Time Capsule: A Conversation With Pastor Chris Solimene
Reflecting on the Pandemic
Avon Congregational Church
Over the last 18 months or so, our nation has faced two pandemics—the health pandemic of COVID 19 and the pandemic of continuous Racial Injustice. As you think about these two pandemics:
How did they impact your mission and ministry activities?
The mission of the Avon Congregational Church is ‘to enable people to know God’s unconditional love and to be a community of faith helping one another to live as Jesus Christ lived and taught.’ When reflecting upon the historical Jesus, we know he needed to adapt in creative ways in order to best reach people. To do this, Jesus used parables and metaphors about the day-to-day well-known experiences of his day. This allowed people to find themselves in his stories and to learn what other faith-seeking folks have done to deepen their relationship with God and each other.
Keeping this in mind, it made good sense to me to adapt the ways we approached ministry at Avon Congregational Church in order to better suit our times and the people who shared unprecedented experiences in and around the COVID-19 pandemic. How could we ensure the church remained a sanctuary in every sense of the word? In what ways could we present Good News as the light to guide our way through and beyond the dark days of pandemic?
1. Jesus’ Way of love through radical acceptance and extravagant welcome is found through the spiritual practices of compassion, forgiveness and faith-filled service.
What binds us in our human experience is our desire to be heard and known. Our Called to Care ministry is a group of about a dozen church members committed to being available for conversation and prayer. It occurred to me we needed to make sure we regularly checked in with every member and friend of the church. Dividing up the directory of all contacts we had among the Called to Care volunteers, each person called was asked how they were coping, how they were meeting their needs – physically, mentally and spiritually. Prayers were shared, practical needs were met, anxieties that kept us up at night were faced head on.
All through the pandemic and even beyond, I took also took on a practice that seemed a bit old-fashioned: calling and checking in on every parishioner and writing a personal notecard for every birthday celebrated. Whenever a pastor is unsure how the congregation is doing, it can only help to call each one and remind each one, as God does for all, that we are all loved and all held by our family of faith.
2. Jesus took the rules of the land seriously and then made sure bringing about the realm of God for all was central to his actions and superseded all.
The Steering Circle (our representative church leadership) and I met within a week of recommendations to close swept across our nation. Like all Americans, we saw how science and representatives of our nation’s most respected health organizations were going to be politicized and that the life-saving measures we needed to enact would not always present themselves as a common understanding that all people embraced the same way.
So, in order that we could best protect the members of our congregation and all who utilized our building spaces, we adopted the policy to look at the CDC and national recommendations, to consider the advice of the newly forming SNEUCC, but to ultimately use as our guiding mandates, the rules, and suggestions set forth by our most local health experts, The Farmington Valley Health District. When they said, ‘go virtual,’ we did. When they said, ‘mask up,’ we did. When they suggested ‘staff stay home and work virtually,’ we did.
Yet, when the AA groups that meet regularly in our building said they already have a life-threatening disease known as alcoholism, and to not meet at all in person could mean potential certain death for some, we took that seriously. The church meetinghouse was built in 1819 to meet the needs of the entire community. The Sanctuary we are stewarding was created as God’s ‘safe house.’ Who were we to cite our potential insurance risks of being sued for someone who may contract COVID in our building as overarching justification for shutting AA out.
Unlike many area churches and civic centers that shuttered their buildings tight, our AA groups were given the right to consider how they might balance the extreme risks of Coronavirus contraction with their need to have accountability to each other in person in order to stay sober. We were a ‘bomb shelter’ of sorts set upon a potential minefield.
When death’s representatives came to capture and prosecute Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, his closest followers scattered to the winds. It was too dangerous. When the underbelly of racist bias and the systemic justice failures were held out in the light of day, our nation’s citizens had a choice. We could stay safe in our quarantined places of shelter or we could risk our own health to gather in solidarity. People of color in every shade of black and brown were continually being failed by our practices of racism. Some of us with lighter skin tones were aware. Many more were not.
When a local group of moms from our homogenously white community of Avon wanted to have their children join them and show the cry for justice was not falling completely on deaf ears, they thought of the most central public face of their town and called Avon Congregational Church. The reasons not to do a rally during the pandemic were overwhelming. However, like Jesus, who never chose the easy way and with the lesson of his disciples who deserted him in his greatest need, the Moderator of the church and I chose to host a Rally of Solidarity.
It was made clear that we had great respect for the local law enforcement and first responders who protect us as their life’s vocation, day and night. It was made clear this was NOT a protest against all law enforcers. In fact, I worked with our local police department and assured safety at our rally with plain-clothed officers. We also invited the leadership of the town to say some words – words to bridge our common bonds rather than to divide.
When the option to be transformed by words and people with a common purpose arises, most people want in. That was true when Jesus spoke on the banks of the Galilee and nourished 5,000 with sustenance to live on. And it was true when social media and youth in our local schools got word a rally of solidarity for justice was happening in a place like Avon, CT. An estimated 600 people carrying various signs and symbols of peace gathered. We all wore masks outside. We all did our best to keep the physical distance of six feet, even though our social distance was heart to heart.
It’s not clear, even in retrospect if we did enough, but I can say without reservation, we did what we could! And that could only be true by the joined resolve of many people striving to make meaning and purpose. That could only happen when we looked to Jesus’ example - a mission and ministry to create a world God would want for all.
How did your church continue to be engaged in innovative, creative, and unfamiliar ways during the COVID-19 shutdown?
We were holding in-person worship one week in early March 2020, as we have done since 1819. Once the decision was made to hold virtual services, by the next Sunday we had an iPhone set up on a tripod strapped down to a rolling kitchen cart. This creative out-of-the-box workaround was not new to me as I come from decades of producing and directing community theater.
At the time, this was innovative and creative. Now, it’s a norm for most churches and houses of faith.
Listening to the feedback I heard, it became clear that zoom would be a great platform for post-worship interaction (like a virtual coffee hour) and for most leadership and faith formation discussions. However, seeing the sanctuary was a visceral comfort. Hearing the organ played was an audible hug. Seeing their pastor at the pulpit and sharing words of hope was the balm needed in these darkest days.
We managed to keep only a few in the sanctuary at any given worship – our organist, our office manager as camerawoman, myself, and occasionally my spouse, Kent, who would serve as lay reader.
Creative ideas to meet our need for connection, beyond an outside worship service, included “Picnic with the Pastor” once we were told we could more safely gather outside. This weekly gathering enabled people who otherwise had no interaction with anyone to be among faces, albeit at a distance, whom they loved and trusted.
On the social media side, I engaged creative people I knew. One cellist recorded a series of fun cello solos outside in all sorts of odd locals – my farmhouse or chicken coop, the front lawn of the church, a graveyard. This series, called “One a Day in May” brought out all sorts of creative ideas for a story, poem, joke, song, scripture reading, etc. to lighten the heart and keep us connected.
What were the low points, failures or frustrations?
While it was a conscious choice, I think having weeks and then not months go by where multiple voices were not leading worship felt like a loss to me. The Body of Christ is the many and it was frustrating that we could not fulfill that espoused vision of community for services, especially services like Maundy Thursday, Easter and Christmas Eve.
What were the high points and successes?
I’ve heard it takes about 21 days to make a new behavior a learned habit. While this may be helpful for creating a new workout routine for healthy living, it is not as helpful when it means people get used to staying home and not attending church.
A high point and success to celebrate is that we as a church, with the help of a well-connected staff, knew well our challenge to keep each aspect of ministry vital, relevant, and in the forefront of our congregation members’ lives. It could be that because people checked in for social media posts, zoom meetings, and outside opportunities for distanced meetings, they are actually MORE engaged with Avon Congregational Church than before. If we’re meeting their need, offering God’s love and assuaging fears and anxieties, we’ve got lots to celebrate!
Overall: What lessons, learnings or changes will your congregation carry into the future?
We’ve embodied what it means for the church to not mean the building, but to mean God’s spirit working through and with us for God’s purposes.