Dear Church Family,
Recently, a group of pastors serving congregations in Massachusetts has called on Governor Baker to include the opening of churches for public worship as part of the first phase in our Commonwealth’s reopening. We understand and share the intense need to gather: for comfort and strength, to fulfill God’s command to worship, to be the Body of Christ in a world that desperately needs to hear and see and know Christ. We understand and share a commitment to freedom of association, assembly, and conscience, and certainly the ideal of freedom of religion.
Wilbraham United Church’s building is not closed because the Governor ordered it so, but because our religious conscience forbids us from acting in ways that would harm others.
We closed our building because our leadership, informed by medical experts, other fellow faith leaders, as well as state and federal officials, determined we could not safely meet in it. We closed our building because we value the health and lives of the members of our church family. We closed our building because gathering in it would put at risk the health and lives of our community, our families and countless others.
Simply put: Our building is closed because it is consistent with our Christian values of justice and mercy, love and respect. When we can begin to live into those values again in our own building, we will continue to extravagantly welcome everyone who comes through our doors with love. We fervently hope, and we pray without ceasing for that day’s swift arrival.
Some congregations may have already started meeting again, in contravention of the Governor’s order and the advice of medical experts, citing religious freedom from government interference. Civil disobedience has always been a part of my theory and practice of Christian ministry. I am in favor of faithful and convicted Christians living the Gospel by disobeying unjust laws. Indeed, civil disobedience is an indispensable witness to the truth of God in the face of sin and evil.
But refraining from gathering in large numbers during a pandemic is not unjust. Rather, it is the embodiment of justice. Suspending public worship protects the poor and the widow, which the coronavirus has disproportionately affected because of pre-existing structural inequalities, our society’s unequal response to the virus, and the nature the virus itself. Suspending public worship respects the value of every life and gives sanctuary to those who would suffer the most deeply and gravely. It is a sign of mutual responsibility and accountability, a way in which we demonstrate our love and care for one another, especially those who do not have the luxury and the privilege to stay at home.
Opening our doors would open up countless others to infection, not only members of our own church family, but many far beyond it. To worship in these times would be to think of worship as the only way we can honor God and bring God glory, and to prioritize our own comfort over the health and lives of others. It is to say to the world, and to God, that our customary worship is more important than the lives of others.
At Wilbraham United Church, we witness to the teachings of Jesus Christ, who calls us to love God, and to love our neighbor as ourselves, not to love our own worship of God at the expense of our neighbors. We reject the sacrificial logic that argues that some must fall victim for the benefit of our comfort, and we embrace the small sacrifices that are necessary to limit the impact of suffering and death during this global pandemic. This is our call as Christians, who follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, who humbled himself and sacrificed himself, that we might have life and have it abundantly.
It pains us to be physically distant from one another. We long to share our space as a church family again. We miss everyone deeply. But we are acting as the Body of Christ by working together to end the death and disease that surrounds us. For now that means that our building is closed and we will worship and meet online. But our church remains active and open, embodying love and peace, mercy and justice, faith and grace through new ways.
Through our mask ministry, drive-through food and toiletry collection, grocery and medication delivery, regular check-ins with vulnerable members and essential workers, continued outreach by Loaves and Fishes and Church Without Walls, and, yes, online worship on Wednesday evening and Sunday morning, Wilbraham United Church is as committed today as it was on March 12th to faith and witness, love and hope, justice and mercy.