Where anger festers in the heart,
and strikes with cruel hand;
where violence stalks the troubled streets,
and terror haunts the land:
O God of mercy, hear our prayer,
bring peace to earth again.
(ELW 700; Herman G. Stuempfle, Jr.)
Beloved in the Lord!
When I wrote to you at this time last week I thought news was unfolding almost faster than we could manage it, and yet in the week just past we have been overtaken yet again and a new layer of crisis has arisen in our communities alongside the COVID-19 pandemic: the wave of national lament and mourning over yet another killing of an unarmed African American in the custody of police. The anger and frustration that incident provoked, added to the now endless litany of such injustices that preceded it, has brought our nation to a new level of crisis and public outrage. And I share in that outrage.
How much more of this can we as a people handle? What is the best role for our church in this moment? These days have been long in coming, and are rooted in past experiences of injustice and protest. They cannot be resolved quickly or easily—or perhaps in any foreseeable way. But the church must show forth the light of Christ both in season and out of season, and the people of God must hold close to one another in hope. I am grateful to our synod’s pastors, deacons, and congregations of African descent, who have ministered to us at Pentecost with a beautiful worship service not knowing what resonance it would have with us by the time we watched it on Sunday. I give thanks to God for that witness to light and truth in a time of anger and division.
I have also this week experienced a life twist of another kind, in that my mother-in-law, Eleanor Flynn, is rapidly approaching the end of her life. Rob and I had thought that this quarantine time in which I can work remotely almost as well as from the office would be a good time for us to travel to her in West Virginia without disruption to my work. We knew the travel there would be challenging, but we didn’t reckon with the drama of the news that would follow, or that the public unrest would make me, in particular, wish I was still physically in Los Angeles. But we deal with things as we can. It is my plan to return to California on Saturday, June 6, if there are no more unforeseen emergencies.
In the meanwhile I remain connected and available through the office, but at a three-hour time difference. I have continued my daily posts on the “Bishop Guy Erwin” Facebook page, and I have written the joint response of the Los Angeles Council of Religious Leaders that will appear publicly today. I also write to you, as I do every week—and I will post excerpts from this letter to clergy you are reading now in a wider message to the whole synod soon.
For a moment, though, I would like to return to the old topic that has occupied us so much in recent months: the pandemic. I think we can expect a spike in infections in the next two weeks, and it is possible that the current unrest has undermined and set back our public health efforts in Los Angeles County. That remains to be seen. Our congregations remain under the same public health directives that were published last Monday, May 25, and which I addressed in my letter to you that day.
In short, congregations may at their own pace begin to gather indoors and in-person in limited numbers, under controlled circumstances, with screening and sanitation protocols in place. But singing and unison speaking and Holy Communion should be avoided, and persons over 65 or with underlying health conditions should still be asked to stay away. I believe for most of our congregations, many of which do not have (literally) the bandwidth to conduct in-person worship for part of their congregation and online worship for the rest, this will indicate that it is better not to return to in-person worship for some time to come—and certainly not to be in any hurry.
So many of you have brilliantly done online worship; others have profited from your work and example. Many laypeople in the synod tell me they enjoy participating online in their own congregation’s worship, then attending the services of other synod churches. Others have told me that having worship in their home has led family members who would not normally come to church to actually engage with it in a helpful way. This is a good time to begin thinking about how to capture what we have learned and make it part of our “normal days” toolkit as well.
We do not know what the next days and weeks will bring, but we will still need to use patience and discernment as each congregation determines its own path back to “normalcy” this summer. And we will need to be ready should there be a second wave and we have to resume the shutdown in the fall. Though the national balance sheet on infections and deaths is still tragically high and the local impact very significant, I think we can be relieved that the toll has not been higher in Southern California than it is. Among our congregations, I have still only heard of five deaths among our congregations’ members, two of which occurred in nursing homes. Our own Solheim Lutheran Home in Eagle Rock has had a small number of infections reported among staff and residents, but at the time of writing this, no one there had died.
Two pieces of synod news I will soon release to all are these: the Synod Council has voted to postpone our Synod Assembly to June 4-5, 2021. These are the normal dates we set aside for Synod Assembly, so the real effect is to skip this year’s Assembly and wait for the next one. The Synod Council’s resolution simply extends the term of those synod elected persons whose terms were to expire in 2020 for an additional year, so that terms for officers and council and committee members that were to have expired this spring will expire next spring instead. The greatest impact of this is on our synod Vice President, Randall Foster, who will continue to serve in that position until a successor can be elected in 2021. I am grateful to Mr. Foster for agreeing to continue in that role, and happy to have his support in the strange and uncertain year into which we are headed. More details about the implications of the postponement will be forthcoming in my announcement to the whole synod.
The second piece of Synod Council news is that the council authorized the transfer of up to $150,000 in synod endowment principal to a fund for grants to assist vital congregations whose existence is imperiled by the pandemic. This is in addition to the $45,000 already given to the synod by the ELCA to support feeding and hunger ministries of our congregations in this time. I am applying for additional funding from the ELCA for that as well. These funds are limited in the scope of uses for which they may be used; criteria for the granting of the larger synod funds have not yet been established, but the synod’s Evangelical Outreach Mission Team and bishop’s office staff will manage that process, and when they are ready to receive applications, we will let you know what the criteria and conditions for such grants will be. The $45,000 from the ELCA for hunger programs will be distributed first, and a call for applications has gone out in the synod’s electronic communications and on the synod website.
Let me return momentarily to the national and local discussion on racial injustice and the civil unrest we are experiencing in Los Angeles and throughout the nation: as a church we stand firmly against racism, and we have long wrestled with our own role as a denomination in the systems of injustice that persist in our nation. This wrestling, I expect, will continue and intensify, and that is good. I am proposing that our staff and Synod Council engage in anti-racism training this fall, and that we develop synod-based resources and train synod people to be facilitators of anti-racism training. The Bishop’s Colloquy we were not able to hold in March will be repurposed later to anti-racism training for pastors, deacons, and candidates for ministry, training that in the future will become as regular and frequent as the boundaries training we now do. It is my strong hope that the resources we develop here locally can be used in our congregations as well.
Those pastors, deacons, and laypeople who have participated in the public demonstrations of the last few days have my thanks and gratitude. If I were in Los Angeles, I would have joined you. I urge your engagement with these issues, and ask your help in making our church a place where the understanding of racial inequity is ever deeper and our gospel response of compassion and justice ever more clear. Pastor James Phillips in my office will helping me think this through, and there will be opportunities for listening and learning. If you do continue to participate in demonstrations, be safe and sensible and observe the curfews: there is some danger that legitimate and necessary demonstration and protest may be compromised by those (of whatever political angle) whose goal is chaos and division and whose method is violence and destruction.
I am profoundly grateful for your leadership in our church. What you have done to keep your people together in the pandemic, you will need to continue to do—and now, we have other deep civic divisions to understand and overcome. You were tired already, I know, and you may be grieving now over the destruction you have witnessed. But this is a time for courage and resolution. As rostered ministers in our church you know that what we do is never perfect, and never enough—but we know we have to do it anyway. But our strength, our confidence, and our hope is in God, whose Spirit moves among us in remarkable and uncontrollable ways.
God bless you all, and keep you safe.