“Today, I wanted to say how glad I am to see you again,” Anne-Louise Bailey said from her husband Fred’s pulpit at the Lowell United Methodist Church. “So great to be back here! Yay!”
Everyone applauded. She was specifically addressing the children of the congregation, but she spoke for all of us and spoke to all of us.
Usually, the children of Lowell United Methodist Church gather in the front two pews on the left side of the aisle, and Anne-Louise stands in front of them, telling a story before they head out to the fellowship hall for Sunday school. This past Sunday, to observe social distancing precautions, they sat with their families, six feet apart from other family groups. Anne-Louise was on the altar so that the microphone and sound system could amplify her voice.
“We have superpowers,” Anne-Louise told the kids. “Our superpowers are these!”
She held up a mask and package of cleaning products.
“Alcohol-free, sanitizing wipes, which destroy 99.9%...” she peered through her reading glasses and read the packaging. “That’s a good superpower to have, isn’t it Sheldon?”
“Yes!” Soon-to-be-first-grader Sheldon Gilboy cried out from the pews. He’s surely used to superheroes using much cooler tools and implements, but glad to be back, as we all were.
“Then we have our masks and our hand sanitizer in every pew, our emailed bulletins,” she listed off to the kids. “We do all these things so that we can be back here, and we can be with our friends. I want to tell you, I know it’s hard, but with our superpowers, we will help keep everyone safe.”
Last Sunday, the thirteen of us who attended services in-person for the first time since March were very happy to be back there.
“We’re not the only ones who had a hard time,” Anne-Louise continued.
“But maybe we’re here right now for this time so that we can be an example to others about how to stay safe and how to care for others.”
We were as safe as we could possibly be in our pews, wearing our masks, spaced far apart. Lay Pastor, Wendy Grosjean, explained later how much work had gone into getting the church ready for that day’s services.
“Joyce Rounds and her granddaughter, Emma, came ahead of time on Thursday and Friday,” Wendy said. “They washed down and sanitized the entire church, tables, chairs, counters, windows, doors, and the bathroom. Cushions were removed from the pews. Hymnals and Bibles were boxed up. Pews were washed, floors vacuumed and swept. Barbara Cook took all the disinfectant and sanitizer, and extra masks and distributed them through the church, fellowship hall, and sanctuary. We put up safety posters all over. Anne-Louise got each kid a separate box with all their own Sunday School supplies.”
Additionally, the center aisle (where an iPad situated in a hotspot streams the services via our church’s Facebook page) is now roped off. We enter our pews from aisles down each side of the church. We enter the building (located at 5840 Lowell Road, Westmoreland, NY 13490) from the side door with the handicapped accessible ramp. Only twenty-five people can attend at a single time.
“We had meetings ahead of time,” Wendy said. “Guidelines from the Bishop and Governor Cuomo were followed. Church bulletins were emailed, and paper copies were laid out days ahead of time. The offering plate was put out but not passed around.”
Fred and Anne-Louise have been holding services in their home, on their couch, and streaming them over Facebook Live for the past few months. Wendy has been doing the same with her Bible study sessions.
Later that morning, I was talking to Kyle Eychner in the Fellowship Hall about how he has been keeping the lawn mowed and the building secure during the shutdown. Wendy called everyone to the first in-person Bible study session since March.
“I had to remember all the little details this morning,” Kyle said. “Turning on microphone and sound system. Turning on all the lights. I forgot Fred’s pulpit light…”
“Whenever we ask anything, He hears us.” Wendy’s voice boomed in the background.
“When this first started,” Kyle said to me, “I was thinking there were so many ways we could have been prepared. I wondered, maybe the more American way would have been to put out the guidelines and say, ‘we’re calling on your care for one another to do these things and your patriotism.”
Sheldon sat across the table from us coloring. His red-white-and-blue face mask was inside out.
“It should say, ‘USA,’” Kyle smiled.
“It says ASU,” I laughed, “that sounds like a college.”
“…I can believe the results of things are that God’s will is done,” Wendy’s voice boomed on my phone recording.
Earlier, when Anne-Louise had finished making the point to the children about the hand sanitizer and makes giving us “superpowers,” she began to tell the story about Queen Esther. In ancient Persia, her uncle prevailed upon her to use her position to stop a planned killing of Jewish people. Doing so, however, risked her life.
“Could it be that you are here for such a time as this?” He asked his niece.
Esther was brave, and she convinced the King to save her people. This is celebrated in the Jewish holiday of Purim.
“When she became Queen, the King didn’t know that Esther was Jewish,” Anne-Louise had said. “There was a prejudice against Jewish people then, like today. There are prejudices against lots of different people. None of us, as Christians, want to have prejudices. God does not want us to have prejudices. He wants us to know He loves everyone the same way.”
He does indeed, and hearing that reminded me of why it was so important for me to be back there in person, in that building, with my faith community. Later that night, I messaged Anne-Louise and told her how clear it was that being a pastor’s wife was as important a calling as being a pastor.
“My mother dedicated me to the Lord’s work as a child and never told me until after I married Fred,” she replied.
“You fulfill your mission splendidly,” I said.
There is a part of our service called “Joys and Concerns,” where we share blessings we have experienced and things we’d like our fellow parishioners to pray for with us. Four months of joys and concerns had built up in me.
“On this day two weeks ago, I married my partner, Jim,” I said.
“We were there!” Pastor Fred said enthusiastically.
Two years ago, I asked that congregation to pray for my safety and the safety of my friends when I organized a candlelight vigil against the KKK. I asked them to pray again, this time for my friends and me as we marched in the ongoing Black Lives Matter rallies.
“You can’t see it from that far back, but I have Black Lives Matter written on my facemask,” Pastor Fred said.
“I have a black grandson and granddaughter. Legally protesting for black people is correct. I enjoin my own protest by wearing this everywhere I go.”
There’s a sort of spiritual embrace that can only be experienced in person. Matthew 18:20 says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” I personally believe He is always with us, but maybe by gathering, we make Him more visible or more felt. Whatever it is, it gives me strength as I do things I feel called to do in life.
“Queen Esther had to face the fact that she might be the only one who could protect her people and make a difference,” Anne-Louise concluded her story. “We’re here now to make a difference in the world. To not be prejudiced, to stop the coronavirus. We are here for a reason, for such a time as this.”
The Lowell United Methodist Church holds services Sunday mornings at 9:30 am.
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Following is a list of other churches in the Westmoreland area with the latest info regarding services.
Each of them requires appropriate precautions, including face masks and/or physical distancing. Contact them for more information.
Bartlett Baptist Church has resumed in-person services Sundays at 9:30 a.m. They are located at 5639 Bartlett Road, Rome, NY 13440. Phone: 315-334-5551.
Church of the Annunciation (in Clark Mills) is accepting reservations to attend their in-person masses Saturdays at 4 p.m., or Sundays at 9:30 a.m. via their website ChurchOfTheAnnunciation.org or by calling the Rectory at 315-853-6138 on Mondays or Tuesdays from 10 am until noon. They are located at 7616 E. South St., Clinton, NY 13323. Phone: 315-853-6138
Clark Mills United Methodist Church reopens this Sunday (July 26) at 9:30 a.m. They are located at 4857 Clinton St., Clark Mills, NY. Phone: 315-790-7544
Deansboro Congregational United Church of Christ is holding services in the sanctuary Sundays at 9 a.m. They are located at 2779 State Route 12B, 12B Main St, Deansboro, NY 13328. Phone: 315-841-8113
Hecla Union Congregational Church is holding services Sundays at 10 a.m. in the Social Hall because it is larger and air-conditioned. They are located at 4908 Moore Road, Hecla, NY 13490. Phone: 315-922-0325
Lairdsville United Methodist Church is streaming its services via Zoom on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. They are located at 6925 NY Route 5 Clinton, NY 13323. Phone: 315-495-6661
Three Steeples United in Paris is holding services Sundays at 10 a.m. They are located at 2817 Old Route 12, Sauquoit, NY 13456. Phone: 315-841-5053
Trinity United Church of Christ is holding services in the Sanctuary Sundays at 10 a.m. They are located at 215 W Court St., Rome, NY 13440. Phone: 315-336-2833
Westmoreland Community Church has resumed in-person services Sundays at 10 a.m. They are located at 7383 E. Main St., Westmoreland, NY, 13490. Phone: 315-371-7585
Westmoreland United Methodist Church is holding services downstairs in the Fellowship Hall, and they are streaming on Zoom Sundays at 11:15 a.m. They are located at 7296 W Main St., Westmoreland, NY 13490. Phone: 315-853-4515.
Zion Lutheran Church in New Hartford (across from Utica) will be worshipping on Zoom throughout the summer.