Bridging / Thoughts on Reopening — UUS:E Virtual Worship, May 17, 2020

Friends: You can watch the video of our May 17th service, including our bridging ceremony,  on the UUS:E Youtube channel.

The test to Rev. Josh Pawelek’s homily is here:

I want to share a few thoughts on what it means for us to get back to normal. By “us” I mean not only those of us in this service – but us as the wider communities of Manchester and Greater Hartford, us as the people of Connecticut, us as a nation.

Earlier we conducted our bridging ceremony. I want to offer congratulations again to John, Sarah, Nate and Mason. And I want to affirm that it’s a very strange and unnerving time to be bridging into young adulthood. The University of California announced this week that it would only be offering online learning for the coming academic year. I suspect each of you will be encountering similar decisions by the schools you are planning to attend this fall. There are many unknowns, and yet one thing we do know is that you will not be launching into young adulthood the way high school graduates always have. Please know that whatever happens, we are here for you. We are committed to supporting you, along with all the other UUS:E young adults who are experiencing disruption at this formative time in their lives.

What about the rest of us? What kind of future are we bridging into?

On Thursday the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Safe Congregation Team released guidance on how to safely return to in-person congregational gatherings. While that guidance is not definitive for us, we need to take it seriously. And the bottom line is sobering. They recommend not returning to regular in-person gatherings until May of 2021. In making this recommendation they are asking us to account for the most vulnerable people among us – not only in our congregation, but also in the wider community. That is, if our UUS:E community were to gather too soon and become instrumental in the spread of a new outbreak, it would not only negatively impact our people, which for me is unacceptable; it would negatively impact people in the wider community. That is also unacceptable. The UUA’s guidance is grounded first and foremost in “our abiding care and concern for the most vulnerable, inside and outside our congregations” and the “recognition that we are part of an interdependent web and, as such, our risk-taking and our protective actions affect far more than just ourselves.”[1]

We won’t be re-opening any time soon, which means we’re going to have to be innovative and creative in all the ways we offering programming, and especially in how we keep our congregational community connected. And when we finally do re-open, we will not be the same community. This social distancing time is going to change us. We are not bridging back to our old ‘normal.’ Something new awaits. We will discover this ‘something new’ as a congregation over the coming year.

The UUA’s guidance flies in the face of the widespread impulse to re-open the country. Connecticut begins re-opening on Wednesday. Other states have already begun re-opening, even states where the infection rate is still on the rise. Here’s my question: Are those in charge of re-opening taking the most vulnerable people into account? Are those in charge of re-opening acting out of an “abiding care and concern for the most vulnerable?” Do those pushing the hardest for re-opening recognize “that we are part of an interdependent web and, as such, our risk-taking and our protective actions affect far more than just ourselves?”

Ten days ago I was in a meeting with clergy from the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance. It was so striking to hear urban and suburban faith leaders compare notes on their experience of the pandemic. Case in point: the membership of our largely white, suburban congregation has had very little exposure to the coronavirus, and only a few positive tests. We have had no deaths. Yet my colleagues serving largely black, urban congregations report widespread infection and multiple deaths. One highly community-oriented pastor said he was getting at least a phone call a day to conduct a memorial service for someone who had died of Covid-19. Other pastors reported widespread food insecurity and economic hardship. The pandemic has exposed beyond a shadow of a doubt the many race-based economic, social and health disparities in our nation. The high infection and death rates among people of color aren’t a novelty. They are a clear-as-day symptom of the old normal. On the GHIAA call this pastor, speaking through quiet tears, said “we cannot go back to that.”

Friends: I don’t know what the future holds. None of us does. But as a society we cannot bridge back to the old normal. We cannot go back to being the wealthiest nation in the world without understanding that for that wealth to exist the way it does, tens of millions of low-wage workers, immigrants, undocumented people, Black and Latinx people must live with intolerable insecurity, just a breath away from economic ruin or personal health crisis or both.

We’ve been trying to help, raising money to address food insecurity, to support undocumented people facing ICE proceedings, to support domestic workers who’ve gotten sick, and now to support non-union rest stop workers who’ve lost their jobs. These efforts matter because they help vulnerable people survive the pandemic. But let’s be clear: they don’t change the old normal. Are we ready to be in the fight for a new society?

I hope we are. The old normal was a moral failing on the part of our nation. Now, with the coronavirus, it’s a moral catastrophe unfolding before our eyes. We cannot go back to where we were. In all your conversations about re-opening, and in every interaction you may have with officials who have a role to play in the re-opening, demand two things:

All re-opening decisions must be grounded in a demonstrable and “abiding care and concern for the most vulnerable.”

All re-opening decisions must start from a “recognition that we are part of an interdependent web and, as such, our risk-taking and our protective actions affect far more than just ourselves.”

If these values can be brought to bear in the re-opening phase, we will be on our way to a better future for everyone. In my view, fighting for this future now is a moral imperative. May we find our way into this fight.

Amen and blessed be.