Late Spring, 2021: It was time for the first indoor service at Grace Church, Seattle since the Covid shutdown. The price of admission was a mask worn correctly over the nose and under the chin. The stay at homes still had the choice to watch via social media
Fr. Robert told Lester to block off every other pew and equip them with hand sanitizer. He assumed that his sexton would use the rose-colored braided ropes used normally to reserve family pews for weddings, baptisms and funerals. Lester, however, worried that it would be too easy to squeeze over and under them, and decided to use duct tape instead. And as a money saving measure, he installed a huge sanitizer dispenser at the entry doors.
To make sure of mask compliance, he placed a big pile inside the the baptismal font. These had been sewn and donated by what seemed like half the congregation. The patterns varied wildly, from Easter Bunnies to The Seahawks logo.
Robert stood at the main entry, greeting everyone with a wave, elbow bump, and, when appropriate, a blown kiss. There weren’t as many attendees as he’d hoped, but he was confident that next Sunday would see an increase after the stay-always found out that an anonymous donor had supplied coffee and packaged cookies.
It was a relatively warm day and after the service a socially distanced coffee klatch formed in the Memorial Garden. The main discussion topic was why Father had hurried away from the altar into the sacristy during the offertory hymn. The consensus was that nature had called suddenly.
As Robert expected, a few more attended the next week. During the announcement period, he explained that his dash from the altar had been to wash his hands before distributing communion. The ceremonial finger dipping which was part of the liturgy would be abandoned for who knew how long.
His second announcement reported some of the reasons for the previous week’s disappointing attendance. He and his assistant Rev. Katherine had divided up the parisg directory to find out. After the understandable health concerns, other reasons included lack of transportation, hatred of mask wearing, no indoor social hour, nothing for the kids to do, and no choral music.
He was sad to hear that a number of members had relocated to be closer to family or for work, and felt guilty for not keeping better track. Both he and Katherine also noticed a general fear to venture out after so many months away. Dr. Lucy, one of the lay leaders, confessed that she’d organized a popular online Eucharist-watching party at her retirement home, which allowed people to drink coffee and comment during the service.
“Here’s my action plan,” he told them. “Other than the health and mask issues, the rest of us have some work to do. I have a list of the people needing transportation. We’ve borrowed one of the First Baptist vans and need a volunteer driver and someone to help people in and out.
“To improve the music, Daniel has recruited instrumentalists who are eager to play the harp, guitar and even a trumpet. And starting this week we will sing the doxology through our masks. I think most of you know that one by heart.”
When the time came, Carmen Farro, a mezzo soprano with the Seattle Symphony chorus, came up from from her front row pew and led a chorus of “Praise God From Whom All Blessing Flow-“
The next week saw a ten percent attendance increase, most of whom Dr. Lucy had persuaded away from their cozy zoom gathering. Luckily they lived nearby because multiple trips were necessary. CDC regulations severely limited how many could be transported at one time. They were greeted warmly by the millennial members who helped them to their front pew seats.
It was raining, so the social hour moved inside to to the back of the church. The high ceilings, open doors and and leaky windows made for acceptable airflow, actually a stiff breeze. After an hour, Lester headed their way with a push broom as a reminder that he wanted to close up.
The next Sunday was the St. Francis Day animal blessing, so attendance improved even more. There were a few in person appearances by canine and feline friends, but even more via cell phone photos.
By Fall, the congregation could still fit into every other row, but all the rows held three or four. The parish vestry had agreed to open the restrooms and the sanctuary for a few hours on weekdays to the mostly homeless public, thanks to the volunteers Lester had recruited. Another generous benefactor paid for the steam heat. Daniel scheduled his organ practice during these times to provide soothing entertainment.
In late Fall, Robert announced that the city-funded overnight women’s shelter in basement was turning into a 24 hour operation. A gratifying number of church members offered to help the staff Rev. Catherine brought her guide dog Louette to visit most days. The outdoor area formerly occupied by the food bank was used as a Covid testing site twice a week and parish members were invited to be tested along with the sheltered women and others in the neighborhood.
Now that his office was decently warm, Robert came to the work most days. His next challenge was to make the annual pledge campaign work. He hoped that parishioners knew that Grace Church’s staff and operational costs weren’t funded by ‘The State’ as implied by the popular English mini-series. Would people who had stayed away or only watched on Zoom feel that they could reduce their pledge?
He decided to be honest in the annual appeal letter. Privately, he referred to it as ‘the annual beg’. The letter approved by the vestry mentionned last year’s savings on heat, lights and maintenance. But it also reminded everyone that most staff had been on full salary, except Lester the sexton and Daniel, the musician. Lester, who had fewer onsite activities, kept his onsite housing, a part time salary, and full benefits. Daniel, because he had no choir to lead or concerts to perform, had also been part time. As Robert expected, many members were outraged, and were inclined to pledge more than normal to keep their musician and sexton from starvation.
“Fingers crossed,” he told the staff.