Stations of the Cross on Friday. Bernie Janovsky’s family has also decided to postpone his memorial service that we had scheduled for Saturday, and I have decided to cancel the March Mission Dinner.
The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that has made its way to the United States is highly contagious, and social distancing can make a huge difference in its ultimate transmission rate. COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, is considerably more deadly than ordinary flu, especially for vulnerable populations: the elderly and those with existing medical conditions. For many people, the disease can be mild, even unnoticed, which increases the risk that the asymptomatic carriers can transmit the virus to the highly vulnerable without even realizing it. The spread of the disease has the potential to overwhelm our healthcare system, leading potentially to otherwise preventable deaths from COVID-19 and other causes. Given these realities and out of love for the vulnerable in our church family and our local communities, we cannot continue with “business as usual.” Out of love, we must react and prepare quickly and appropriately.
Love must guide all that we do as a church. Every Sunday (except during Lent), we hear our Lord’s Summary of the Law in the two great commandments: to love God with all that we are and to love others the way that we love ourselves. These two commandments should shape every decision that we make as a church. The first commandment is why, amid other cancellations, we are not canceling eucharistic worship services. In addition, gathering for worship in numbers less than 100 with appropriate precautions is currently still considered safe.
The second commandment is why, for at least this week, we are canceling all other activities at St. Dunstan’s. Out of love, we must protect those most vulnerable in our church family and in the communities in which we live, and, except for worship, we should not be taking any unnecessary risks. During this next week, I will be reading as much as I can on this topic and organizing a Health Team to help me make decisions about how to proceed as a church family. The Health Team will spend a lot of time in prayer and think through how to worship God in a healthy manner and stay “in-community” at a time where social distancing is the safest and most loving option. If you need help of any kind during this time difficult time, please don’t hesitate to reach out to the church office, and we will do our best to be the hands and feet of Jesus for you.
The second commandment also informs our decision to start a new ministry. The sign outside our church has said “God bless our neighbors” for a while now, and while we mean it sincerely, it is reasonable to ask in what specific ways we have been a blessing to our neighbors. Now we have an opportunity for God to work through us to bless our neighbors who may be in significant need. The impact of this virus is not merely health-related. It has other implications on society too, like the cancellation of schools, which is where many kids get their most substantive meals. There is a real concern that some children in our neighborhood will go hungry, and we can help alleviate that problem by being a food pantry during this difficult time.
One member of the congregation has already gotten us started by purchasing peanut butter, jelly, cheerios, and some bread, but we’re going to need more. We will also be providing small gift cards for perishable items like milk and bread, but we will need your help, whether that’s food or monetary donations. The food items mentioned above (peanut butter, jelly, and cheerios) are what we’re looking for, and we will make this food available to people in our neighborhood during regular church office hours and in the trailer parks where we minister. For more information on how to help, please speak to Mary Lou Hayes, who has agreed to be the coordinator of this ministry effort.
In regard to our worship together, the Bishop’s instructions remain. We should continue to pray, we should maintain healthy practices at all times, and we will only be receiving Holy Communion in one kind. If you do not feel well, whether or not you think you have the flu, I am encouraging you to stay home. Even if you are feeling well, staying home might still be the right choice for many. It will not be available this Sunday, but I will work next week on making a live stream of at least one of our services available for anyone who would like to share in our worship but feels like they cannot or should not be with us. We are also going to continue to bring home communion to those who request it, but we will do so in safe ways that promote the health of everyone involved, and it may take a week or more to get those standards and practices in place.
We are asking for volunteers to sanitize frequently-used surfaces before and after each service, and everyone should wash their hands thoroughly (more than 20 seconds) upon arrival at church and upon returning to their home. There will also be no food or drink served at the church, and when sharing the peace, you are encouraged to keep a safe distance from each other and to greet each other with a bow or a sign of peace.
I hope that this pandemic will pass quickly and that things will return to normal soon. However, that may not be the case. We must prepare ourselves to meet and worship in different ways, and thankfully there is technology available that makes this far more manageable than it would have been even a few decades ago. We must always act in love: love for God and love for our neighbor, and I believe the steps that we are taking are consistent with both of these commandments. These actions are also appropriately Lenten because we are giving up good and enjoyable things for the kingdom of God and the good of others. I suspect most of us did not expect to be giving up quite so much this Lent, but the Lord often has plans different than ours.
He is the one who made our bodies. He is the one who is in control. He is the one who loves us, redeems us, and saves our bodies and souls. He is the one who will see us through these trying times. Continue to pray. Continue to trust in him. Continue to be wise and prepared, like Joseph preparing Egypt for the famine, in whose story we see that trusting God and being well-prepared are not in opposition. But most of all, do not be afraid, for there is nothing in all of creation (including a virus!) that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:37-39).
If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to reach out to me directly at any time.
Yours in Christ,
The Very Rev. J. Michael Strachan
Rector, St. Dunstan’s Anglican Church, Largo