Dear Park Hill Presbyterian Community,
I would like to commend the Session for their deep work in our meeting to address the changing needs of our church. I know it was with joy and some confusion that we learned this week of the changed recommendations reagarding masks for those who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Our discussions were lively, informed by the CDC and other studies, and revealed the depth of care we have for the church. I most appreciated the voices of session members who were able to lift up concerns of the church by name, and so thank you to the congregation for your direct and clear communication with Session members.
Our biggest challenge in making decisions is the shifting nature of guidance, and a lack of some clear information. Therefore, our immediate response is to lift some protocol requirements while seeking out more information and waiting for further clarification. You can skip to the bottom of this email for the bulleted summary of changes, or you can read some of our justifications below.
Here are the changes Session approved, with some reasoning.
1) Starting June 6th, all worship services will be in the sanctuary and livestreamed online (except June 6th, when our AV tech Matt Lewis takes vacation and online worship will be made available as a video later in the day). This was an easy and unanimous decision, and we anticipate this will be our worship style going forward. Childcare is not yet available, but as always, all children of any age are welcome in the sanctuary throughout the service, including with wiggles and giggles and noise. (Those with concerns or complaints on this matter are directed to elder Russ Mathis for clarification on welcoming children in worship, and he is happy to talk to you.)
3) We would like to ask the congregation to voluntarily share their vaccination status with our office to determine the percentage of fully vaccinated individuals in our congregation. Session determined that we lack some information on our congregation to make the best choice at this time regarding releasing a masking requirement for the fully vaccinated in a mixed indoor congregate environment. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in April, Pulaski County was only 28.4% fully vaccinated. PLEASE REPLY TO THIS EMAIL with one of these three responses, which will ONLY be marked into a spreadsheet; individual names will be hidden. Pastoral phone calls will begin next week.
a) I am fully vaccinated.
b) I am not fully vaccinated at this time.
c) I prefer not to say.
4) We will continue to require masks for all on-site worshipers and while moving through the building until at least June 14th, when Session will meet again. All pandemic protocols remain in place, including distancing, assigned seating, and check in. I reached out to Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, the Arkansas Department of Health Medical Director for Immunizations, for her thoughts on changing our pandemic protocols. She suggested that we wait at least 6 weeks for youth ages 12-15 to be fully vaccinated, inquire after our immunocompromised members, and encouraged us to ascertain the vaccination rate in our congregation. She also had valuable information to share regarding the effectiveness of vaccines and offered to arrange for an educational presentation that could coincide with our conversation with the congregation about steps moving forward.
"CDC recommends schools continue to use the COVID-19 prevention strategies outlined in the current version of CDC’s Operational Strategy for K-12 Schools for at least the remainder of the 2020-2021 academic school year.
Recommendation for continuation with these prevention strategies is based on
- Students will not be fully vaccinated by the end of the 2020-2021 school year. Children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible for vaccination. Youth between the ages of 12 and 15 became eligible for vaccination on May 12, 2021. Because people are not fully vaccinated until 2 weeks after their second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, students in this age group will not be fully vaccinated before the end of current school year.
- The time needed for schools to make systems and policy adjustments. Systems and policy adjustments may be required for schools to change mask requirements for students and staff while continuing to ensure the safety of unvaccinated populations."
5) We will host an educational town-hall style meeting for information, to ask questions, and to take congregational input on policy on Sunday, June 13th at 12:15pm, on-site in the sanctuary and live online. Dr. Dillaha or another representative of the Arkansas State Department of Health will join us for a brief presentation and to answer questions, as well as members of session to posit potential changes available to us in the coming weeks. Attendees will have an opportunity to share their thoughts and concerns. This meeting will be both on-site in the sanctuary AND simultaneously available online, and more information about digital participation will be available soon. Session will have its monthly meeting later that evening to consider this new information.
6) Session urges those utilizing the building for meetings of less than 10 persons to have open conversations about vaccination status and to only remove masks if ALL present are fully vaccinated (2 weeks after second dose), comfortable with this choice, and to remain in the room of your meeting. We have observed individuals in the church removing their masks when in small, fully vaccinated groups and the session finds this permissible when there is full agreement among participants and they remain in a confined area. Please do not leave your closed-door meeting space to walk the hallways or go to the bathroom without a mask, as you do not know who you may encounter who has not been a part of your agreement. Please also remain mindful that others, regardless of vaccination status, may still be uncomfortable in public spaces and we are "opening up" together.
7) We strongly encourage everyone to become fully vaccinated, as the swiftest way for our community to "return to normal." We believe the science supports this stance, and that it is a faithful response to protect oneself and others from disease. Vickie Trogden continues to offer to assist others with finding and scheduling a vaccine appointment online or by phone, and the office is willing to help you locate a vaccination location such as Simmons Bank Arena. We note that as of this writing, our county has not quite reached 30% fully vaccinated, and this is of concern. While we respect everyone's right to choose the healthcare most appropriate to their situation, we also encourage this step to promote community health and move our community in particular, forward. If you are willing, please share your status with the office, so we may determine our own percentage vaccinated.
The Pastor's Note:
I fully recognize the frustration and desire of many who have weathered this pandemic, self isolated, remained masked, and have become fully vaccinated, to return to "life as normal" as quickly as possible--while we also hold in tension our desire to protect one another, including those who cannot yet be vaccinated (children and the immuno-compromised) or who have remained hesitant to this point. I, along with session, would like to ask for your continued patience as we move forward together slowly, mindful of our community's diverse needs and the goal of reuniting our whole congregation in communal activities.
Friends... beloved.... we are together enduring the greatest traumatic event of this century, and we are all tired, frustrated, and in need of kindness and compassion. Please look upon one another with the eyes and compassion of Christ, who gladly suffered death on the cross for our sake; can we in turn continue to suffer this discomfort a little longer out of compassion for others? The end to this trauma is drawing close, but it is not here yet. Let us move forward, confident in one thing: the love of Christ overcomes all fear and division, not with coercion and force, but with gentleness and compassion. You are loved; may our actions reflect that love to the world.
~ Pastor Marie
TL:DR Summary of Changes
- Live worship on-site in the sanctuary and online starting June 6.
- We will start singing the final hymn June 6, and add more as we go.
- We are asking you to volunteer their vaccination status to determine the percentage of our congregation that is fully vaccinated; please reply to this email with your status.
- Masks are still required by ALL in the sanctuary, regardless of vaccination status. All pandemic precautions remain in place at least until Session's next meeting June 13th at 6pm.
- Attend our Town Hall meeting June 13th to learn more and ask questions; we hope to have statistics and a representative from the Arkansas Department of Health. All are invited to attend in person onsite or online.
- If you are meeting in the church building with less than 10 people, you may remove masks after determining that ALL present are fully vaccinated AND willing to do so. Please don't go elsewhere in the building without a mask.
- Please become fully vaccinated if you are able. We will help.
- Remember, you are loved, and our purpose is to love God and love one another. We continue to hold pandemic precautions out of love and concern for others, sacrificing our own preferences for the sake of Christ.
Thank you for your grace, patience, and love as we continue to be the Body of Christ on earth--whatever shape that may take, we are united in Spirit. Please reach out to a member of Session with your questions and concerns--and encouragement! Serving in leadership these past 14 months has been a challenge, and each Session member has done their faithful best to love Christ and this congregation with all of their gifts and graces.
On Behalf of the Session,
Rev. Marie Mainard O'Connell, moderator
Sahr Lebbie, Clerk of Session
Vickie Trogden, elders