Pastoral Letter, 3/12/20

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,


During this difficult time, remember our God is a strong refuge, an ever present help in time of trouble. Remember the words of Psalm 121:1, “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.” And remember Psalm 23:4, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Neither sin, nor Satan, nor sickness is stronger Jesus. We do not have to fear. Jesus is a rock, and we have the sure and certain hope of his salvation.


COVID-19 continues to spread around the world and within our country. This calls for appropriate action through prayer, prevention, and care. With Governor Ralph Northam’s declaration of a State of Emergency for Virginia, we are taking additional steps to love our neighbors by doing everything in our power to “flatten the curve.” (Click here for an article in the New York Times explaining what it means to “flatten the curve.”)

  

Our plan, as of now, and rationale follow below.



Our Plan, As of Thursday, March 12


1. Pray. As Christians, it is our joy, opportunity and responsibility to pray for ourselves and others. So let us join together in asking God to intervene and eradicate this virus. Let us pray for our public health officials, health care providers, and government officials who bear such a heavy responsibility in times like this. Pray that they would receive God’s strength, wisdom, and guidance. Ask God to heal the victims and comfort those who have lost loved ones. Let us pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ who are facing this virus right now everywhere around the world.


2. If you have any symptoms of cough, shortness of breath, or fever, stay home for 72 hours. Call for help if your condition continues or worsens.


3. If you, or anyone in your household, is considered high risk, we urge you to stay home. High risk categories include people who have serious chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes, lung disease, or are immunosuppressed, and those who are 60 or older. If this describes you or someone in your house, it is extra important for you to take actions to reduce your risk of getting sick with the disease: please stay home and let the rest of us run your errands and do your shopping for you. In fact, everyone who can stay home should consider doing so, as social distancing is the best way to slow the spread of COVID-19.


4. If you need assistance, are sick, are lonely, contact your small group leader. Our small groups are eager to help. We can chat and pray with you over the phone. We can run errands for you. We can shop for you. We can provide meals. Let us know your needs and we will help. (If you are not in a small group, click here and you’ll be directed to the page on our website with our list of small groups. Find the small group that is closest to where you live and consider that group to be your group; consider the leaders of that group to be your small group leaders.) If you need a visit from a pastor, each small group is being assigned to one of our priests. If you do not have my contact information, or Jay’s, or Sam’s, your small group leader can help you get in touch with us to arrange care. 


5. We will have worship services at the usual time, 9am and 11am, but for this week (3/15) and next (3/22) they will be very simple. No communion, no nursery or Children’s Ministry, no passing the plate or passing the peace, and no coffee and bagels after the service. Please forego shaking hands and use a friendly smile, verbal greeting, and wave instead. Greeters will provide hand sanitizer for everyone entering the building. The sermon will be short and sweet. We will live-stream the service so you can join in while also staying home. We will email a worship guide to everyone prior to Sunday. On Sunday, simply click here on your computer, smart phone, or tablet. We will probably go live about 10 minutes before the service. For most people in our congregation, it is genuinely in your best interest to stay home; please consider doing so. 


6. All other church programs and activities will not meet in person for the next two weeks, through Friday, March 27. This includes small groups, Essentials, 292 Getaway, Youth Family, etc. Some may meet online, while others may be cancelled altogether. Please look for information from your group leaders on whether events are cancelled outright or moving online. In any case, we encourage you to stay home. (If you must meet, please be extra vigilant regarding exposure to risks.)


7. Help meet the needs of others in our congregation. If you know of someone in our congregation who is not in a small group, please reach out to them to determine if they have any physical, spiritual, or emotional needs. Each small group should organize itself by identifying the group members who can offer assistance, and the group members who are in need of assistance. Each small group should maintain contact among all group members throughout the week. And finally, small groups should connect throughout the week, and consider meeting online during your normal gathering time.


8. Love your neighbors. Pray for them daily by name. If you’re healthy, reach out to them. If you don’t already have a “neighborhood captain” or “street captain” or “hall captain” for the place where you live, volunteer to take on this role. Find out who among your neighbors is elderly or immunocompromised, and see how you can help meet their needs.


9. Trust in the Lord. “Do not fear,” says the Lord, “for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, and you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1). This is not the first plague to affect the church. In the past, Christians have found courage in the promises of the risen Lord Jesus, who said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die, and whoever lives by believing in me will never die” (John 11:25–26). Because of our “living hope” (1 Peter 1:3), we can love our neighbors–even those who are contagious–with the confidence that comes from knowing that Jesus has promised us eternal life.



Our Rationale


1. We are at the front end of a national epidemic. The total number of US cases is growing exponentially. Last Wednesday there were 158 US cases; one week later there are over 1200, including 15 in Virginia and 30 cases in the region around Washington, DC. And, just a few hours ago, the first case in Harrisonburg was reported. In fact, our situation is very similar to Italy’s two weeks ago. 


2. COVID-19 is deadly. Death rates for the disease range between 0.4% and 15%, but the scholarly consensus is that approximately 1.5% of those who get it in the USA will die. (Thus, it is 10-20x more deadly than influenza.)


3. Some in our congregation are at high risk. Those at greatest risk are the immunocompromised and persons over 60 years of age. Also, a number of people in our church work in health care. If they get sick, it affects our health care infrastructure.


4. ALL in our congregation are potential disease vectors. Whenever we gather together, we create an environment in which the disease can be transmitted. The current thinking is that every carrier transmits it to 1-3 persons on average. Even children, who thankfully do not seem to be badly affected by the illness, nevertheless become infected and are transmitters of it. And young children in particular aren’t careful to follow sanitary guidelines, regardless of how careful their parents may be.


5. Flattening the curve = loving your neighbor. Time is of the essence. (Click here for an excellent article on why time is so important right now.) By slowing the spread of the illness, many lives will be saved even if the same number of people eventually get sick. How? UNC’s Zeynep Tuefekci argues (click here for her excellent article) that “everyone won’t show up at the hospital all at once. Plus, if we can flatten that curve, there is more time to develop a vaccine or find antivirals that help.” Thus Tufekci urges those in a position of authority to figure out ways to help people stay at home, so as to minimize the spread of the disease. The most loving thing to do right now is to cancel everything, and then encourage healthy people to care for those who are most at risk. (Click here and please read this article for why we must cancel events now.) And yes, there are three articles that I highly recommend you read!


6. This too shall pass. Current precautionary measures are temporary. Staying home for a few weeks won’t hurt anyone in our congregation, as long as we keep communicating and sharing our needs with one another. We will soon regather and return to our regular patterns of worship and ministry, giving thanks to the Lord for his protection.


Canceling events and otherwise scaling back our worship services are decisions we have agonized over for several days. We feel torn between, on the one hand, our church’s mission to worship through liturgy, hear from the Bible, and administer the sacraments and, on the other hand, our shared mission to protect the lives of the most vulnerable people in our community. With no good options, we believe we are following the example of Jesus in breaking even the most hallowed traditions for the sake of preserving the life of others. We will continue to evaluate this evolving situation, and we will be in regular communication with you about plans going forward. Again, if you are in any sort of need (COVID-19 related or otherwise), please do not hesitate to reach out to us. Your clergy and leaders are ready to help.


As your pastor, I want to remind us all of Psalm 91:1, “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.” We are in the hands of a loving and mighty God, whatever comes our way in this world. Jesus told us this would happen. He told us, “In the world you will have trouble. But fear not! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).


Grace and peace to you,

Aubrey Spears, Rector


PS, For credible, up-to-date information click here to visit the Virginia Department of Health website and click here to visit the website for the Centers for Disease Control.


PSS, Here is a good article on how the early church responded to the plague. (Click here.) And here is a brief and good reference to how Martin Luther responded to the Black Plague. (Click here.)