Pastoral letter re: Covid-19

Dear ones,
I know I sent a missive just yesterday saying that we would have one last church gathering on Sunday, to be together (at an intentional distance) to pray and process the fact that we’re in unfamiliar waters with this pandemic.

But we are in uncharted waters, and following excellent meetings with our Trustees and Deacons, along with phone conversations with various of my clergy colleagues, I am writing to tell you that there will be NO in-person church service on Sunday morning. How we handle gathering virtually may shift over the time of this self-imposed limitation. By Saturday morning, I will have a plan for how we will handle this first Sundayexperience of virtual community, so please expect another email on that topic by then. I will try to make our plans as accessible to our varied community as possible.

I can’t tell you how sad it makes me to have come to this conclusion. With the Trustees, we batted around so many hope-filled ideas for how we could make it work (we could arrange the chairs so that folks aren’t at all near each other! we could worship outside, where the risk of sharing the wrong germs could be minimized!) … but the final decision was made after I said aloud what I have been thinking inside: “We know what the right thing is to do. We just don’t want to do it.” The time to act is now, before any upsurge of illness. Doing so is our communal best hope.

My friends, I think in our heart of hearts, we all know that the right thing is to slow the spread of this virus, which I know has spiked even in Western Massachusetts in the past day. It’s easy to think that our little gathering, if handled well, won’t cause problems, but we simply don’t know that that’s true.

I worry about the isolation that comes from “social distancing,“ and I will be working (virtually) with the deacons to figure out how we can take care of each other and the most vulnerable people in our community (along with Westminster Cares and other caring organizations). I’m envisioning something like a spiritual buddy system, where small groups or pairs can plan to connect through phone calls or emails to maintain the relationships that are usually so easily maintained through simple church involvement. In the next few days, you should expect to hear from someone inviting you to be connected with this buddy system.

Please know that these decisions have been made with difficulty. I love nothing more than our worship hour each week. We are a strong community, and being with you is part of what nourishes me most. But the truth is that what we need most now is to practice a painful social solidarity … solidarity with the medical teams in our community who need our help mitigating a very difficult situation by doing everything in our power to slow the spread of a virus we know too little about.

This will change us, I believe. An “event” as large as this inevitably does change the societies that face it. I hope that, when we look back, we realize that the way it changed us was to make us more compassionate, less self-involved, more faithful, and less rigid. Through this difficult situation, we will be reminded that we belong to each other, globally, and what strikes you hurts me. What boosts our neighbors boosts us. This has always been true; now we have the opportunity to really know it.

Please know I continue to pray for and with you, and that I am happy to be provide pastoral care. For now, the plan is that I will maintain my church office hours, but I know you know how to reach me if something arises at other times, too. We will get through this together.

I close this already-too-long missive with a prayer written by Rev. Lynn Ungar, a Unitarian Universalist minister in the San Francisco area:


What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.

And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.

–Lynn Ungar 3/11/20

Yours in faith and gratitude,

Rev. Susie Webster-Toleno