The Burden of Hate; Lifted Here.

In a recent survey, about 80% of people believe churches should be subject to the same rules on being open and on requiring social distancing practices as other organizations; some 28% said they believe their own place of worship should be closed for all in-person meetings, while 57% said their own churches should be open, but with modifications, and 13% said their congregations should be open just like before the pandemic.

However, that doesn’t mean that everyone is showing up to open church. The Pew study found only 12% of American adults reporting they have personally attended an in-person worship service in the past month. This compares with 70% of American adults who believe their churches should be open in one form or another. Overall, fewer than 1-in-6 adults who want their churches open say they are attending themselves. The pandemic has had a dramatic impact on worship and church sustainability. Many churches are simply choosing to close rather than try and navigate these unprecedent circumstances and large financial strains.

I found it interesting that Evangelical Christians and Catholics are most likely to say they have attended in-person worship within the past month. Evangelicals top that list at 44%, followed by Catholics at 32%. And online worship participation ranks high among all Americans who identify as regular churchgoers, with 72% of such adults accessing online services weekly. But, let us not all lose hope, because among the other half of American adults remaining, a full 42% say they will return to regular church attendance at the same rate as before the pandemic once it is all behind us. In other words, we all need to hang on!

I think that is the most wonderful thing about Saint Miriam. We were well-prepared to deal with the pandemic, despite not even being aware it might hit us so hard! We had strong online giving and virtual worship opportunities, plus we had already begun to see the need for virtual learning. Our school and Children’s Faith Formation (CFF) teams had already begun implementing the start of such learning prospects. Then, the pew removal ended up being a Godsend as we found the need to distance and allow space for worship to return. Our new Sanctuary allows for adaptation and multiple tier uses. Yes, we were in good standing and since them we have done so much more.

Despite the circumstances, we also have increased our outreach and serve more persons experiencing homelessness than anyone could have imagine; both on the streets and in our own parking lot, we care for literally hundreds weekly with food, nutrition, fellowship, warm clean socks (And, we just received word we will be receiving another 5,000 pairs of Bombas Socks by fall, too!), and a safe place to park and find rest.

We also have not stopped caring for our property. We added new signs out front, completed parking lot safety upgrades and maintenance, added cameras and livestream enhancements, worked to open our new Retreat house, and covered additional costs of disinfection protocols and PPE gear needed for staff and attendees. We also added a RSVP Seating System to help keep us safe, mandatory maximums on attendance for the time being, and Plexiglas protection screens to the ambo and pulpit. We added a CFF Hybrid Program to teach our children love and values, and not only absorbed all the costs, but still managed to cut in half the annual tuition for our children programming to help parents already overburdened. 

At the school level we added MyON, a virtual reader program and Learning Pointe, a safe place for virtual learning to happen when parents need to return to work, but students are out of the classroom. Now, regardless of their school district, we have a place for them to learn and be safe.

Through it all, we have reduced ancillary, marketing, and staff costs to allow needed funds to be freed up, but sadly, fundraising support is down, and general giving is down, too. We received in the past as a matter of regular occurrence a full ¼ of our income every Sunday by in-person giving. Now, that income is almost non-existent. 

So, we must all ask ourselves now, where do we go from here? How do we continue to be light, in dark? How do we bring love where others so easily sow hate? Do we want Saint Miriam is exist when we are ready to return?

The late, well loved, Congressman John Lewis once memorably once said, “We must find a way to… lay down the burden of hate. For hate is too heavy a burden to bear.” I think that is one of the best ideals of Saint Miriam! We are founded in the belief that Jesus loved, not hated, even those who hated Him and that He is recognized best when we stand, as He did, among the sick, the poor, the excluded with open hearts and doors. We are our best as we show them God’s merciful love through our own willingness to sacrifice and to love even the most unlovable.

This is why we adhere to a Church teaching on giving priority to the well-being of the poor and marginalized; this is not a political or ideological choice, as it lies at the very heart of the Gospel itself.  This preferential option for the poor, which includes feeding the hungry and drawing close to the excluded, “is the key criterion of Christian authenticity,” as Pope Francis recently reminded the world.

At Saint Miriam, our needs are ever expanding, and we cannot find it in our hearts to turn even one person away from the life changing … even lifesaving … programs we offer. But, with reduced giving, the lack of participation in regular fundraising activities, along with the unexpected emergencies and the impact of the global pandemic it is all taking a toll on our budget. I need your help; we all do.

 So, I write to you today because I refuse to lose heart. I remain an optimist, trusting in God’s unfailing goodness and also in your generosity. Just as it was said so wonderfully by our staff wanted to do a beautiful video to show their support of our mission and families, ‘We are in this together.’

As I talk with many of our parishes loyal and kind friends, I know many too are suffering through these hard times of uncertainty. I hope there is assurance when I tell them – as I remind you now, too –  they are remembered in our prayers and Masses. Will you please help by sending your most generous gift today?

Through your generous partnership, you are us accomplish so much good in the world. I do trust in God, and YOU, to help us through this challenge.

God bless and reward you for all you have done. May our loving Lord draw you ever closer to His Heart. Be assured your intentions will be remembered in my prayers.

I look forward to seeing from you!

Sincerely in hope,

Monsignor +Jim 

 



Here’s What Pastor Moments Taught Me.

 

I’ve been thinking all summer about being a pastor, especially as I continue to navigate the unknown for months on end now. Many have thought that I simply made these decisions and was left fine, but the truth is, I am not sure.

First, the decisions were about closing. Do I close the school as the governor ordered? Do I close the church, as he didn’t even ask? Who would be harmed either way? How do I control a virus? What would my life be like if someone got sick, or worse, died because of a decision that I made, or didn’t make? Then, the decisions came about reopening! Who needed us to reopen? What would parents do with their children if we chose – like so many other school – not to reopen, but they still needed to go to work? Who would come to Mass in a pandemic anyway? Or, were there others like me who desperately needed God now more than ever? Where would they go if not here? And, if we opened, how could we do so in the safest manner possible? What would it cost? How could we afford it when no one was coming for so long? How could we track, manage, and protect and still worship at the same time?

Of course, those were the public decisions so many now know I had to make as pastor of Saint Miriam. But there were those that many failed to realize that I needed to make, too, but that I was still faced with on a daily basis; these included, who would serve Mass? How would I keep my team safe? What of the sick, the injured, the dying, and the dead at hospitals and nursing centers? Would I instruct my priests and deacons to go to the very places where the virus was the most active; would I even go? Who would be quarantined and for how long?

Then came another plague to our parish life, too: the mental health crisis that came underneath it all. So many of our older parishioners especially were literally shut inside with no way for us to go visit, or touch, or hold them. It produced a mental health crisis not predicted, and still, truthfully, not handled. After all, how do you handle it when often the person can’t see they are ill to begin with?

And, there were those things that many folks don’t want to hear about, too! Like budgets and paying the mortgage, the light bill and insurance. How would we – how could we – survive when more than 25% or more of our income came on a Sunday basis when people came and dropped off their donations in person, but now, no longer could? How could we remain vital without income? Would people drop off or mail their checks to help us stay here? To remain…

Then there were furloughs and staffing and PPE gear expenses and virtual reality upgrades, not to mention the Sanctuary renovations and a new retreat center! Yes, these pastor moments  were tough; they remain so. I wonder, what we will look like once a vaccine is found and people can return to whatever the normal will then look like? Will God still matter?

The power of these pastoral decisive moments are those none of us like, wish for, and sometimes run away from. These are the times in our lives when we actively must choose a particular path, and they require us to be brave and to believe. I know that I never have thought of myself as particularly brave, but at their root, these moments require just that, and we all want to be brave when it counts, to be the one who steps up, leans in, does the right thing, all when it matters most.

A pastoral moment for me ― one that we remember as having marked or defined us ― is often preceded by a long season of preparation and prayer that most never see or even think about. And when the moment passes, and the decisions have been made, and the adrenaline rush is over, we are left to live according to what we felt at the moment of decision. Right or wrong, we live with our decisions and pray we are somehow right. 

The last few months, especially since mid-March, have been a bit like riding a wave. Like all waves, it has been all-consuming for a brief moment, and then, and here’s my point, the moment passed. As all such moments do, it passed and here we are, again, with only ourselves. Our God. Our life together.

I guess my bigger point with my blog today is that God has been with us. He never left not once. No, sadly, not in some ‘Moses strike that rock’ moment, but more subtly, consistently, calmly guiding our thoughts and actions in prayer and belief and because we stayed and believed in Him, Saint Miriam remains stable and alive and vital. Yes, we have adapted to the pandemic like many of you have personally at home, and dare I say, we have come to see a new us where things that were important, no longer are and people and relationships and commitment are the real stuff of our life together, and our connection with God.

For me, I have learned that everyone is needed; everyone has an important part to play, and an offering to make to our life at Saint Miriam. And while we grieve when some people choose to leave, most of us stay and pray and do what we are called to do: believe and remain in relationship with each other. Then, by our doing so, prayer is easier, we are kinder, changes hurt a little less, anxiety is reduced, and God still comes.

I am not a perfect man, and I am far from a perfect priest and leader, but I show up and I remain. I think it’s important to acknowledge that as we step up to the plate, we’ll miss more balls than we hit, but if we run away, we are left alone with ourselves and that is often harder than staying in the game itself.

Faithfully, imperfectly, in an ever-changing world in which we, too, are being changed is where we now live. So, I have TWO gifts for you today! The first is a prayer video for those who are unsure and even scared, and the other is video for parents who are praying about whether to, or how, to send their children back to school and to help their kids pray about it, too.

Please know that I am often scared, too. I pray that knowledge – and these gifts –  help steady you until the world comes to a new day when we are gathered home again.

Please also know I am here for you. Saint Miriam is here for you. In person, virtually, in prayer, by phone, email, text or chat. We are here, because we are better together.

Be well,

 

Monsignor +Jim

 



Off We Go!

 
I am writing early this week because we have so many exciting things going on!
 
First, I am off to our new retreat center later today to meet with a few contractors and bring up some of the donated furniture from some of you! We will try to get the center open by early fall so that everyone can enjoy it! Please remember that we have a ‘working’ weekend coming up the last weekend of August! Please join is if you can by Clicking Here!
 
And, our next Cow Share orders must be in by the end of August so get on the wagon for some great beef by Clicking Here! We also welcomed Lydia Wenger to our staff today! Stop by and meet her in our offices! 
 
Also, we heard parents who are struggling with how to teach their children this fall and work, too! So, we just updated our educational platform through our parish with a brand-new program! Virtual Learning Pointe at Saint Miriam is designed to support eLearning for students K (An in-person class set up to allow for appropriate learning of this age group with guidance including academics, physical development, socialization, task and emotional development.), and 1st to 6th grade! Qualified/screened proctors available to assist students in a facility that is RAVE certified insuring the safety of all. COVID response protocols require all students/staff wear masks, have temperature regularly taken throughout the day, socially distance and workstations sanitized between uses.  Kindergarten students at Learning Pointe will have a space designated for K-only! Students grades 1 to 6 at Learning Pointe at Saint Miriam will have access to two large indoor areas: one designed to support on-line learning, the other to support socialization and enrichment activities. Our 12-acre campus has ample outdoor space for exploring and exercise in addition to two age appropriate playgrounds is available to all students throughout the day. Extended day option from 1PM to 5PM available, too! Wow, huh?  Visit our on either our parish or our school site by Clicking Here!
 
Additionally, our new Honor and Memorial Wall is designed for everyone who donated chairs and renovation funding! Please see all the details at our website by Clicking Here! We had two more chairs donated yesterday at Mass, so we are excited to bring this project to a close!
 
Please also consider reading at Mass, even during the pandemic virtually! We have two readers that are on board for a virtual recording this month! Learn more at our website and volunteer by sending me an email!
 
Also, if you did not yet see it, we are the recipients of a beautifully stunning gift! A 16th century wall sculpture of Jesus is now in our Sanctuary! The very generous gift of a woman who joined us a few weeks ago and decided we are the place she wants to call her spiritual home! I am grateful to her and to God for allowing us to continue to grow and serve. Our home is beautiful thanks to so many of you who give so much!
 
Finally, during this pandemic time, as always, we have a team working hard behind the scenes to keep us here, vital and alive. Someone once said that they ‘long for the days for all we had to do was care for pancake dinners’! Well, those days are still here and they happened ‘back then’ because of those who care for the worst things of a parish like rumors, and bills, and staff, and worry! It is not easy to keep us going and sometimes we make decisions that some will not agree with; we understand that and are always willing to sit down and give more details, but we will not disparage another human being and we would never harm or try to destroy what we built together. Please know that there are so many of us whom are ‘staying in the water’ even when others choose not to as parish life is oftentimes transitory; people come, people go, but it is those who remain and serve that should be rewarded for their dedication and work ethic. They give and they care; that is very rare today.
 
I have seen this pandemic at its worst; at the side of the dying and the sick in hospitals, at graveside as I bury them, and I have watched it as it has robbed so many of their stability and health and increased their anxiety. Please, let us not give in to such means within something so wonderful as Saint Miriam. Stay, pray, and return when you are ready, and we will be here, waiting!
 
I am grateful for our volunteers and board members and staff. I also recognize my own weaknesses, and thanks to God, these fine people help me to become a better person every day! This is what we call a faith journey! We are not perfect, but we strive toward perfection, because one day we will be held accountable for all we did, ‘and what we have left undone’, and I am grateful to be among such fine people – and you – that make up our parish life!
 
Off we go to see what we can do next! See you Soon!

 

Monsignor +Jim

 



Haters Gonna Hate. A Time for Love!

I long to return to normal. I long, at least to return from this pandemic that is robbing people of joy, hope, and stability. I long to return to the days of boring and ‘known’ routines. I long to wake and not see an updated staggering death count, or worry that my mask isn’t clean, or my hands dirty. I long to be back to whatever a normal day, without fear, will be. I long to be where people are nice again and love is what we strive for.

Yesterday morning I spoke to a longtime parishioner who tragically lost his dad out of state to COVID. For those who don’t know, I’ve been quietly helping them over the last month. If losing his dad to this deadly pandemic wasn’t enough, he also lost grandmother (his dad’s mom) earlier in the month and then his aunt (his dad’s sister) died just a few days later. And, yes, all of them from COVID. To make it worse, he hasn’t been able to travel to be there with his family due to the restrictions, and now – unbelievably – he will most likely not be able to bury his own father. COVID takes more than health or lives, it removes stability and healing, too.

As someone who lost their own father, I could not imagine where my grief would be today if I did not have the chance to mourn properly and say goodbye to my dad. I know that some four years later, I am still grieving and oftentimes, when I least expect it, I am overwhelmed with a flood of emotions, all related to that significant loss. How would I be today if not for doing all that a son must do back then?  I don’t know, but I do know I would be worse off, and perhaps mentally harmed. The loss of a parent, especially when you have a strong relationship, is not something anyone ever just gets over; God simply allows – somehow – us, as humans, the ability to take that loss and incorporate the darkest of grief someplace deep within us. No, we don’t get over it, we sort of encapsulate it. Grief never goes away; we just learn to live with her by our side. I guess what would it say of a life gone, if no one still grieved?

It is probably why we invest so heavily in the 300+ year old cemetery on our beautiful campus. We believe in the living and the dead, the holy communion of saints.  We honor each life lived and we care for each body given over to us for our care and stewardship. We take our responsibility seriously. We honor our commitments.

Perhaps this is why I am so sad about what I see generally in people lately. I watch in disbelief how people treat one another on social media platforms, and those who will not wear a mask are beyond my imagination! The hate that comes from them is unbelievable! But if you think the church is immune from this sort of stuff, you would be sadly wrong. We are not and oftentimes it is a place where we find those most broken hurting others.

We have always had those who leave in haste, or refuse to try and reconcile, and especially those who hate so deeply. As a church we have experienced hate and vitriol and those who think us too liberal, or not-enough-Catholic, or whatever. But, we do not tolerate hate.

I have never been one to hate anyone. (Now, don’t think I don’t dislike a few people, I am only human and I am often morally inadequate.) But hate has never been something I hold on to for very long. I also have never been one to refuse a sit down, talk out about an issue, with anyone, even if they wounded me. We may never agree in the end, but I am always willing to sit, talk and try.  For so many, sadly, relationships are like chaff and they discard people so easily. But when I see anger, I think fear; what are they so afraid of? I often look at their lives and I see brokenness and sadness. I find relationships and family members they cannot get along with, or  relatives who dislike them, or children they do not embrace, or the lack of friends to be close to; the list is sadly endless. When I see estrangement, I often find a person who cannot reconcile, or certainly doesn’t even try. I pray every day to better myself and improve my weakness to that end. I do not want to be lonely or vile or hateful.

This is also contrary to who we are at Saint Miriam. No, we don’t always get along. No, not everyone stays and yes, people leave but people come, too! As we founded a parish now so many years ago, we have learned that people hate change and some, even from within, hate when things don’t go here way. When those days comes, they often hate others and yes, they even hate me. A friend and brother priest, who lives and serves in Southern Virginia, once reminded me of one of his favorite phrases, “‘Haters gonna hate’ James! Don’t pay ‘em no mind!”  Well, I try, but I still hurt. And sadly, they still hate, but we must stay true to our course, especially today in a world that needs love more.

It should be noted that in a little more than thirteen years we, as a team, have done something rarely done: we have built from scratch a place like no other! We enjoy today a parish a friary, a school, a cemetery and a retreat center! We have grown from 2 people to literally hundreds! We now employ a team of over 19 consummate professionals who rely on what we do and contribute to it every day. We have a ministry team and a board of directors that sacrifice their time and talent – for free – to help us grow and grow and serve and serve. We care for the homeless, we outreach to the marginalized, we welcome the rejected, and love everyone, and we pray even for those who hate us and wish us harm. This isn’t a fairy tale, or something we one day dream to do, it is actual, it real ministry, it is done every single day. 

Over the last few years, while there are those who reject, libel, and even hate us from their computers, graced with self-granted-keyboard courage, we continue to serve and love and welcome with our pause. While there are those who use social media to harm and demean others, while there are those who leave us because they don’t like chairs over pews, or claim our leadership to be somehow inadequate, despite our wonderful creation, while there are those who don’t like the way we stand up for those who others hate, or how we welcome the LGBTQ or the immigrant or refugee, or how we won’t support an Administration bent on division and internal civil warfare, we still ‘stay in the water’ and we serve and answer phones, meet grieving families, welcome students to our school, and bury the dead; we still baptize the infant and the seeker, and anoint the sick, and care for the lost, and give food to the hungry; we stay to provide respite for the weary as we welcome the living, and a myriad of unknown supports every day, all the while we refuse to give not the hatred and the division, or call another human being sick in any horrible mean-spirited way. No, every day, we go to the well and find the rejected and embrace them, because we know it will one day be us at a dry well praying for someone to love us, too.

And if you think it isn’t noticed by others, I welcome you to come this Sunday and behold our newest gift! A stunningly beautiful 16th Century hand carved Jesus sculpture! It is simply breathtaking, and it is a gift from a wonderful woman who walked into Saint Miriam only a few weeks ago, and since that day has fallen in love with us, and all that we are; so much so, that she gave us this very impressive and humbling gift.

So, I will pull up my big boy pants and get back to work and let the hate stay with the hater. We have real work to do here at Saint Miriam. No, as they say, ‘haters gonna hate’ and so they will, but as for us and our home, we will keep our eye fixed on the ball, and the ball for us is Jesus.

See you Sunday in a place we built together in love and hope!

 

Monsignor +Jim

 
P.S. Oh, in case I didn’t mention it before….all those who hate you or revile you or hurt you? We knew it was coming, right? Jesus told us so (You know, in that  Bible you never pick up!?), and what are we to do? We pray for them! Because we can’t see hate with our love glasses on! 

 

 



You Won’t See Me For Two Weeks; I Love You That Much.

As I sit down at my desk to write this blog, the United States of America has just surpassed a new milestone: we now have over 3 million cases of coronavirus, and sadly and disturbingly our numbers are rising. We actually added 1 million cases in the last month alone, and 14 states are increasing so rapidly that intensive care unit beds are at a premium. In one major city, they are down to less than 25 intensive care beds. We are on the verge of an actual meltdown.

I have watched during the last few weeks all the infighting throughout our nation, as we here at Saint Miriam have made several changes, totally unselfishly and out of love, to accommodate people back to gathering for Mass safely in person, as well as bringing children back to our school and daycare, and to plan the opening of our retreat center. But, as we have moved forward in love, so many others are engaged in decisions that will result in harm. It is hard for me to see the failure of so many in leadership to think ahead. Now, the current Administration says schools must come back in the fall or they are threatening to limit federal funding, even as the CDC holds firm on its stance not to do so. This is unbelievable. It is basically tantamount to an unregulated research study. I find it appalling.

As a pastor who oversees the complexity of two campuses now that contain a parish, a friary, a school, a daycare, a cemetery, and a retreat center, I literally make decisions every day that can immediately affect people’s lives and possibly result in their harm or even death, even my own and my family. I know that many would not even understand this; after all, we are small by comparison to others, but literally if one or two people get sick under my watch, it is enough to ripple effect to others. My decisions would impact hundreds, if not thousands, of lives that those infected would then touch or infect or harm. I could not bear that, and so I deliberate and pray, and I watch and remain vigilant with every decision.

I take my position seriously and I find these demands to reopen in the face of an unprecedented worldwide pandemic, and a nation with such huge numbers of infections, to be reprehensible. If we are really concerned about bringing children back to school full-time in the fall, then we need to learn how to sacrifice today. Stay home as much as possible, practice good hygiene, wash your hands often, wear a face mask when you are in public, avoid indoor dining and restaurants (instead support them through takeout orders directly to the restaurant), when you gather in public places and venues, like church, be sure to practice safe social distancing, avoid physical contact with those who are not in the same household, stay current on physicals and your vaccines, avoid going to crowded beaches, or any place else where people are in close proximity to you and especially where they don’t/won’t practice distancing. When you are required to travel, be extra cautious, and when you return, self-quarantine.

Recently, due to unforeseen circumstances, I was forced to unexpectedly travel to bring back our RV from Florida. Many of you remember that we actually lived in the RV on our property near the garage for almost three years until we built the Friary. Sean and I sold our condo in Philadelphia and donated the money to Saint Miriam to buy the campus we now call home, but that left us without a home and the motorhome was the best way to live near the church and still have a roof over our heads. Afterwards, we owed so much that we couldn’t sell the motorhome, so we moved it down to Tampa and rented it through a vacation company for families going to Disney! It helped us save the RV and our credit! But, the company recently changed hands and the RV was being abused, so we brought it back and we had plans in place to do so safely, but they changed abruptly and so I found myself on a quick flight to get to the RV and the drive it straight back to home; a trip that lasted a total of 26 hours. I was extremely cautious, and I even paid more money for a safer individual seat on the aircraft. I controlled my own bag, took very little with me, washed my hands every stop and sprayed more sanitizer on me and my surroundings than I could ever imagine, and immediately I turned around to return home, stopping only twice for gas. But, in the end, even with almost no contact, I did fly on two commercial flights and so I am staying away from you for two weeks. In love, I am distancing.

I realize that these measures require a little bit of sacrifice but think of all the people who died who were impacted by the actions – or the inactions – of others. If you want administrators, such as me, to make decisions about opening a school in the fall, then damnit! sacrifice today and stop whining about it. People’s lives are at stake!  And, if that isn’t worth anything to you then Saint Miriam isn’t the place for you either because we love everyone and welcome everyone and never would we intentionally harm anyone.

And for those of you who keep advocating for churches and nonprofits to pay taxes and not to receive any support during the pandemic, I will remind you that we have literally in the case of Saint Miriam spend thousands of dollars – almost $72,000 to date – on safety equipment, renovations, construction, programming, technology, signage, and consulting in order to keep you safe  in any of our environments all the while we are literally out on the streets caring for those who are experiencing homelessness. We have done it all out of love and sacrifice and without a single dime in support from the local government. We even renovated our sanctuary and asked many times (I even begged) for everyone to sponsor a chair. It is only $200 and so far, we are stuck with 60 more to go. If you watched our social media, the last 50 chairs arrived. No, we don’t have any sponsors (I, personally, have sponsored 8 chairs, so I am in it with you).  We let the order process despite no sponsors, because we need them and are hoping someone hears our pleas.

Yes, a church that loves us so much that they spent this much even when no one was there for over 4 months is worthy of a sponsorship of a $200 chair, right? Well, you would think so, anyway, I think so many are preoccupied with their own lives that they forget about our life together and that one day they will need to return home. That is as sad as the way we find ourselves as a nation today. It is time we think and care for others, too.

So go ahead, keep bitching and moaning about having to wear a mask, go to your beaches and your restaurants and advocate for a president who could care less about any of you, and when you call your local church to bury your dead infected and killed by this pandemic, you may just find that we are closed because no one cared to help.

Yes, it is a time that history will judge record the way we loved; or not…

 



Until Everyone Breathes Free.

This week was extraordinary. We witnessed the Supreme Court of the United States rule that the current administration may not immediately proceed with its plan to end protecting about 700,000 young immigrants known as “Dreamers” from deportation. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote the majority opinion, joined by the court’s four more liberal members in upholding the executive action by President Barack Obama that established the program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Then, last Tuesday, too, The Supreme Court majority ruled in the case, Bostock v. Clayton County, that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, written to protect against discrimination on the basis of sex, also protects against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Today, we now also celebrate Juneteenth. The flags we see today, boasting a bursting star in the middle is the Juneteenth Flag, a symbolic representation of the end of slavery in the United States. The flag is the brainchild of activist Ben Haith, founder of the National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation (NJCF). Haith created the flag in 1997 with the help of collaborators, and Boston-based illustrator Lisa Jeanne Graf brought their vision to life. For two decades now, communities around the country have held flag-raising ceremonies on Juneteenth in celebration of their freedom, but few even recognized it until the tragic events of late in our nation have once again thrust equality – or the lack thereof – into the spotlight. Protests, and writings, tempers and voices are high, but none of this should lull us into a false sense that we are moving toward freedom for everyone. Hatred abounds. Racism is high. Equality is a dream for so many. We all must stand vigilant to care that everyone can one day love and dream in freedom.

This is why Saint Miriam is so important. We employ, welcome, and protect everyone. As pastor, I agreed to make us a ‘Sanctuary Parish’, a place where those afraid to walk in freedom because of their immigration status could come and be protected. I have stood in our beautiful Sanctuary marrying couples while agents of the ICE waited outside. Together, we stood in front of deportation that would have broken up young families. From the day of our founding, we opened our doors wide, without prejudice, to all who wanted to find a home; Gay and Lesbians persons, the Transgender, divorced, or addicted or recovered, all nationalities and even other religions, no matter the color of their skin, have found a way to a place of welcome and peace and hope. Our only requirement is not that we must always agree, but that we must always welcome – everyone – and love.

Our work must continue, it certainly isn’t done. We must continue to ‘walk the talk’ and that is why today, all of our educators who are working in our school will be receiving time and half in their paychecks. While we cannot close our doors to honor today as a holiday, because children need to be cared for, our small symbolic act will serve to further exemplify what we believe: all are created in the image and likeness of God and all are deserving of dignity and respect.

I recognize that this is a small gesture compared to the greater social needs of Black people in America. However, it is a gesture that can remind us of our journey toward freedom, and the work America still has to do.

While President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was issued two and a half years prior, and the Civil War had ended in April of that year, it wasn’t until June 19, 1865 that all of our ancestors were free. And forever we should honor their lives and celebrate that day of freedom.
 
Please support our work today. Visit my letter for this week by Clicking Here, and support us by Visiting Here. We need you.
 
Let freedom ring…and let it begin with us.
 
 


Every Promise Kept. How About You?

A few months ago, well before the current pandemic and the closures were even on anyone’s radar, we opened a brand-new school. We sat down, as a Parish Board and Ministry Team, and we prayed, thought, discerned, and asked God for help. Should we just leave the former Zion Preschool closed? Should we saddle the parish with another outreach that had already proven itself to be a frustration and high cost center for expenses? Do we really want to open the region’s only S.T.E.A.M.M. School for this age group that would also demand we get a state license to expand to daycare and infants?

These questions, at least the heaviest of the discernment points, were also similar to the very same discussions we had some 6 years ago when we purchased the campus that we now call home. Back then, the church and the school were closed, and the cemetery was in shattered form. The ‘inmates were literally running the place’! There was no pastor, and the renters (who paid no rent by the way) took advantage of that fact and came and went as they wanted and did whatever they chose to do, including building walls to suit their need! Yes, there was a lot of work to do; enough work that we had to literally decide of reopening an already closed preschool would be worth it. We prayed. We talked. We voted. We opened.

During that time, we also had huge buildings and grounds issues. We had planned to immediately renovate the sanctuary, but soon found out we needed new electrical panels and service at a cost of over $40,000. Then came lighting for safety, insulation, and mold and asbestos remediation, a new boiler, cemetery graves caving in, a huge bees nest underground, 42 trees that needed to be taken down for safety, new parking lot lighting, a garage that was on its last legs, and then AC units that needed replaced and new ones installed. Then the Bell Tower needed repaired, the Friary/Rectory needed built, and then that school again! We had to decide to reboot and reinvest or close it. Again, we prayed. We talked. We voted. We opened, but this time with two beautiful levels, all modern and brand-new technologies, and a renewed commitment to those who would come.

Last September was a tough start. It always is when you are doing something new. After a few months, we quadrupled our student population, expanded our staff to 12, and welcomed children into a private school that otherwise would NEVER receive such a quality education in such an awe-inspiring environment ever. If it weren’t for us, building the programs and costs centers into our parish life, we would never have succeeded. Then, just as we were heading toward being at a place where costs met income, COVID-19 hit! We were closed.

Many would have given up. Not me. Not my team. Instead, we invested again! We used this time of unexpected closure to add a new handicap restroom to the lower level school, something that was on the wish list, but never attained. We also built a new utility and storage closet, added a new sign for the Cemetery and parish campus on Church Road, and upgraded the Silvers’ Garden. We also added an entire Retreat Center (The Falls Retreat Center) to our life together, and not only continued but increased, our Outreach to the Homeless by putting out over 1200 Blessing Bags a month to meet the need during this crisis! And, of course, the biggest and most exciting item of all! We renovated our Sanctuary into something so beautiful and also (completely unknowingly, but certainly Spirit led!) safer for all to return to with distancing and safety in mind. Yes, God has been good, and we have listened, prayed and responded well. And, in the end, rewarded  for our faith.

All of this has been done without anyone asking you to increase your giving, add additional sums to a new Capital Campaign, and without a formal Stewardship Appeal for 20/21. All of this has been based on our request that you do one thing, and one thing only: Sponsor Chairs for the Sanctuary. Chairs, that I might add, you will sit on when you worship. Chairs that others will, too. Chairs that visitors and newcomers and seekers will sit on, as well. This was our only ask: sponsor some chairs and we can make all of this work and return to a beautiful place that can continue to do such wonderful things. Period! So, far, less than one-third of all of you have done so.

Every promise has been kept. I made some mistake along the way, I admit that, and I am only human, but I have been a good and honest pastor. I have never lied to you and have never led you astray. Everything I have ever promised has been brought to real life and ministry. We have built a parish like no other and one that any can be proud of, so proud of. Now, I am going to ask (even beg) again…And, I will tell you that I have now purchased 6 chairs, while many have not even done 1 yet.

Watch this Video. It features our latest Virtual Tour of our extraordinary school. You will see – in living color – what we do with your donations. Then, Click Here, and sponsor a chair or two and watch livestream this coming Sunday as we unveil a stunning new Sanctuary at Saint Miriam!

Every Promise Kept. How About You?

 



Singing Through the Rain.

“I am afraid to go back.” That is what I hear most often from everyone I speak to. From parishioners afraid to go back to in-person church and worship, to parents afraid to send their children back to school, to folks that are required to go back to work afraid to return to their positions and even more afraid to place their child in summer camp programs, to people afraid to travel or visit relatives, to medical professionals afraid to come home for fear they might infect their loved ones, to family of patients that I visit at the hospital, in my temporary return to chaplaincy to support the folks at Einstein, afraid to bring them back home for fear they will get infected again, to educator and teachers afraid to return to the classroom, to people like me, a pastor, afraid to open our doors wide for fear someone might get ill, even though we have literally spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours making plans to avoid just that! Yes, we are all ‘afraid’ in one way or another.

After struggling and struggling to keep our heads above the water in everything we’ve been through, this pandemic has felt like too much. In many ways, it was the proverbial ‘nail’ or ‘last straw’. We are tired and afraid and feel alone and isolated. And now, perhaps even worse, we have gone from being aggravated at staying home to almost becoming hermits: isolated, alone, insular and afraid. None of this is healthy. Not the infection, not the psychoses, and not the fear, and yet, here we are, “afraid to return to life.”

At the Vatican, Pope Francis stood alone, speaking before a huge, empty square during Hoy Week when most places are packed with worshippers. He simply said quietly,  “We find ourselves afraid, and lost.” He was. I am. You are. One pastor remarked, “I feel like I’m handing out life jackets of hope in a sea of despair.” I concur. It is not easy to return, and even the thoughts of doing so can embolden fear and make us all weak.

For me, in my own fear and isolation, there have been additional complications when it comes to pastoral care. In-person crisis counseling, comforting people as they die, providing sacraments, and consoling loved ones in the wake of death has been far more difficult. My life of summer weddings and the sad occasional funeral have all been but postponed; so are baptisms and First Holy Communion. My life – as a person and pastor – is far different. Add a new baby and new fears as a brand new dad, and you have a recipe for disaster! But I have maintained my composure and controlled my fear by focusing on things to come!

At Saint Miriam, we are retooling virtually everything we do to meet the needs of the current moment and our Sanctuary renovations are almost breathtaking! Everything is coming together to return to school and church life safely! The gatherings will be smaller, the health checks apparent, and the safety increased, but God will still come and we will still feel the Holy Spirit and our lives will return to normal; yes, perhaps a ‘new normal’ but a normal none-the-less, and we will have a choice: be still and know God is God and return to that new life with joy and faith, or be lost adrift alone on a sea of fear and isolation.

Our parish is alive and well. This pandemic has not changed us much at all, except perhaps, allowed us to realize what Saint Miriam really means to us and the deficit we have felt being apart from her physically. We have seen in living color the fact that while we are not at church it hasn’t kept us from being  the church.

I think that is a good way to end today. For a world in the grips of a pandemic, this was a time of tears. For a world now faced with a time of transition, it is a time of anxiety and fear. For Christians, like us, we are not immune; it is such a time for us as well, but it doesn’t end there. It can’t!

One of the highlights of my faith came, not from scripture, but from a television commercial. “Born in Quarantine” is narrated by a 100-year-old woman born in 1920 during the influenza pandemic. The message particularly speaks to new mom’s in quarantine, which my own wife and I endured with the birth of our first son, Jameson. But instead of it making people sad, it’s a vision of hope. You may find it here.

This is an enormous opportunity for Christians to show the world what we are for rather than all the many things they’ve heard us say that we’re against. I am for love, life, trust, faith, and hope.

How about you?
 


They Say That I Saved my Dog’s Life

She simply looked out the window all the way back home. Bailey, our youngest and newest member of the family, a beautiful 7 month old Golden Retriever, jumped in the rear of our Jeep – in her normal seat – and looked out the window all the way back home from the emergency veterinarian hospital. Katelyn, sitting in the front seat with me, almost without thinking commented, “It’s like she doesn’t even know what happened.”  It was exactly  that way.

It all began Monday evening. We, as a family, wet for a walk at Ft Washington State Park. Jameson was in his stroller and Bailey and Rory went along on their leashes. All seemed normal until we were about 2 miles into our walk when Bailey suddenly slowed down. Way down. We wrote it off in our minds to a busy day, but deep down, it was concerning. She walked slowly alongside me. Something was off. Later that evening, after dinner, Bailey threw up on the carpet near her pet bed. It had a lot of debris from the tree mulch and sticks she likes to eat. Again, we wrote it off to that, nothing more.

The next day, I went to the office and did some construction meetings with the crew renovating our Sanctuary. I came home and decided to wash the Jeep myself to get some exercise and down time. The dogs played in the yard and I washed and waxed the Jeep. All was well. As I finished up, Bailey came scampering up to me. She had emerged from the woods, like normal, but this time had a lot more weeds and vines around her neck. I pulled them off and asked her where she had been now and what did she get into?! We all came into the house and Katelyn made us a sandwich. As we sat to eat together, I noted that unusually Bailey was absent from her normal begging at table side. I found her on her bed, near the door the porch. I laid down on the floor next to her and she began to whimper and cry. I touched her neck and she let out a squeal and I knew in an instant something was drastically wrong. I yelled to Katelyn, “Honey, something is really wrong; call the Vet; we are on our way.”

As I picked Bailey up in my arms, she looked at my eyes and began to cry harder. I began to weep, too. I was fearful that I was losing her. I got in the car and held her close, as I pulled onto the roadway heading toward our Veterinarian in Philadelphia at Wissahickon Creek Veterinarian Hospital.

Bailey was declining quickly; her breathing was labored and her face swelling up. I knew she was having some form of anaphylaxis. She was in extreme crisis. I don’t know exactly how I got there in under 7 minutes, but I do know it involved great speeds and me often on the wrong side of the road. My horn never stopped blaring and my lights never stopped flashing. My four-way emergency flashers were on and I was praying for her and that a cop would see me driving this way and help so we could get there even faster. No such luck. But God was definitely with us because people were pulling over and arms waving out their windows and traffic stopping. Once I hit Ridge Avenue, I blew through every light and every stop sign and not one time did anyone object. It was if instinctively knew something was dreadfully wrong.

By the time I pulled into the vet’s parking lot, a team was waiting outside. They grabbed Bailey from my arms and rushed her inside. With COVID there is no entry, I knew that from our last routine visit. That is why I had Katelyn call ahead. A nurse, veterinarian and a  vet tech all stood waiting to help. Within a few minutes the nurse emerged and told me Bailey was ok! She responded well to the Epi Pen and her breathing was better! They would keep her for an hour or two and then I could come back to take her home. I called Katelyn, told her what I knew and made my way home. We were so grateful and relieved.

Two hours. No call. Three and a sudden call. “Bailey is failing. We need to transfer her to Metropolitan Hospital ASAP!” I was in the car in seconds. I called Sean and he met me in the parking lot of the church and we were on our way when they called back to inform us she was failing so quickly they were transporting her themselves with a veterinarian and nurse on board. We knew it was bad. We made it to Metropolitan and they were close behind.

Bailey didn’t even look like Bailey. She could no longer walk, her breathing labored had she had blood all over her once beautiful coat from the IV port that she managed to pull out. She was anxious, and the transporting team said she was ‘biting and aggressive’. I knew that wasn’t her. I made my way to her and she began to cry and lick me over and over. I kissed her, held her close, and I told her she was a good girl and we were taking care of her. They took her inside. Bailey was dying.

Within an hour they called us as we waited in the parking lot. Helpless. Alone. Afraid. We prepared for the worse. Katelyn with the baby at home did, too. They managed to stabilize her, but it didn’t look good. They asked if we wanted to be ‘aggressive.’ That is code-speak for ‘this will cost literally thousands of dollars.’  The credit card came out, she was being treated. We prayed and went home.

We never stopped praying. I called on every saint I could remember from Francis, and Mary, to my dad, and even asked Tucker who we lost last year to help. We didn’t sleep and the updates came, and the decisions were made, and the costs mounted up and finally, at 3am yesterday the call came, Bailey turned the corner toward healing. She was mending.

We picked her up today. She was back home within 30 minutes. Sleeping. A life saved. The vet told us she hit the ‘perfect storm’ of mushroom poisoning and a snake or bee swarm toxin. My mom said we should change her name to ‘Lucky’. It was worth it. Every hour. Every cent. Every worry. Every prayer. Bailey is home.

Katelyn, sitting in the front seat with me, almost without thinking commented, “It’s like she doesn’t even know what happened.”  That is my life as a pastor lived in faith. I make countless decisions, cry, pray, weep, curse, and worry. I make choices that cost money, unbalance budgets, direct funds and needs to those most vulnerable, or rely on the goodness and actions of others. I pray I am right, as I make decisions to help our lives together as faith community and to bring hope to those lost and a home to those homeless. I am not always right, but more often than not, I am. Most have no idea how hard, how scared, or how terrified I am so often. Some even ridicule or leave me alone in their own hatred, greed, skepticism, or  simply because they don’t get their way. But, then, almost without thinking they come, sit at the windows of our beautiful sanctuary, safe and loved and welcomed, and like Bailey don’t even know what happened. That is my Job. I am a pastor.

Oh, the vet was clear. Had I not driven like a ‘mad man’, or even waited another minute or two to leave for the hospital with Bailey cradled in my arms, she would have stopped breathing, and her heart would have stopped, and she would be dead. The veterinarian  said, as we picked her up for home today, “You saved her life.”

Yes, they say that I saved my dog’s life; truth is, she and my wife’s love save mine almost every day.
 
Welcome home, Bailey, daddy loves you.