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Leaders Of Faith Facing Challenges Due To Pandemic



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Instead of shaking hands, Reverend Matt Crebbin and Pastor Rob Morris bumped elbows on their way out of Trinity Episcopal Church Wednesday afternoon, March 11. The senior pastor of Newtown Congregational Church (NCC) and the pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church were leaving the March meeting of Newtown Interfaith Council (NIC). Five local clergy leaders had just spent more than an hour listening to and talking with Newtown Health District Director Donna Culbert.

Clocking in at over 90 minutes, it was one of the longest meetings for the council in at least 18 months.

Within 24 hours, at least two of that meeting’s attendees made announcements concerning this weekend’s planned worship services.

While not all of Newtown’s faith leaders are following the same path when it comes to continuing worship services, all of those in attendance on March 11 did agree on two things: constant communication from faith leaders to members of their communities will be key in upcoming weeks and months, and it is an extremely challenging time for everyone.

On Thursday afternoon, Rev Crebbin announced that he and NCC Minister of Youth & Formation Kristen Provost Switzer would offer streaming services from the sanctuary of their West Street church for at least the next two weekends. There will not be, he said, in-person gatherings on March 15 or 22.

From his office a few miles north, Pastor Morris on Thursday announced that he would continue to lead worship services at his Mt Pleasant Road house of worship.

“Nothing can truly substitute for gathering together, as the church has done throughout its existence,” Pastor Morris said in part in a letter that was sent to his congregation.

In their separate e-mails, each man said the decision was one made out of love, not fear. It was a message that both had expressed during this week’s NIC meeting.

Rev Crebbin in his e-mail noted that “Christians are called to love our neighbors — and especially to take care of those around us who are vulnerable — including those who are threatened by illness.”

He noted that he and NCC’s pastors and leaders had made “several decisions that we believe are in the best interest of living out our Christian calling to lead with love and serve with compassion.”

In addition to announcing to the streaming Sunday worship services in place of live gatherings, Rev Crebbin then announced the cancellations of all other church activities and meetings until at least March 28.

The decision, he said, was done “out of love and not out of fear.

“In this time of increasing concern about the coronavirus (COVID-19), we feel that it is in the best interest of our community to be mindful of the most vulnerable among our church and in our wider Newtown region.”

Rev Crebbin mentioned speaking with town officials and his belief that social distancing can assist in “flattening the curve,” he wrote, of further spreading COVID-19.

“The concept is that by severely reducing the gatherings of people and reducing physical person to person contact,” he explained, echoing sentiments he had shared during Wednesday’s interfaith council meeting, “we are able to slow down the spread of the virus — which assists our healthcare system in providing quality care to those who are infected. It also means that our healthcare system continues to have the resources and staff to assist those vulnerable neighbors in our community who have all kinds of other healthcare needs.”

Around the same time, members of Christ the King Lutheran Church were receiving an update from their faith leader. Pastor Morris also echoed thoughts shared aloud during Wednesday’s meeting.

Agreeing with what his colleague had said, Pastor Morris encouraged his congregation to consider Psalm 121, as well as Paul’s words to the church in Philippi, and to not live in fear during these challenging times.

“God is your keeper, and He neither slumbers nor sleeps,” he wrote. “With Christ as our redeemer and the Holy Spirit as our guide, we should not be anxious or fearful.”

Pastor Morris encouraged his congregation to continue to be reasonable, to give thanks, to pray, and to live in Christ’s Peace.

Having said that, the pastor announced that worship services will continue, while precautions are encouraged.

“We are exploring some live-streaming options, but nothing can truly substitute for gathering together, as the church has done throughout its existence,” he wrote.

Pastor Morris pointed out that the current pandemic is occurring during Lent, “a time of fasting from certain activities.” He is therefore asking churchgoers to abstain from physical contact during the Passing of the Peace. Lutherans are already “fasting,” he said, from the Gloria and the Alleluia until Easter Sunday.

March 11 Meeting

Those who were able to attend Wednesday’s meeting were clearly struggling.

Would it be a good idea to stop public worship services? How would members of any house of worship continue to feel included? Would everyone have access to online services? Is this the new normal? These were just a few of the questions raised during the 90-minute gathering in one of the meeting rooms of Trinity Episcopal Church.

While she was careful to not tell the men at the meeting how to handle their parishes, Newtown Health District Director Culbert did caution them on procedures all can add to precautions they and their staff are already taking.

“Minimize crowded places and hand shaking, and encourage staying home when you’re sick,” she said.

“We have to gear up for the possibility of people getting really ill,” she added.

“People need to be as diligent as possible,” Culbert added a few minutes later. “It’s hard. It’s people’s nature to want to be together, to not always stay at home.”

She was grateful, she added, that she and other Newtown officials have received “no resistance” from anyone who has been told to self-isolate in recent days and weeks.

Rev Crebbin mentioned he is “already seeing less people in services. I also think there are people who feel vulnerable. Most people understand that we’re making accommodations.

“One of the challenges, as communities of faith,” he said, “is we lead with love. Fear should not be the driving force to responding to things. So how do we lead now?

“For many, it may not be a big deal” to continue to attend worship services, he continued, “but there are vulnerable people. If what we’re doing is causing other people to suffer, I think that’s something we have to keep in mind.”

Steve Bamberg, representing Congregation Adath Israel, said a similar response is happening at the town’s synagogue.

“People in communities are hurting, and nervous,” he said. “They’re scared. Since last week especially, there are more people who are afraid, and pulling their children out of programs and events, trying to do more stuff online.”

There is also the concern, everyone in the room agreed, of further isolating people who do not go out much.

Addressing Culbert, Pastor Morris asked how, when something is taken away from someone, even “for the sake of what appears will yield a health benefit, how do you weigh the benefits and the costs of what’s been taken away?

“As clergy, even when you remove COVID from the mix, we have to deal with these things all the time, where you have to try to help people to navigate through a life that’s less like the life that they want,” he said.

“What’s even more challenging,” he added, “is when you make a decision on the part of leadership of the church. That then makes everyone’s decision for them. Something like not holding services is an extreme step.”

Pastor Morris’s concerns, he said, include taking steps now that have not been taken before.

“I acknowledge that this is an unprecedented illness in recent history,” he said Wednesday afternoon. “But it’s probably not the last, and I’m trying to modulate between the response now, and what this will mean the next time.

“And if we take a precautionary step now, when do we feel confident that precautionary step is no longer needed?” he added. Part of the challenge, Pastor Morris said, is that churches have lived through plagues before.

“What can we learn from the past while acknowledging that there are a lot of unanswered questions in the present,” he said. “My calling is to help them make their own decisions based on their spiritual beliefs, their own convictions, and living out their faith in a world that often has extremely uncertain data and extremely unknown outcomes.”

The Reverend Leo McIlrath, a Sandy Hook resident who serves as chaplain at the Lutheran Home in Southbury, said it’s about balance.

“I think it’s important to keep the balance between the personal health of an individual and the well-being and common good of the community,” he said. “If one person in the community is jeopardizing the health and life of other people in the community, if it came to that, and we’ll have to wait and find out, I think we have to keep in mind the common good of everyone.

“If we err, it should be on the side of good health,” Rev McIlrath added.

After mentioning steps that Trinity Episcopal Church has taken, the Reverend Matthew Babcock was quick to add that he and Reverend Dr Jennifer Montgomery would have taken such steps even if they had not been directed to do so by their bishop.

“We do have an Episcopal structure, but I can also tell you without question that we would have done that here, even had the bishop said nothing,” Rev Babcock said. “We do exercise enough authority in our parish structures, we don’t wait for everything to be dictated to us.

“However, when the hierarchal structure agrees with the pastoral decisions that we have already made, and are beginning to institute, that makes the institution of those decisions a lot faster,” Babcock added.

Adath Israel’s Purim events were canceled this week, Bamberg mentioned.

“It’s a festival holiday, with a carnival and a service,” he said. “It was all canceled.”

Rev McIlrath said he, too, had to alter plans for Purim.

“We asked the rabbis yesterday, who were going to come for Purim, to not come,” he said. “They had been to four other places, and we didn’t think it was a good idea to have them visit us.”

The biggest challenge, the room agreed, is making decisions as new information is received.

“We can make any decision,” said Rev Crebbin, “and it will be second-guessed. We may not meet, and there may be not an outbreak, and then people will challenge that decision.”

Steve Bamberg finished his thought, adding, “We can also do everything right and still get an outbreak.”

Christ the King Lutheran Church Pastor Rob Morris makes a point during Wednesday's Newtown Interfaith Council meeting. At right is the Reverend Leo McIlrath. (Bee Photo, Hicks)
Newtown Congregational Church Senior Pastor Matt Crebbin asks a question of Newtown Health District Director Donna Culbert on March 11.  (Bee Photo, Hicks)
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