Father Robert’s personality was not designed for seclusion in a home office or endless online meetings. And his sermons on the church’s Sunday streaming service were dismal. He was a face to face guy with bad eyesight and wasn’t able to adjust his delivery in response to the reactions of what he called his computer congregation.
Christmas 2020 had been especially awful. Grace Church’s lifesize manger display stood alone in the harsh light of the video camera. No one had the energy to add fir boughs. The carols were piped in. And of course everyone missed the sentimental sight of one of the children carrying the plaster baby Jesus up the main aisle.
Bishop Anthony, the denominations’s spiritual leader, had been forced to put his retirement on hold. He’d reluctantly issued a ban on indoor services and signaled that his policy otherwise was ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’. So when individuals or small groups asked Father Robert to visit them at home to receive communion, or to pray with the sick or dying, bless a new baby or new graduate, or counsel an engaged couple, he put on his mask and rushed to their side. He had to draw the line somewhere, and told anyone asking for an animal blessing to wait until St. Francis Day.
After Christmas, he felt it was safe to offer outdoor services in the Memorial Garden, weather permitting and masks mandatory. Lester, the church sexton, placed chairs on the grass at the appropriate distance, which would allow twenty to attend. A few more stand up spaces were available next to the rhodedendrons. Daniel, their musician, played favorite hymns on a keyboard.
Robert had taken the daring step of stating that seating would be first come, first served regardless of membership status. This would allow their unofficial congregation of homeless, nearby residents, university students and hospital workers a chance to participate.
At the early April gathering (mixed clouds and moderate wind), Robert held down his baseball cap and spoke through a microphone to be heard by everyone over the noise from the freeway. The services had become popular, so there were people standing on the other side of the garden fence into the sidewalk.
He let the chatter go on for a few minutes and then whistled through the mic. “I’ll be sending this out via email, text, phone and carrier pigeon later, but you’re the first to know. God willing, we will be opening the church for inside services on Palm Sunday. We’ll be able to hold 100 people, which a quarter of our capacity.”
After the applause and exclamations died down, he continued, “We’re lucky because back when we were the only church in town, the sanctuary was built to hold 400. As most of you know, our average Sunday attendance before the shutdown was – well- much less.”
He started to explain how the seating would be spaced, and that communion would still be given on long trays with the hosts spaced apart. And, alas, no wine, except for him. Before he could get in another word, the questions started.
“Why can’t you just put the host in our hand? Don’t worry, we’ll sanitize ahead.”
“That tray makes it look like you’re handing out hors d’oevres.”
“After I pick up the host, when do I put it in my mouth and how do I do that wearing a mask?
“Why can’t we have wine, too?”
“What’s the point, Father?”
He should have known that their frustration would come out this way, but was still disappointed.
“What’s the point? Uh, to get together again as a community? To worship in our sacred space? To hear Daniel play our magnificant organ?”
He looked beyond the chair sitters to those standing behind the fence. “What do the rest of you think?”
The people he thought of as the Friends of Grace Church piped up, most with a version of ‘we love sitting in the back pews and looking up at the ceiling and the windows. And listening to the music. And you let us brings our dogs, as long as they behave themselves. And if we want to come up to the front and have communion, you let us. And we hope that there will be a coffee hour and cookies afterward’.
Lester, who had been on the streets before his employment at the church, stood next to Father Robert and pronounced, “And it’s not just us lowlifes that want to get back in the church. Don’t you remember the guy in a suit and tie in the back pew who cried evey time the organ played? We’ll, he’s big-time attorney, maybe even a judge. Do we want to keep him out, too? And what about the university students up the hill who come for Reflection Time or whatever they call it. And-“
Robert called out, “The Lord Be With You!” the standard way of bringing the congregation to attention. They answered, “And also with you.”
“Now it’s time to continue the service. I hope to see most – or some of you back in church on Palm Sunday.”
Dr Lucy’s Covid Adventure
Instead of formal sermons, Father Robert had asked a few of the outdoor church attendees if they would talk about their experiences during Covid lockdown. This was Dr. Lucy’s second time. Everyone had loved her idea to keep tabs on the residents of her retirement community, by having each two apartments knock on the wall of the other to say they were OK. She’d also arranged for socially-distanced walking sessions up and down the hallways. Rev. Katherine stood up and told how she and Louette stood outside the facility most days, waving and barking, which was a huge treat for the specially trained guide dog.
Today, dressed in her trench coat and sensible boots, Lucy began.
“Last week I had a severe case of cabin fever and decided to drive to Portland to visit my niece, but couldn’t find anyone to watch my kitties. I turned to the internet and looked up hotels advertising as pet friendly. There were only three, and the first two weren’t helpful.”
She paused, waiting for the congregation to ask an unspoken “Why?”
After I mentioned that my pets were cats, they told me that cats weren’t included on their pet list. Apparently, barking dogs who peed on the rug were more acceptable than quiet kitties who peed in a box.”
She paused again, until the laughter ended.
“The third hotel was near the airport. I explained right away that my pets were cats, and they told me, as they do nowdays, that it was ‘no problem’. So I packed myself and the cats and drove down.
“I checked in with a polite young man who helped me load my suitcase, cat carrier, litter box, and scratching post and directed me to the elevator.”
She paused again. “Now, this is where things got interesting.
“I always have a struggle finding my room and figuring out how the lock works. I’d almost worked it out when I saw two women approaching down the hall. Both were using walkers and both wore what looked like sundresses. One was tall and wide and the second was small and had a severe limp. Both offered a full-smile greeting and admired the cats.”
‘Who were they?, was the silent question, which she didn’t answer at that point.
“Stella and Luna, my cats, approved of our room, especially the wide windowsill, which let them keep an eye out for birds and bugs. Later, when I took the elevator down to wait for my niece, the lobby was deserted, and didn’t have any seats, so I decided to wait outside.
“A man entering the hotel opened the door and ushered me out with a flourish. He wore a baseball cap and a long grey ponytail, and reeked of cigarette smoke. His tiny leashed dog looked up at me. The man asked me at length about my plans for the evening. I have to admit I was relieved when Lisa drove up.
One of the congregation called out, “And then what happened?”
“Well, I had a lovely evening, and in the morning I went to the lobby to pick up breakfast, a Covid protocol. I was suprised to see about ten guests sitting at some tables Most had their heads down. This is an old-fashioned word, but they seemed morose. The staff handed me my boxed order of oatmeal and coffee, accompanied by milk, raisins and brown sugar.”
Lucy noticed that her audience was growing impatient for the punchline, and it was starting to sprinkle. “Here’s what happened.
“Checking out, I mentioned that the staff might want to throw away the empty beer case in the elevator lobby, and also the pile of bread scraps in front of the door across the hall from my room. The receptionists, this time two young women in casual dress, were— It was then I realized. The hotel was serving a dual purpose, sheltering homeless persons vulnerable to Covid, and also paying customers with pets.
“I told them not to worry, that i’d had a pleasant stay. The relief on their faces touched me.”
“You didn’t know? They didn’t tell you?” asked the congregation.
“That’s right. When I got home I went online and found that hotels were being used for homeless housing, but nothing about mixed housing with paying guests. As I said, I had a pleasant stay, so I don’t feel duped. What do you all think?”
Stacy Chase had been a marketing genius before her baby was born, and was eager to re-enter the fray.
“Wow!” she shouted. “They put together two groups with a common interest: keeping their pets with them.”
“It’s an example of Intersectionality,” added a sociology student from the University.
“What’s that?” everybody asked.
Father Robert answered, “That would take longer than we have to explain. We’ll have a study session later for anyone who’s interested. Thank you Dr. Lucy.”