March 13, 2020


“I will lift up mine eyes to the hills;
           from whence cometh my help?
“My help cometh even from the Lord,
           who hath made heaven and earth...
“The Lord shall preserve thy going out, and thy coming in,
           from this time forth for evermore...”

                                                           From Psalm 121


Dear Members of the St. Martin’s Family,

This will be the third bit of correspondence I have sent inside one week about our response to what is called the Novel Covid-19, or “Coronavirus.” For simplicity’s sake, allow me just to call this the “C-Virus” for the remainder of this correspondence.

It has not missed my attention that I am writing this note on Friday the Thirteenth, but I am not a superstitious man. Shortly after Hurricane Harvey, Laura gave me a “Houston Strong” t-shirt as a gift, and while I am not superstitious, I have decided to put it on as I prepare this word to you. It is a reminder that we Houstonians have been through challenges before, that we are in one now and that we will go through them again. Yet, together, we are in fact, stronger than we are on our own. As Christians, from “ whence cometh our strength?” We all know–our help “... cometh even from the Lord who hath made heaven and earth.”

We gain that strength through our prayers, through our reading of scripture, and through our worship whether we worship on our own or together. We gain that strength when we come together in His name for any reason, especially when we feel free to speak with one another and listen to one another.

In the last 48 hours, I have received a number of emails, text messages and notes from members of our Church, from other Clergy, from our Bishops--including our Diocesan Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Andy Doyle. I confess to you that I have gone back and forth on how best to respond. At times, assumptions and decisions I have made have been affirmed, and in other cases, challenged. I have tried to carefully hear all the competing voices, and come to the best path forward for the season that rests before us. Toward that end, I will also confess that for me, thanks to those who helped me see things clearly, including our Bishop, the “needle has moved” a bit from where it was only a few days ago.

Today, I gathered with most of our clergy, program staff members, the President of our Senior Council Culver Stedman, our Senior Warden Jim Hibbert and our Junior Warden Titus Harris. Also joining us were Dr. Matt Stanford who is the CEO of our Hope and Healing Center and Institute , along with Dr. Scott Basinger, who serves as a key liaison between our Parish and the more than 20 recovery groups that meet on our campus each week. Our Vice Rector Marty Bastian; Executive Director for Finance and Facilities Bruce Smith; and Executive Director for Human Resources, Joni Huerta, were also all in attendance. I was in touch with our Bishop this morning before our meeting, and immediately called him after the meeting and he has offered his full support of what follows.

What follows is the fruit of our discussions and our collective decisions for the next “best steps” we will take to better contain the spread of the virus, and more importantly serve as an institution that is pro-active in caring for our members, the greater Houston community and beyond.

Beginning today, at the end of our business day, we will close the St. Martin’s Campus for all meetings, gatherings and worship until Thursday, March 26. We hope to re-open on Friday, March 27, in time for the scheduled public screening of Dr. Jean-Pierre Isbouts’ film, “The Search for the Last Supper.” However, for now, we remain closed until the evening of March 26. We will meet next week, to reassess and will update this information late next week.

Let me touch on a few questions you may be asking? First, Why?

Thanks to some timely research of our Bishop and others, this is what I have learned, and much of this many of you already know.

For every single person who has the virus, they are likely to spread the virus with a minimum of 3 out of the 20 or so people (on average) they come into contact with in a day. The next day, let’s say Monday, those 4 will spread it to 12. The next day, Tuesday, those 16 spread it to 48. The next day, Wednesday, those 64 spread it to 192. The next day, Thursday, those 256 will spread it to 768. The next day, Friday, those 1,024 spread it to 3,072. Saturday, those 4,096 spread it to 12,288 people. One week later on Sunday, those 16,384 people infect 49,152.

In the case of the Houston Live Stock Show and Rodeo, that means that it is highly likely that a week after the two people attended that 98,304 people have had the virus shared with them.

So, what the public health officials are trying to help people understand is that while Texas may have 34 people with the COVID-19 virus today, over the last 7 days, those 34 shared the virus, and the multiples of sharing that virus are in the range of 1,671,168 potential cases.

Moreover, the rate of death is high in an older population. Patients above 80 years of age had an alarmingly high fatality rate of 14.8%. Patients whose age is 70 to 79 years had a fatality rate of 8%. Let us say this group in our experiment completely outperforms the norm and only .5% die. In our scenario above with 1,671,168 potential cases that is potentially 8,356 people.

Italy had 62 coronavirus cases on February 22, and two-and-half weeks later it has more than 10,000 cases. The U.S. has 1,716 cases with 34 in Texas. In Italy people are dying because of lack of care. Health care professionals are getting sick because the system itself is overwhelmed. Clearly, they did not enact social distancing in time.

We are not attempting to stop the spread of the virus. We are attempting to slow the spread down to a low multiple so our health systems may be at their best and provide rooms and ventilators for those that need it. Remember Harris County can do only 27 tests a day, and many counties don’t have testing kits.

What the health officials have said is, “If we look at China and Italy, what we see is that by the time officials enact social distancing measures, they are a week too late.” And, “social distancing works within a week of multiplication.” Flattening occurs as we lessen the opportunity for the virus to spread and multiply the number of acute cases. [1] We are battling an epidemiological curve that if not managed, can create pressure on the health system in ways that will be hurtful to all people.

What information was shared with me that was new?
  • The virus is contagious up to 5 days before clinical symptoms appear.
  • No gatherings of 10 or more people are recommended.
  • In Harris, Montgomery and Fort Bend counties the number of cases is now doubling daily.
  • We must work to stay below surge capacity. We do not have hospital capacity to handle more than that.
  • We have the highest uninsured rate in Texas with some 1 million people without care. These people tend to continue to go to work as many of them are hourly laborers.[2]
  • What caused the growth in Italy was treating this as business as usual.[3]

What this means is that when we gather it is possible to spread the virus without us knowing it.  We are sick before we are symptomatic.

When we gather, we share the virus. Dr. Peter Pisters, president of MD Anderson Cancer Center and Dr. David Callender, president of Memorial Hermann, were very clear: “ This is not about the food, not about the bread and wine, and not about the pews and plates. This virus is spread from human crowds and gatherings .” “ The behavior of the virus has not changed ” across the 165,000 cases globally; and, “ we still don’t know very much about it .”

This “unknown” quality of this virus is one of the many reasons we have made the decision to close our campus for a period of roughly two weeks.

What does this mean for scheduled events and for worship?

This has not been an easy decision and tackling the challenge of the ramifications have required a great deal of work by your clergy and program staff in a matter of a few hours.

In 2019, we had more than 18,000 separate events and meetings on our campus… typically between 40 and 60 a day. Since our meeting only hours ago, we have put into motion communication and plans for closing these down until a decision to do otherwise is made.

Let’s begin with the most important part of our life together – worship. We will not host worship services at St. Martin’s on weekdays or Sundays through, at least, March 26 – this includes our regular six Sunday services, our regular three Wednesday services and other special services scheduled for the season of Lent.

This Sunday, it is our plan to make available “on line” a service of Morning Prayer and we will share the details on how to reach this service as soon as we have tested and finalized the technology.

Next Sunday, we may expand this availability. We are not discouraging worship, we are, in fact, encouraging you to worship – for now – at home, on your own.

In addition, let me share these links;

FACEBOOK VIDEO PRAYER
FYI – the Facebook link to MP ( https://www.facebook.com/TECAnchorWorship/ ) is useable whether you have a Facebook account or not. I.e. anyone can access it without having to join social media.
ONLINE AUDIO PRAYERS
There’s also this MP audio from missionstclare.com (Episcopal resource, I believe). Has MP, Noon prayer and compline. See here: https://www.missionstclare.com/english/spoken/spoken.html
ONLINE WRITTEN PRAYERS
And then, of course, there’s an Anglican daily offices resource here: http://daily.commonworship.com/ (it pulls the readings together for you so you don’t to jump back and forth). It’s available as an app too (which I use) called Daily Prayer.
LECTIONARY READINGS FOR SUNDAYS

The Bible Online
In addition, let me share one more remarkable link with you here – my friend and our former Junior Warden recently shared this with me. It is a “link” to every chapter of Holy Scripture. Just “click” on the Book and Chapter below and “viola,” you will be taken to that same place in the Bible. http://thegreatpauldini.com/bible/Bible-KJV.htm

In addition, let me give you a few extra Scriptures to look up on your own. Let us put these under the heading of “When to call... “ So when....
You are sad, phone -- John 14
You have sinned, phone -- Psalm 51
You are facing danger, phone -- Psalm 91
People have failed you, phone -- Psalm 27
Your faith needs stimulation, phone -- Hebrews 11
You are alone and scared, phone -- Psalm 23
You are worried, phone -- Matthew 8:19-34
You are hurt and critical, phone -- 1 Corinthians 13
You wonder about Christianity, phone -- 2 Corinthians 5:15-18
You feel like an outcast, phone -- Romans 8:31-39
You are seeking peace, phone -- Matthew 11:25-30
It feels as if the world is bigger than God, phone -- Psalm 90
You need Christ like insurance, phone -- Romans 8:1-30
You are leaving home for a trip, phone-- Psalm 121
You are praying for yourself, phone -- Psalm 87
You require courage for a task, phone -- Joshua 1
Inflation's and investments are hogging your thoughts, phone -- Mark 10:17-31
You are depressive, phone -- Psalm 27
Your bank account is empty, phone -- Psalm 37
You lose faith in mankind, phone -- 1 Corinthians 13
It looks like people are unfriendly, phone -- John 15
You are losing hope, phone-- Psalm 126
You feel the world is small compared to you, phone -- Psalm 19
You want to carry fruit, phone -- John 15
Paul's secret for happiness, phone -- Colossians 3:12-17
With big opportunity/ discovery, phone -- Isaiah 55
To get along with other people, phone -- Romans 12
For dealing with fear, call -- Psalm 47
For security, call -- Psalm 121:3
For assurance, call -- Mark 8:35
For reassurance, call -- Psalm 145:18

Does this affect your meeting or group? The Answer is YES. All events, gatherings and meetings are postponed until we can meet again.
This includes, but is not limited to activities in the following buildings;
·          The Activity Center
·          Bagby Parish Hall
·          The Café in Bagby Parish Hall
·          The Scout Building and Student Life Center (The Island)
·          The Church and any “enclosed” area on our campus.

This means that the below groups will NOT meet until further notified.
·          Men of St. Martin’s
·          The Christian Life Study
·          The Lenten Stations of the Cross
·          The “Gathering”
·          All Outreach Meetings and Programs, on – or off – campus
·          Our Wednesday Night Lenten Meals and Programs
·          Our Thursday afternoon Lenten Programs
·          All Small Group Bible Study and Fellowship Groups

One area of particular concern for Dr. Stanford, Dr. Basinger and your clergy team was the regularly scheduled recovery groups, which serve roughly 600 persons each week, as well as the regular 60 to 100 clients receiving individual services from the Hope and Healing Center each week.
 
Individuals participating in recovery groups will be asked to meet, temporarily, elsewhere. You will receive more information through our “Recovery Meeting” network, already in place.
Other clients, and inquiring or new clients, may contact the Hope and Healing Center at 713-871-1004 and leave a message or email contact@hopeandhealingcenter.org for information on existing programs and services.

What about Pastoral Care ?
Unfortunately, as of today, nursing homes, retirement homes and hospitals have requested cessation of all outside visitors. This means that your Clergy and lay visitation volunteers cannot make these visits until further notice.

This does NOT mean that we do not want to know (a) if you have been hospitalized, (b) if you are ill or sick, or (c) if you would like to speak with a member of the Clergy by phone. Please, please contact us by calling 713-985-3817 and as soon as possible a member of our clergy team will reach out to you.

We will NOT cancel previously scheduled funerals, but as to funerals that are upcoming, we will just have to evaluate on a case -by -case basis. Again, deaths of members or family and friends of members, should be reported by calling our pastoral care line/ For pastoral emergencies after hours and on weekends, please call 713-621-3040 and then press 2 to reach the priest on call .

What do we need from you ?
This is a very important question. I have placed before you a great deal we are offering at a time when and under circumstances, when and which, we, frankly, have very little control. Toward that end, there are a few things I would ask of you.

First, and foremost – pray . You will likely have more “free time” than you did only weeks ago. Please don’t fritter it away by watching emotionally charged news programs! Instead, use this extra time to pray. Pray more. Pray for your Church--our Church; Pray for our clergy and staff; Pray for all of our members. We are all doing the best we can given the resources we have.

Second, and it really does behoove me to ask this of you, please, please do not stop your financial giving to St. Martin’s . Our doors may be closed, but we still have extraordinary costs associated with our day-to-day life such as supporting our wonderful staff, keeping our buildings clean and maintained, and keeping our grounds under control. Many of you have asked me, will staff who are forced to be “on leave” during this time, still receive their pay and benefits. My answer to that is yes, but it is absolutely imperative that those of you who support the ministries of our Lord in and through St. Martin’s continue to do so as you always do. This includes your regular pledge payments to our operating budget as well as to the Building for the Ages campaign. You can mail your support into the Church during this time, or you can give online by clicking bit.ly/OnlineGivingSMEC .

And friend, if you are a member of St. Martin’s, and you have yet to pledge to our Lord’s work for the 2020 year, please – please do so now. You can fill out a new pledge card by clicking here https://stmartinsepiscopal.org/stewardship-form/ . I suspect that we are being called upon to be “Church,” more now than perhaps ever before, and your support of St. Martin’s right now is vital. Please, please join other members who have pledged by doing your part to keep St. Martin’s strong and vibrant this year and in the years to come.

Third, care... This may seem a bit obvious, but now is a time to reach out to others, particularly those who may be older, at high risk or who live alone. Reach out to your fellow members of St. Martin’s. Call them. Let them know you care. Reach out to neighbors and loved ones who may not be members, but who do need your care and attention. And friends, this is particularly a time when our younger members have an opportunity to live into the legacy given to us by our older members. Now, friends, is the time to care for others.

What else?
Now then, what have I left out this Friday evening? Well, perhaps this – assurance. I opened this correspondence with a bit from Psalm 121; the end of which reads; “The Lord shall preserve thy going out, and thy coming in, from this time forth for evermore...”

That means just what it says. Do you know the most oft repeated command in the Bible? It is “...fear not...” Isaiah 41:10 reads simply, “ Fear not, because I am with you...” The Lord is always with us–in good times and bad, in happy times and sad. And the assurance of His omnipresence should buoy all of our spirits.

As our meeting closed today, I asked our Vice Rector, and my brother in Christ, Marty Bastian, to pray, and a portion of his plea was to ask God that “ we would remember to trust in you .” I was very touched by that. Even we clergy folk, and we regular “Church folk,” need to be reminded to trust in our Lord, indeed the maker of heaven and earth.

Sometime this week, as we were plodding our way through all the new challenges this despicable C-Virus was pitching our way, my sister in Christ, Suse McBay, sent me the below. It was written in 1948 by C.S. Lewis, just as the world, and Christians, were coming to terms with the scary realities of living in the “atomic age.” This is what he writes,

“In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. ‘How are we to live in an atomic age?’” I am tempted to reply, “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.

“In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

“This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”
I would guess, dear brothers and sisters of St. Martin’s, we could replace the word “bomb” here with the word, “C-Virus.” When tempted to be overcome by the fears and worries that surround us; let’s take the counsel of the author of Hebrews to heart;
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart .” Hebrews 12:2-3
Blessings, peace and deep and abiding love to you,

The Rev. Dr. Russell J. Levenson, Jr.
Rector, St. Martin's Episcopal Church

[1] You can see the US statistics here . You can find the CDC statistics here . You can find the Johns Hopkins stats here . You can find a comparison of reports here .
[2] Please see the Episcopal Health Foundation map on how where you live affects your health here . Here is the data on uninsured population.
[3] The Episcopal Church in Europe closed all our churches in Italy on Monday until April 5, Palm Sunday.