My dear family in Christ,
In my sermon this past Sunday, the first of Advent, 2023, I mentioned in passing that the day marked not only the beginning of a new liturgical season, and not only the beginning of the new Church year, but also the beginning of my fifth year at All Saints as your rector. Though I hadn’t put much thought into this anniversary at the time, over the past few days it has occurred to me that the moment deserves a bit more reflection. It’s been, after all, an “interesting” four years ~ in just about every possible sense of the word.
Advent 1 of 2019 was, as I recall, rather colder and snowier and just more winterier (that’s a word now) than last Sunday was. An abrupt, if educational, introduction to life in the Upper Midwest. The people (y’all, that is) were on the other hand extraordinarily warm. I remember feeling immediately welcomed into this community. So many of you made it a point to come by the office, invite me to lunch, to find some hospitable way to get together so we could start getting to know each other. And I was very much looking forward to working my way through the whole parish that way as I began to find my footing here (always tricky in wintertime, as I’ve since learned…)
Of course, that’s about the time that Covid hit us.
I know I’m leaving out a lot, but, honestly, my memories from December, 2019, to early March, 2020, are a bit blurry. Things moved so quickly … from my first Sunday, through the season of Advent and into the Christmas season, to Epiphany, and then to officiating at my first annual parish meeting at the end of January … that I hardly had time to start learning my way around town before February. We had a retreat for the new Vestry on the second Saturday of March, and later that afternoon, I got word from the diocese that all our churches were to be closed to in-person worship, starting the next day. So then we stayed home for almost two years.
There is no need to recount, and I certainly do not want to relive, our experiences of being shut down and sheltering in place, of translating “church” into an online experience, of partially reopening, of taking three steps back for every one step forward. Enough to acknowledge that we probably have not even catalogued all the various scars we all acquired during the worst of the pandemic, much less having started to heal from them. Rather, as I reflect on this anniversary of my joining your community, I’d simply like to share a few observations ~ my first impressions, really, of All Saints, which the past four years have demonstrated to be true.
First, the people of All Saints parish are a deeply faithful people. Even before I got here, I realized that this must be the case ~ Bishop Matt had explained some of the history of the parish to me as I was discerning a call to come here, which, as many of you remember first-hand, was “a lot much.” A less faithful, less devoted, less loving congregation would not likely have survived the things that this parish has endured, and that was before Covid was a thing. As I’ve gotten to know more of y’all individually these past few years, I have been privileged to see how deep your faith goes here. And it continues to inspire me each week, each day.
That is not to suggest that All Saints is without problems or challenges. We were facing a need to revitalize and grow our parish family even before Covid hit. Today, we are smaller in number than we were when I first arrived. But I am not distressed by that fact: for one thing, a number of other parishes in the diocese ended up having to close as a result (either directly or indirectly) of Covid, and we’re still here; for another thing, even during the worst of the shut-down, we still managed to add new people to our community; and for a third thing, what we might at the moment be lacking in numbers, we more than make up for in faith in Christ and devotion to this parish family (see above).
Lastly, when I first got here, it struck me that there was not a single challenge facing this parish that was not simply a local version of one or another of the crises facing the entire Episcopal Church across the country. In other words, it seemed to me that every obstacle, issue, or challenge before this parish was a smaller-scale instance of the obstacles, issues, and challenges before the entire denomination as a whole. Four years in, I believe that first impression has been confirmed over and over. And while it may be disheartening to realize that our whole denomination if facing some serious challenges at present, it is comforting to me to know that there’s nothing wrong with All Saints that is specific to All Saints. Our difficulties are systemic and large scale, and are not due to any peculiar weakness or failing on our part.
Despite my own weaknesses and failings, you all have welcomed and supported me in ways and to a degree that is deeply humbling, and you have welcomed my family into your own with love and enthusiasm. I know I can speak for them when I offer my ~ our ~ most sincere gratitude. We came here, literally, because God called us to come here. But y’all have made answering that call both a joy and a blessing. It is a privilege to be able to share ministry and the love of God with y’all ~ thank you so much!
Peace & blessings,