An awful and beautiful year

Dear Siblings in Christ:

On December 31st of 2019, the World Health Organization reported that the Chinese government had confirmed that dozens of people in Wuhan were being treated for pneumonia from an unknown source. Our flights had been delayed while we were on the way home from visiting family in Ohio when I read the news. I didn’t think that much about it. The only reason I paid any attention at all was that a few months earlier, there had been an outbreak of the bubonic plague in China. A lot of folks were worried that it would get out of control, but everything worked out. I remember thinking that if they could get “The Plague” taken care of, surely this respiratory thing wouldn’t be as big of a deal. 

Plus, it seemed like there were more significant reasons for concern. There were some family health concerns that I’d heard about just a few days before. I was worried about the fires in Australia and the environment in which my child would live. I was concerned about the divisive political climate and the growing possibility of civil war. I was excited about a world that continued to vibrate with #BlackLivesMatter. The renewed style of multi-level activism inspired The Women’s March, the #MeToo movement Standing Rock, March for Our Lives, Climate Strike activists, and many more. At the end of 2019, the world did not feel safe or predictable but a little exciting, too. A story about a few dozen people getting pneumonia in China didn’t seem like all that big of a deal.

At the beginning of 2020, The Pacific Northwest Conference – as an organization and a collective of relationships – had entered into a state of discernment and slow but steady work. We’d been moving through a time of trying to strengthen our relationships and work together. We’d been asking hard questions about how race and racism were part of who and what we were. The coming spring Annual Meeting would be returning to that conversation with proposals for changes and commitments. We were continuing to bridge the connections between our camps, churches, conference structure, and the communities we served. We were starting to practice and explore new ways of fundraising and financial responsibility. There were no short term projects among those we were considering. All the work we saw before us was going to require multiple years of commitment. 2020 was going to be a year of slow and steady progress.

And then.

The first known case of what was then called “2019 novel coronavirus” showed up in the US on January 21st. A few days later, the entire city of Wuhan – a city of 11 million people – was under quarantine as more and more people became ill and began to die. By the end of the month, at least 200 had died in Wuhan, and 9800 people were sick. 

The news kept getting worse. Public health officials had started to sound the alarm that there were probably more cases and more deaths than we knew in the US. By the end of February, we began to hear stories about an outbreak at a nursing home in Kirkland, WA. 

On February 25th, the head of the CDC reported to Congress that it was likely that the US would suffer “significant disruption” due to the coronavirus. On that same day, there were 57 reported cases of what became to be known as COVID-19 in the US but no known deaths. On that same day, Italy was reporting a significant outbreak with around 300 cases. On that same day, President Trump said he thought the coronavirus would “go away.”

February 26th was Ash Wednesday. I wrote all of you an email with the subject line “Ashes and Viruses” that included this paragraph. In referring to the previous day’s CDC report, I wrote:

“Churches should prepare, too. It’s probable that COVID-19 will become part of our reality, and we should begin planning right now. How can you best stay informed about the best, healthiest practices for your church? What can you do to increase your attention to not spreading disease, now? Hand sanitizer at the door? Extra cleanings of the facilities? If, at some point, your church needs to cancel gathering in person for worship or other functions, what might be some other ways to use the phone or video technology? If face to face visits with families become unsafe for a while, what other systems might need to be in place to care for one another and help one another? What sort of electronic giving options does your church have at its disposal for its members? What systems might be in place for you to support community organizations? What social justice concerns will be exacerbated by this crisis? How can we help and prepare for these realities? These are the kinds of things every church needs to be thinking about right now.”

Together, we’ve been answering those questions all year long.

2020 has been an awful and beautiful year. The depth of pain, death, divisiveness, evil, and horror has been on a scale from which we will never fully recover. And, the abundance of self-sacrifice, courage, ingenuity, faithfulness, and compassion we’ve set free may be what saves the world. I know I’m not the only one with a soul whiplashed by this season of despair and hope.

You of the Pacific Northwest Conference have been amazing. In addition to adjusting the way you do everything – pause and think about that: everything – you’ve been creative, generous, loving, and persistent. You’ve done everything you could to make these days of engagement and interaction while fighting upstream against a situation that still necessitates physical isolation and caution. You have mourned in ways you never imagined mourning. You have celebrated in ways you never imagined celebrating. You have worshiped in ways you never imagined worshiping. You could not have done this better. The fact these days are as difficult as they are is not your fault. The fact that you have done so well despite them is because of your love and the sustaining power of the Spirit. Church members, pastors, chaplains, church staff, and volunteers… You are amazing.

You’ve supported our collective work as the conference, too. Because of what you have shared:

  • Pilgrim Firs’ staff continues to host a Quarantine and Isolation Center for those who may have been exposed to Covid-19 and those who’ve tested positive yet have no other place to go. 
  • N-Sid-Sen continues to offer a place of solace and rest in a way that’s safe and renewing.
  • Your Conference Minister and your Minister for Church Vitality have offered well over 160 online webinars and opportunities for support and resource sharing between church leaders.
  • Your office administrative staff have changed how they do everything while supporting the changing needs of our conference program staff and our churches.

Because of what you’ve shared, volunteers for our conference committees have the tools they need to serve and are empowered to lead. Volunteers in this conference have supported the staff in untold ways, had difficult conversations about resources amid uncertainty, and raised thousands of dollars. Volunteers in this conference have continued to participate in movements for justice on your behalf and spent countless hours in honest conversations about ways to make ourselves accountable for the racism that is part of our conference life. Volunteers in this conference have continued to serve our churches and our pastors with programs of vitality, care, and comfort. Volunteers in this conference rallied to encourage voting during an exceptionally divisive election season.

Because of what one of our local churches shared in a spirit of generosity and solidarity, we were able to provide over $220,000 to churches in the conference whose ministries were in existential risk due to the pandemic. Because of what one person bequeathed to the conference, we could provide scholarships for Communities of Practice that were needed in an entirely new way this year. Because of what another person left for the conference, we were able to help sustain our Insurance Assistance Fund. Because of the partnership between a teenage member of our conference and an older member with a terminal diagnosis, a gift was provided to Pilgrim Firs to support our work of hospitality beyond the pandemic.

2020 has been an awful and beautiful year. 2021 is going to be, too. We know that vaccines are on the way, but we still have a ways to go. We will need to continue to dig deep, pray hard, and love boldly in the days ahead. We can only be who God is calling us to be together. God and the world need us to continue to serve God and God’s people; “to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.”

My siblings in Christ, take a deep breath, then let it out slowly. Take another deep breath and let that one slowly, too. 2020 has been an awful and beautiful year. We have much to grieve and much to be thankful for. The closing line of that Ash Wednesday email was this: “These days ahead are going to be challenging but together, with God’s help, we will find our way through.” May we continue to live into this calling in 2021.
With hope, Mike

——–Rev. Mike Denton

Conference Minister of The ​Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Church of Christ

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