Remembering 2020 – what happened to us?

The parish annual meeting on Sunday, May 16th, at 10:30 a.m. takes on an incredibly special role and marker for this parish. Last year’s Zoom meeting was one of the best organized and vital annual meetings I have ever experienced in 40+ years of work in the church. It was well planned, insightful, great to see everyone’s faces in the Hollywood Squares we now all inhabit socially and professionally. Little did we know in May 2020 that we would still be meeting virtually as a parish a year later.

I wonder what we might tell Barrett Coleman, a newborn parishioner, when he turns 50, about how his church handled the COVID-19 pandemic? I married his parents, Brock and Beth, just before the lockdown in St. Paul’s and I wonder, decades from now, how this experience will help shape him and his generation? What will his parents tell him about his early years? When was he able to get baptized and in what circumstances?

For older kids and families, it is dealing with online learning, including confirmation classes. For older, it was 60th wedding anniversaries on Zoom and more tragic moments of pastoral care when anointing the departed was almost impossible. In some cases, your clergy were able to be in the same room with families where with others, we relied totally on technology. We are thankful for the opportunities, however imperfect.

I will never forget a wedding where 7 of us celebrated a marriage in a sanctuary that holds 700, yet the service was livestreamed across the world and to China. Tears, blessing, and dancing happened right there on our labyrinth, from grandparents and life-long friends who could not be there in person but could BE PRESENT virtually knowing we were any less emotional or excited to be a guest at such an awesome event. The human spirit is remarkable in our ability to be fully present and to cry and laugh and bless and love, even over the internet. This is a time that needs to be recorded and documented and how we related and continued to be siblings in Christ -great information for our parish annual report, before we simply forget it all.

One of the remarkable outcomes of the great flu epidemics of the early 20th century (I was named after a 14-year-old Albert Joy who didn’t make it). My grandmother was grateful to Albert’s mother for helping her with childbirth and she called her newborn son after Mrs. Joy’s departed teenager. I never really understood the context of that tender gratitude from one mother to another, until now. We had the bits of oral history (very incomplete in our family), but I never sought out his grave until 7 years ago as we were burying my own mother. We don’t know fully or appreciate our own history until there is a KAIROS moment when we are hungry from more than the populist/surface snippets of information. If that information is not reliably recorded, we may never find out our own stories. So many African Americans and millions of immigrants to the USA have had their recorded histories erased by necessity or by deliberate disorientation. It is the darker side of the American dream -we must forget if we are to ever “move on”. In re-learning how to be in the new world, we don’t know where we belong of where we came from. We don’t know the contexts of our shaping and being formed or de-formed by the spiritual and cultural mores that confine or thrive us. History is usually repeated if we do not know what happened and we don’t give it the attention it deserves.

The great sin in the Bible is amnesia. The Jewish ancestors kept saying and writing repeatedly “remember” because it is easy to forget from one generation to another what happened to us or what was done to us. Mother LaClaire, our Lenten retreat leader, shared an interesting insight into a change of how we communicate something deeper inside of us, when, for example, indigenous peoples are seeking psychological support for an illness or addiction. Instead of asking who you are or what you do for a living…the enquirer simply asks, “What happened to you?” We are shaped by what happened to us and integrating those painful parts of our stories with the good and the renewing is a spiritual gift. Our invitation as a parish is to tell the story of this past year. What happened to us?

Researching the great flu epidemic that hit Philadelphia so badly, one of the conclusions that researchers note is how much the trauma was deliberately not talked about, taught in school, or remembered. There was such a relief to get past the trauma and loss and “get on” with our lives that the communal experience of those two years was simply forgotten. It is one of the reasons why we have not been good at referencing our successes and strategies from past public health crises because the American cultural value of “moving on” is devoid of any redemptive purpose.

We have an opportunity to record, ministry by ministry, of what happened to us. Not only is this a good moment for everyone to light up their Hollywood Square in celebration of survival, but it is a moment to value what we all did together during this terrifying year. Collectively they will be “cliff notes” for the new rector to compare her or his experience in the community they previously led. What commonality might we share, what new insights are gained? For the social historian, we weave together a family quilt of sheer determination and commitment that strengthens faith and hope. Maybe even trust in God? Please take a moment to remember, help write a committee report (as a deeply spiritual exercise and not a chore) and look around at your fellow travelers -eager to move on but learning and being inspired by what we accomplished together. This is OUR report and what a gift it will be not only for each other, for the new rector, but also for little baby Barrett and the kids around us who move forward knowing how much they were loved and cared for.

Albert Ogle