Dear Friends,

As I write to you, it has been almost exactly two months since the great and sudden shut-down swept over our community. Two months since schools were closed; two months since public health officials began advising us to stay in our homes as much as possible and to avoid contact with others; two months since we at First Parish suspended in-person worship services and other activities. By any measure based on past experience, two months is an incredible amount of time for us to have done what we have done: adopting an entirely new pattern of life that runs counter to so many of our shared impulses and established routines. And yet, at least for my part I can say that it feels even longer. With time so dilated by the strangeness of these days, how could all of them possibly fit into just two months?

The heavy weight of this time, and the waiting of it, naturally has many of us longing for a return to normalcy. Even if we might not want things to go back to being the same – even as we recognize the way that this virus and the vast disruption to the economy have laid bare iniquities in our society that should not go unaddressed – the powerful desire to return to the things we miss is completely natural. There is nothing wrong with yearning for precious people, places, experiences, or identities that are absent or lost. I am doing it too, and among the many things that I am missing is the opportunity to see each of your faces, in-person, unmasked, and at a natural distance appropriate to friendly conversation, not proscribed and measured out in my mind constantly, trying to make sure we are always six feet or more apart. I am missing hugging those of you who would welcome a hug, and I am missing singing with you and being a part of one shared body of sound.

As certain businesses reopen, and much is said about “getting back to normal” in our national media, the question of when church will “get back to normal,” is rightly on a lot of our minds. I have, over these past two months, been reading everything that I can find in terms of advice from public health officials and other reliable scientific sources. I have been in conversation with Unitarian Universalist colleagues locally and nationally, as well as with other faith leaders here in Beverly. I shared the conclusions from those conversations, and the evidence behind them, with your Music & Worship Committee, and your Board of Trustees. Your leaders are in agreement: in the interest of the health and well-being of everyone we serve, and the larger community of which we are a part, First Parish will not be “getting back to normal” anytime soon.

Based on what we know right now, we will continue to worship on-line through the summer, and not attempt to hold in-person services at the beach. Further, while we’ll continue to reassess as the situation progresses, and remain open to any new scientifically-grounded advice from health officials, our expectation is that we should expect to continue on-line into the fall and the new church year. We want to remain open to the possibility of small, limited in-person gatherings as the medical conditions allow, but the big, weekly gathering of church on Sunday morning – the centerpiece of our shared life as a spiritual community – should remain on-line only until there is a vaccine (or something else that radically diminishes the hazard posed by this disease).

I urge you to take a moment after reading that. Move around a little bit before pressing on. Drink some water. Breathe.

I know that this is very disappointing news, and perhaps quite surprising to some of you. And it may be that other spiritual communities will chase after “normalcy” more heedlessly than we are, just as some congregations have chosen to ignore social distancing guidance all-together during these last two months. I can tell you that this outlook – expecting to refrain from large, in-person gatherings for the long-haul – is shared broadly throughout Unitarian Universalism. It’s a position built first on the bedrock value of protecting human life, and then on the subsequent principle of a welcome that is as open and generous as possible. Under conditions in which medical authorities are counseling anyone over the age of 60, or who has any of a variety of chronic health conditions, to avoid groups of 10 or more for the duration of the pandemic, there is no version of our Sunday mornings which can be simultaneously normal, inclusive, and safe. Since physical safety is non-negotiable, and inclusivity is our greatest priority after that, the normalcy of a great, big, face-to-face Sunday morning with singing and hugging and not always staying six feet apart from each other is the cost. It is a real loss, but weighed against its alternative, there is no alternative. As much as I wish to worship alongside you and to fill the church along with you again, it is infinitely more important to me that you – and all of us – should be healthy and well.

At the same time that it seems the conventional practice of church will be unavailable to us for a long while, spiritual community has never been needed more than it is in these times. Already, and in the months to come, we will be working on ways to expand our virtual reach. To make our on-line worship more interactive and to expand its range of voices. To find new ways of connecting to each other, even as we remain physically apart. And to do everything in our power to overcome the technological barriers that compound the physical distance, for many of us. That last one may be the most important, and if you are someone who has hit a technological dead-end in connecting with the church’s spiritual offerings recently, or if you’ve been holding off from the work of engaging with them, hoping that things would get back to normal soon, I ask you, please, to give it a try, and to let us know. I welcome your feedback, your ideas, and your help. There are many people in our congregation who are eager to help others with setting up for Zoom or watching a video service or otherwise navigating the difficult and imperfect on-line world that’s serving as a lifeline for so many of us right now.

These are hard times. They are made easier by our sharing in them, together. Though I may not see you *in* church for some time, I hope to see you, and hear you, and speak with you, and sing with you, many, many times by phone and by video, until then.

May you be healthy, may you be well, and may you be blessed with strength and courage for living in these days.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson