Following the retirement of the Rev. William Bradbury, I arrived at All Saints’ the very next Sunday, February 9, 2020, which happened to be the Sunday of the annual meeting. I was delighted by what a healthy, vibrant, parish greeted me and was particularly impressed by the thriving church school, youth and adult choir programs, and a living stones campaign that kept the church better maintained than many parishes I have served in the past. I soon learned that there were two tasks before us that in themselves would be enough to challenge any parish, the search for the next rector and the replacement of beloved, longtime, music director, Maggie Marshall, whose administrative gifts extended far beyond the music programs. In short, in 2020 All Saints’ lost a great deal of the steady, reliable, leadership that made it much of what we know today. We, however, immediately drew up plans to set in motion a deliberate process to ensure that All Saints’ would not only find its next rector and organist and choirmaster, but thrive in the meantime by maintaining all the things that the members of All Saints’ love the most.
I had five wonderful weeks where I met many people at All Saints’ during the Wednesday and Sunday services. That was when we all began to understand that something was about to change our lives and the lives of everyone we know. With little knowledge of the precise nature of what became the global pandemic, we made a series of decisions prioritizing the health of our staff and parish members that in retrospect were exactly the right ones. We first established a lay pastoral care team that has been utterly essential in our most fundamental task of caring for one another. Although it seemed to be an overreaction at the time, we closed our physical church to all in-person events and created strict rules for staff members to operate safely in the building segregated from one another. Our language in those days was that we were “proceeding out of an abundance of caution.” We scrambled hard to shift all worship services, church school classrooms, and meetings to an electronic format. The learning curve was steep and I marvel at how talented our people are to have mastered any number of hardware obstacles and software formats in such a short period of time. It also required of parishioners an openness to learn how to worship in their homes in a new way.
We believed we would be in this mode for approximately two weeks as the virus passed through and we would be able to open up on the other side of it. It was an unthinkable thought that nearly a year later it would be more dangerous than ever to gather. Things have become so bad that we prefer not to talk too much about this part. If for no other purpose than for the benefit of readers in the future, these are some of the leading facts. As I write this, approximately 20,000 Americans are dying every week of COVID-19 with no determinable end in sight. Over 430,000 Americans have died since the onset of the pandemic and there have been twenty-five million documented infections. Our minds struggle to comprehend these numbers and the scale of what is happening as 1 in 13 Americans has so far had the experience of being told that he or she has tested positive for COVID-19 and 1 in every 825 Americans has died of it.
14,000 some people in Massachusetts so far have died of Coronavirus and nearly all of us know people personally affected by it. Many have lost members of their extended families and are grieving. There have been many funerals mostly outside, mainly graveside, not followed by the indoor gatherings that are customary. Related to COVID-19 or not, we have lost dear members of our parish long before we should have. Conversations at All Saints’ frequently mention Jordan Kawalya Kajubi, Steve Grillo, and others, with a kind of astonishment that they will not be with us in person when we regather. May their souls and the souls of all the departed rest in peace. They now take their place with all the saints at All Saints’ Church.
All Saints’ last suspended in-person worship services in the fall of 1918 due to the Spanish Flu pandemic. That was a matter of weeks and a century passed where several wars, social unrest, and other catastrophes were met with unceasing faithful prayer in our hallowed walls. The length of time that we have needed to suspend in-person services is without precedent in our more than 150 year history. There has also been massive economic dislocation and political upheaval. Truly lamentable has been the fact that every aspect of the public health response to the pandemic, and other matters such as race and geography, have been politicized as wedge issues to divide Americans into opposing voting camps. This has inhibited much unified public action to save lives and local economies and has been its own independent cause of fear and anxiety. We, by an reckoning, remain in one of the biggest crises of our lifetimes and in the history of All Saints’ Church.
The real story, nevertheless, of this most difficult of years at All Saints’ is that when our nation appeared to be coming apart at the seams, where racism and political partisanship have threatened to win the day, and where death has cast a longer and longer shadow, All Saints’ has pulled together in a remarkable show of unity and perseverance that exemplifies our highest values. I will be brief, but this part of this report extolling how so many members of All Saints’ opened their hands and hearts with courage and dedication for the benefit of us all deserves to be much longer than it is. Many others not named here deserve mentioning and thanks as well.
We lost all our rental income, weekly plate offerings, and fund raising events due to the closure of the building. We have been kept afloat because of ongoing generous gifts to the operating budget, to the Living Stones capital improvements campaign, and to the Rector’s Discretionary account (details of which are in a separate report). I cannot thank all of you enough who have given so much amid such economic uncertainty. That giving made it possible for us not only to maintain our building, but to make major improvements to our lower level classrooms and choir room. The happy voices of children will spill out of the bright new classrooms when the current crisis is over in a way that will touch lives and gladden our hearts for years to come.
That giving also enabled us to retain our talented staff during a time when we have rarely if ever asked more from them. The pandemic has disrupted the lives of children as much if not more than adults. Our children’s schools have often closed and reopened multiple times. A number of students have remained in their homes to learn. Teachers have been greatly challenged and parents have often done more teaching than they ever imagined. Our Director of Christian Education, Laura Marshall, led the way at All Saints’ by immediately converting our entire church school program into online forms. Her creativity in this regard has appeared to have no limits. She, and our many church school volunteers, supplied a consistent church school experience for children when many other things in their lives seemed unreliable. This included summer programs as well during a summer where ordinary vacations and travel were impossible.
Since the coronavirus is an airborne, respiratory virus, it presented a singular challenge to our tradition of sacred singing. We would need to learn to sing in another way. Maggie Marshall’s last months as our Music Minister were the very ones where we were learning how to worship in an online format where All Saints’ met people in their homes. We also started our search for our next organist and choirmaster. Pipe organ performance is a rarer skill in our time than it once was. To play the organ in the right way, at the right time, within the rhythms of Episcopal liturgy is also its own more specific skill. Directing choirs of all ages is yet a further skill. To find all these in a single individual during a global pandemic was a special challenge, and frankly, the subject of much prayer. Dr. Carl Klein started at All Saints’ in June and has ever since supplied the audio files of the organ music that accompanies our services along with mixing the voices together of the individual choir members who send him their recordings. That we have managed to maintain our rich tradition of sacred music through all this is a testimony to the commitment and creativity of many people and, I suspect, a good deal of pure divine grace. We had planned a multi-day retirement party for Maggie Marshall inviting friends old and new. Like so many things in 2020, it has been postponed, but it remains one of the things that we have to look forward to. 2020 also saw the establishment of the Marshall Family Special Music Fund. We continue to receive contributions to this fund which, God-willing, for decades to come will grow and supply funds to enrich our longstanding tradition of sacred music and make performances possible here that otherwise never would be.
Being senior warden of an Episcopal Church is never without its challenges. Adding a rector transition and a global pandemic qualifies one for a note in the parish archives. Laura Barry has been a tireless partner to me in crises big and small for this very long, stressful, year. She participated with me in countless hours of meetings with the Diocese and others where we were all learning about what we were facing, strategizing how to survive, and deliberating about life and death decisions. Sleepless nights all around. That she also became the chief editor of our videos as we entered this new age is simply above and beyond the call of duty. Typical senior warden duties do not include downloading the rector’s sermon near midnight on Saturday night, embedding it within the flow of all the other videos, and uploading it to our video streaming service to ensure that parishioners hear their word of hope and have extended to them the possibility of worship during a pandemic. She finishes her term as senior warden with distinction, deserves our gratitude, and will be rewarded by our God who does such things in secret.
One might think that it would have been an easy year to be junior warden, but you would be mistaken. Our beautiful stone church never sat quietly even after we closed it to public worship, public meetings, and rental events. In fact, it demanded near constant attention (including a bat infestation in the chapel). As his own report describes, Scott Bempkins managed an ongoing series of problems and repairs ensuring both that our buildings remained usable for the staff, but also that the physical church would be in good shape for when we return. Our sexton, Mirna Cunha, has kept the building clean even as she has had to take every precaution for her own safety. Margie Dissinger, has staffed the office frequently as the only person attending to matters on site, prepared materials for our electronic services, meticulously kept our books, and caught countless matters before they ever became bigger problems.
It seems that this last year all of our efforts have gone into just surviving, but with the advent of several vaccines we have begun planning for the post-pandemic era. It will have its own sizable tasks and challenges. Nearly all of our groups and programs will need to be rebuilt as we learn and relearn how to be church together in a way that had been impossible for a long time. We have a number of new families who have recently joined us that we will be able to introduce to our sacred worship space. Those of you with experience will need to teach others any number of roles as (now) older acolytes instruct their successors, seasoned choir members welcome new singers, new lay readers who have only read online will begin to discover the lectern, and all of us will need to reacquaint ourselves with the subtle etiquette of being in a room worshipping with more than a hundred other people at a time. We will all be in different psychic places about how comfortable we are with shaking hands (or not) during the exchange of the peace, or wearing masks, or drinking from the common cup. As much as we long for a single celebratory restoration of the old order, we, in fact, will be journeying together into a new space that will require a good deal of patience and Christian charity toward all. It will likely be a time to revive an old Episcopal slogan, “all may, none must, some should.” In the meantime, I encourage members of the congregation to be vaccinated as soon as possible.
The pandemic forced us to learn technologies we were likely long overdue to incorporate into our experience of church. This has made it possible for us to introduce new services (such as the 8am online Morning Prayer service), have evening adult education without people needing to leave their homes, and to enable people to participate in our worship services from wherever they are. In addition to being streamed on our website and shared on Facebook, our weekly service is now broadcast by Chelmsford Telemedia to homes all around us. Rather than simply being a coping strategy for the pandemic, several of these developments may continue long into the future. New members in the future may well first meet us online before they ever walk into the doors of the physical church. When the time comes hopefully later this year, we will need to make decisions prayerfully about what features of our current life should continue and what things were only temporary adaptations to survive the pandemic.
We are also plan to begin the rector search this year. With no pandemic, a proper rector search is usually at least 18 months. We are currently accepting names for the Vestry to consider as it forms the search committee that will eventually present three finalists to the Vestry as it calls the next rector of All Saints.’ The beginning of the search process is not to be overlooked or skipped over. There will be a great deal of communication from me about this topic throughout this year, but we will need everyone’s participation in order to get this right. We are not calling a rector to serve the All Saints’ of the past, but to be the rector we need for the future. The pandemic has changed us, and in some significant ways, we do not yet know who we expect to be. What ambitious, what wonderful thing, is there awaiting us as we follow Jesus into his future? What pastoral skills will All Saints’ need to get there? Rather than yet more parish survey, we plan to have a series of group discussions where we learn together who we are and who we will be. That will take some time, but it will be exciting. For those who may be concerned about my own plans since it turns out I will be here longer than we expected when we met one year ago, I am very happy serving you and have no plans to leave All Saints’ until the new rector is in place.
My heart, however, misses the little pastoral conversations in former times that I took for granted, the walking in, walking out, a brief prayer at the altar rail, a handshake at coffee hour, and the occasional coffee at a shop near the church. I am keenly aware that there are many of you that I have not been able to spend individual time with that I would have under different circumstances. I so look forward to resuming the pastoral itinerary from person to person that is what most priests like most about this calling. Until then, even though the phone is a poor substitute for presence, God’s Spirit is able to do its good work through it even in times like we are living through now. Please reach out to me if you would like to.
One of the features of our sacred worship space is the sanctuary candle that hangs over the reserve sacrament on the south wall of the sanctuary. It reminds us that God is truly present there. It is something of a theological question about whether or not that candle is worth keeping continually lit when there is no one there to see it. Throughout the pandemic, the altar guild has faithfully replaced candle after candle to keep it continuously burning. We have ended the majority of worship videos with an image of that candle burning in the silent church. It is a standing reminder that there are some things that even a pandemic cannot disrupt. God’s presence continues not only to be where we have long known it to be, but continues to spill out into the world to us and through us. It is odd that the truth is what we most need reminding of, but we have every reason to be confident that whatever new obstacles will present themselves in 2021, the same Spirit that carried us through 2020 will do the same even as it calls us to same committed kindness and generosity that sustained us in this hardest of years.
Faithfully in Christ,
The Rev. Dr. Paul Kolbet