Dear St. Martin’s Members and Friends,
 
Being apart from loved ones is always hard. I am reminded that Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, “ I long to see you... that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.” (Romans 1:11–12) When Paul was writing his protégé, Timothy, he confessed, “ I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy .” (II Timothy 1:4)
 
Well, frankly, I feel that way. I long to see my brothers and sisters at St. Martin’s–to be filled with joy at our physical reunion and experience the joy of encouraging one another in our faith. Yet for now, we cannot do that. Be assured, our experience of moving through the COVID-19 pandemic is difficult, vexing, and, in many ways, frustrating. However, as is often said in our current day, “We are now in this together.” We are and let us not forego the opportunity this season provides us to take in more deeply the gifts of family, friends and, of course, faith.
 
May I be honest with you? There are a number of mixed messages in our nation and world today about how best to respond to the Coronavirus. I am aware that our Governor, for whom I regularly pray and for whom I have great respect, has announced the opening of many businesses and said his decision “can” allow churches and places of worship to open.
 
  • We had hoped to reopen our campus today, April 30. We will not be doing that.
 
  • We had hoped to return to regular worship in early May, and we will not be doing that.
 
Our Bishop, the Rt. Rev. C. Andrew Doyle, has carried out extensive research about how best to respond to the current season through which we are moving. He has done this in consultation with the clergy around the Diocese, several other religious leaders not only in the Houston area, but also throughout the nation, and intends to guide us toward a phased reopening of our churches for worship and church offices for the ministry beyond worship we do. He has relied, as he should, heavily upon the counsel of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and several health officials and medical researchers from the Houston area and beyond.
 
Late last week, on behalf of the leadership of the Parish, I joined our Bishop, several other Episcopal rectors, and pastors and priests from a wide variety of denominational backgrounds in signing a public statement about our intent to coordinate carefully– together –the opening of our houses of worship. Here is a link to that statement.
 
We are all supportive of a carefully phased reopening. At present, we are in Phase I, which means we continue to offer virtual worship and contact with our faith communities, and open our offices and/or campus grounds only to essential employees. In addition, I should share I am in regular conversation with a number of our church clergy across the country–especially those with congregations much like ours. Just this week, I had a long Zoom conference with the Vicar and Canon for Worship at our National Cathedral. They, like we at St. Martin’s, are turning to their Bishop, but also to our Bishop’s carefully prepared council on these matters.
 
The second phase will begin only after there has been a consistent, 14-day decline in newly reported cases of COVID-19 in the Harris County area. In addition, I need to add Phase II does not mean an automatic reopening; it means we are moving toward the “when” and “how” we will reopen.
 
Toward that end, I want you to know your Clergy and Executive Teams have met several times (both virtually and in person) to discuss Phase II reopening. Unlike an average Episcopal Church, which typically has an average Sunday attendance of fewer than 200, the average Sunday attendance at St. Martin’s averages between 1,700 and 2,200 depending on the time of year.
 
That means when we do move toward reopening for worship, a great many guidelines and policies will need to be put into place that specifically address our particular needs at St. Martin’s, so that we can come together carefully and safely.
 
This email is a first step in updating you as to where things are. As you can see from the statement in the link above, we are not prepared to reopen our church for public worship until, at the earliest , sometime in early summer. I think it is fair to say, also, our campus will not reopen beyond essential employees and services until well beyond this.
 
Things, naturally, could change and change quickly, but for now, this is the safest and best course. This is where your Clergy and Vestry have landed and we hope we have your support in this decision.
 
As I said in my Easter Sunday sermon, I fully support that wide array of protective measures we are all trying to put into place to put an end to this season. Some of our church members have contacted me, asking why we don’t just gather anyway; ignore the counsel of our government, the scientific data and the wishes of our Bishop and Vestry.
 
Reasonable people may ask, “Why would we not open the Church for worship when we are beginning to see restaurants, businesses and movie theaters open?” Here is the answer: We are, as a church and as a church family, by nature intimately connected with one another. We do not typically shake hands, hug, or have long conversations with large groups of people at the grocery store or movies. Nor do we kneel next to them, sing with them, pass the peace or share Holy Communion. Church is intentionally an opportunity to grow closer to God and closer to neighbor.
 
We can love God wherever we are. Loving our neighbor requires a neighbor; often that means no distancing between neighbor and neighbor, but in this case, it does. I don’t like it, but it is the way things are.
 
About 500 years ago, when facing the decimation of his country during the Black Plague, the great reformed theologian Martin Luther wrote of his Christian response to that spreading disease: “... I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence...”
 
That was good counsel for his day and it is good counsel for ours. It is a responsible thing to do to try to defeat this tiny enemy by starving it out or eradicating it.
 
So, my friends, many plans are in the making to get us through this time. In the meantime, virtual worship and messages will continue, as will the regular emails and contact from the Parish. We have had so much going on during this season, we have decided to create one The Star for May and June, so stand by, as that will be coming out soon.
 
As soon as we have more information for you about the various phases of our reopening, we will pass this along. I suspect that will be in about 10 days.
 
Two other quick matters: First, we have done our best to call every member of the Parish since the beginning of our “stay at home” orders. If you have not received a call, it may mean we do not have your correct contact information. Please feel free to call the Church at 713-621-3040 with that information.
 
Second, we are keenly aware that pastoral needs continue. Toward that end, your Clergy and Pastoral Care team want to be there for you. Your Clergy have prayed with hundreds of you over the phone in recent weeks, we have offered prayers at the time of death in Zoom meetings and we have officiated at graveside funerals, observing social distancing and numerical guidelines. This is a difficult way to do this ministry and our days of going back to pastoral care that is more personal will return. Yet in the meantime, if you have a particular pastoral care need or need for personal prayer, please call our confidential pastoral care line at 713-830-4124, and the priest on call will be in touch as soon as possible. (For pastoral emergencies after hours and on weekends, please call 713-621-3040 and then press 2 to reach the priest on call.)
 
In addition, I think it is fair to say these are extraordinarily stressful times. Many of our members are experiencing relational discord and financial stress, and some may be experiencing behavioral health matters related to alcohol, drug and other forms of addiction, eating disorders, as well as mental health issues–anxiety, depression, isolation, fear and worry. Simply stated, these matters develop tentacles that can embed themselves in every member of the household–they are family diseases and not just those of the afflicted individual family member!
 
This is one of the many reasons St. Martin’s birthed the Hope and Healing Center & Institute. In addition, we have in our parish family a group of individuals, all of whom themselves are in long-term recovery, standing by to take calls for assistance and engagement with the family. Your calls are entirely confidential. We have seen these individuals work with others before and witnessed distressful circumstances put on the road to wholeness. So if you have a need in your own life or the lives of your loved ones, please, again, call and access HHCI’s resources at 713-871-1004 ext. 570 daily Monday through Friday. There are also other resources on HHCI’s website .
 
Lastly, I want to share a very important video message with you. The Bishop and Vestry have asked me to spend a few minutes updating you on a few matters with regard to our day-to-day life here. So please take a moment to click on this link and share what I will call a post-Easter “fireside chat.”
 
Friends, I miss you. Nevertheless, I pray for you daily and ask you pray for your St. Martin’s family daily. God will see us through this time; in the meantime, let me offer a prayer from our wonderful
The Book of Common Prayer:
 
For Trust in God
O God, the source of all health; so fill my heart with faith in your love that with calm expectancy I may make room for your power to possess me, and gracefully accept your healing; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
 
On behalf of your Vestry and Clergy, faithfully,
The Rev. Dr. Russell J. Levenson, Jr.
Rector