by the Rev. Barbara Threet
Well, this is not the September that most of us at UUCGF (or most everywhere else across our country) imagined late last spring. COVID-related restrictions were loosening, masks were coming off, public spaces were re-opening, and vaccines were going into millions of arms. September was months away and while we knew it wouldn’t be quite ‘back to normal’ – kids wouldn’t be vaccinated, for example – it seemed we had passed the worst of all this. Task forces and committees were established in churches to explore how to safely re-open, and the assumption was that we were planning for celebrations. And, sadly – maddeningly – that isn’t what we’re facing now.
Instead, we’re facing a variant which is much more transmissible, including being transmissible even by those who are fully vaccinated. We’ve learned that over time immunity wanes so we’ll need boosters, and those with certain medical conditions may experience even more rapid decline in immunity. We know that infection rates are climbing and that almost all serious new infections are of the unvaccinated – but any of us can spread it. COVID hasn’t gone away, and it isn’t going away any time soon. In fact, most medical experts expect the situation to get worse before it gets better. That’s the September we have.
Most UU churches across eastern New York, Vermont, and western Massachusetts have developed similar sets of guidelines, with some variation depending on their physical space. Between my own three churches and the networks of UU clergy I belong to and chat with regularly, I’m familiar with what most of them are planning. Most are planning to re-open on September 12 (traditionally, most are closed on Labor Day weekend) although some churches in areas where rates are especially high are re-examining that decision. A few have already decided to delay. Virtually all are developing hybrid services, with in-person and Zoom options: most are assuming that the majority will gather in person and others will join by Zoom, but a few are encouraging most to stay on Zoom while only a few gather in person. Virtually all are planning to continue a Zoom option long after COVID has passed. Some are planning for certain Sundays each month to be in-person (with Zoom attendees) and for others to be Zoom-only services. All of these changes are attempts to let us gather safely. All of these changes will make in-person worship feel very different, in quite consistent ways across all our churches.
And what will these services look like? These are the commonalities across UU churches: Masks for everyone, with masks available at church for anyone who forgets. Most will allow speakers to be unmasked since facial expression is such a large part of communication, but a few which can’t allow sufficient distance between pulpit and congregation will even mask speakers. Social distance, by rearranging chairs or closing rows of pews or other designations. No indoor coffee hour, although some with adequate space will hold masked, socially distanced indoor conversation time. Several who have the outdoor space will hold a simpler coffee hour outdoors, and several specify “masked or socially distanced” for that outdoor time. And no congregational singing, although some who have enough space to provide a safe distance between musicians and the front row of pews are allowing soloists or small groups spaced well apart. ‘No singing’ is probably the hardest one for many of us UUs to imagine, but research is clear that singing propels droplets much further and with much more force, even with masks. All of the four listed above have been adopted by our Board, as is the case in every other UU church that I know of. Many churches are foregoing RE classes for kids under 12 and providing activity boxes for young children, who will stay with parents during service. Some churches will ask people to sign in, in case contact tracing becomes necessary. All are advising those who feel ill to please stay home. None of these changes please everyone: some feel they are overly restrictive and fear-based. Some feel they are too lenient and that UUs shouldn’t even be contemplating a return to in-person worship. Some find them to be an infringement on personal freedom. And some wonder what all the fuss is – these are just what we need to do at this time.
I would remind us that one of our core principles is “respect for the interdependent web, of which we are a part”. COVID has affected each of our lives. Our challenge, as humans and as UUs, is to figure out how to exist with COVID and still care for one another. Our hunger, as humans and as UUs, is for community – we long to be together, to see and hear one another, to feel and express our caring for each other and by doing so, to express our caring for the wider community too. And we need to be safe. We undoubtedly have different ideas of what that means and what it requires, but none of us, I dare say, wants to be a vector for anyone getting seriously ill. Each of us has a different family situation, a different set of health concerns, a different tolerance for risk and even a different opinion about what’s risky. And still, we want to be together in body: we’ve already had 18 months of being together only on screen and in spirit.
A Task Force of UUCGF people has been meeting and researching for many months on how to approach September – and what we’re confronted with is not what any of us had hoped for, even expected, when we began our work last spring. Each other UU church has had the same experience: we’ve found our recommendations becoming more restrictive as September approaches. In every UU church, decisions of this magnitude are ultimately made by the Board, taking into consideration their Task Force’s recommendations, current health recommendations and assessments from county, state and federal sources, guidance from the UUA, and feedback from other members, and other UU churches. All of us in every church know that not everyone will be pleased with what our Boards decide. Thankfully, all of us – Task Forces, Boards, and church members, know that all of these changes are temporary, even as all of us wish that we knew how long they’ll be needed. We fear they may need to be tightened further- going back to entirely Zoom services, for example. We hope and pray that we can loosen them soon – and none of us know when ‘soon’ is. And we know that in the meantime, this will all be difficult, and complicated, and unfamiliar, and unsettling.
Adapting to changes and finding ways to be together safely is part of how we live out our UU values. It is in times like this that we most get to practice them – listening, bending, making a new way through difficult times. We won’t all always agree with every decision or every opinion. But we’ll move forward.
One of our hymns says, “Love will guide us, peace has tried us, hope inside us will lead the way.” Let that love for one another be our guide now, as we move through this challenging time. I look forward to worshipping with UUCGF – my first service with you this year will be on September 26. I pray I see you in person then, all of us masked, and I send you all love, and caution, and good health in the meantime.
Shalom and Salaam,