Update Regarding In-Person Worship

May 22, 2020

Dearest congregation,

Greetings in the strong name of Jesus Christ! I pray this letter finds you safe and well. I write to you today to give you an update regarding in-person worship at El Mesías. The Administrative Team and I met Wednesday evening to evaluate the plan we created at the beginning of the month, which we communicated to you in an earlier letter. This plan included a tentative relaunch date of May 31, 2020, with the stipulation that we would be consulting our district and annual conference leadership as part of our decision-making, as well as national, state, and local entities for further guidance.

Considering all these resources, as well as the makeup of our congregation, the Administrative Team and I decided that we should postpone relaunching in-person worship at El Mesías at least through the end of June. We hesitate to provide a tentative relaunch date as we continue to evaluate an ever-changing set of circumstances. We ask for your prayers as we continue to discern the best plan of action balancing science with our Christian faith and will update you in forthcoming communications.

We all want to return to in-person worship, but I believe that we want to return to the comfort of worship that looks as it did before the COVID-19 pandemic began. The fact is that many of the essential parts of worship – passing the peace, congregational singing, greeting at the door – will have to be modified or eliminated entirely to reduce the spread of this disease. If we wish to keep one another safe, abiding by best practices such as wearing masks and social distancing, worship will not look as it did before – at least not anytime soon.

Bishop Schnase said in his latest video message, “There’s no nobility in being the first church to open.” To open for the sake of opening – to prove we are faithful or fearless – is not wise. It does not respect the greater biblical mandate to care for the least of these. God our Father calls us to be merciful and compassionate toward the most vulnerable parts of the Body and to attend to the needs of the community over the individual:

…the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable…God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

1 Corinthians 12:22, 24b-26

I pray for you and miss you dearly, but I am not willing to risk your health and safety. Remember, the church never closed, only the building. We are the church and Jesus Christ promises in the Gospel of Matthew that nothing will prevail over the church. We continue to be witnesses to his name and his promises as one body, united by the Holy Spirit.

There will be a time when we will reopen our building, but that time is not now. So, we wait for the Lord, placing our hope in him: “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:24-25).

My God give us all the patience to persevere in faith, hope, and love. ¡Firmes y adelante!

Update Regarding In-Person Worship

Dearest hermanos y hermanas en Cristo,

I write to you to give an update regarding in-person worship services at El Mesías. The Administrative Council and I met on April 29 to discuss Governor Abbott’s latest executive order, which allows his previous shelter-at-home order to expire on April 30. The current executive order (Phase 1 of the larger plan created by the Governor’s Strike Force) allows movie theatres, shopping malls, retail stores, and restaurant dining rooms to open at 25 percent capacity. Social distancing is still in effect, requiring people who are not in the same household to maintain a distance of 6 feet from one another. Face coverings are not required in public places but are strongly encouraged. Depending on the effects of Phase 1 on COVID-19 cases, we will either move to Phase II or return to stricter social distancing. Under the current order, churches may gather, provided they are able to observe certain protocols for cleaning and social distancing.

On Monday, April 27, Bishop Schnase and 300 clergy members of the Río Texas Annual Conference met via teleconference to discuss relaunching in-person worship services in our local churches. The Bishop reminded us that as Wesleyans, our first General Rule is to “Do No Harm.” Members of the Body of Christ are called to care for the least of these – the vulnerable among us – which includes those who are most susceptible to COVID-19: our elderly and those with underlying health conditions. Many of our members fall into these two categories. Just because we can meet for worship, doesn’t mean we should. The Bishop’s recommendation is that local churches should not resume in-person worship before May 31, 2020.  

Therefore, the Administrative Team and I have set a tentative date of May 31, 2020 to resume in-person worship services. This will give us time to evaluate the effects of relaxed social distancing measures in our community while protecting the most vulnerable among us. Even after we resume in-person worship, we will continue to offer digital worship options through our Facebook page and YouTube channel, as well as printed materials for those who prefer them. We encourage anyone who is particularly vulnerable to consider remaining at home, utilizing these alternative worship experiences.

This pandemic has been unpredictable in many ways – rapidly changing and filled with unknowns. While we have set a tentative date to resume in-person worship, it may change based on public health guidelines from our county and state officials and recommendations from Bishop Schnase. The Administrative Team will be meeting weekly via teleconference to discuss any updates and to reevaluate our timeline if necessary. We will communicate any changes through our social media and in mailings to the congregation. We will also send out information before relaunching in-person worship to give more details about the protocols we will ask everyone to follow.

Let’s not grow weary, dear brothers and sisters, but encourage one another. Let’s lean into our shared faith to keep us moving forward together. In the words of the Apostle Paul,

Conduct yourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience. Accept each other with love, and make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together. You are one body and one spirit, just as God also called you in one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all.

Ephesians 4:2-6

¡Firmes y adelante!

The Tomb is Occupied

The tomb is still occupied. The Marys and the other followers of Jesus have nothing to do but sit in their grief since it is still shabbat, the Sabbath. They have nothing more to do but sit with their thoughts and feelings about what happened yesterday. If they are anything like me – or many human beings, I believe – they can do nothing but process their thoughts and feelings, and so they sit, reliving over and over the trauma that happened yesterday. Yesterday, when their friend, teacher, and Lord was crucified. When he suffered in agony and eventually died on that cross. When Joseph of Arimathea went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. When Joseph buried him in the new tomb he had personally carved out of stone. In fact, it was so unbelievable that the Marys just sat in front of the tomb last night until it was time to go home.

Today they can’t do anything. It’s shabbat. They can’t cook or clean or work. Today is the day dedicated to reveling in God’s presence. Shabbat is when they focus on the truth, the gift, that God is the One who orders the universe. God is the one who brought them out of bondage in Egypt and freed them for life in the Promised Land. God is the one who delivered them from exile and offered them hope of returning home, when they thought all hope was lost. Funny. It probably doesn’t feel that way for them today. Hope feels lost today. Jesus is dead and lying in a tomb. Yet, the disciples recall what Jesus said on the way to Jerusalem last week,

“Look, we are going up to Jerusalem. The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and legal experts. They will condemn him to death. They will hand him over to the Gentiles to be ridiculed, tortured, and crucified. But he will be raised on the third day” (Matthew 20:18-19).

He did say that, didn’t he?

So now they wait. Breath sealed up in their lungs like Jesus’ body in that tomb. Hoping with everything in them that what Jesus said was true. Wanting to believe their Lord, but also sitting in the stark reality of his death. Going back and forth between hope and doubt. He said he’d rise from the dead, but today the tomb is occupied.

So today they will sit in the darkness, in the valley of the shadow of death, and wait for daybreak. Maybe, just maybe then…

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:22-23)

Holy Week at Home

As I type this reflection, I hear the sounds of two little boys – one age 5, one age 2 – playing, fighting, and laughing. I’m writing this reflection from my home because we are under strict shelter-in-place orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That is such a strange thing to type. Who could have predicted that this how we would be spending Holy Week – sheltering at home – doing our best to work, do school work, keep up the house, and be a family, all while we are under the threat of a deadly virus. And yet…

It is Holy Week.

I’ve seen a lot of blog posts and memes and social media posts from parents who are struggling to make this all work. So many feel that their workload has tripled or quadrupled in recent weeks. Although technology makes many things possible, it is not always convenient or time-saving. It does not provide adequate supervision for your toddler when you are trying to do your job from home (for those of us privileged enough to be able to work from home, which is worthy of its own blog post). It cannot teach your preschooler math and reading on its own. It cannot care for a loved-one. These things require human, adult presence.

In order to keep in touch with my church, I now have to write and send letters, format and schedule social media posts, and make phone calls and send text messages. Instead of being able to meet over coffee or in my office to share people’s joy and pain, I have to do this through phone calls. I had the blessing of praying over speakerphone with one of our members who was dying, but it could not entirely replace my physical presence with her. Technology can help facilitate communication, but technology is not the same thing as human presence.

Jesus knew the importance of human presence – of intimacy and human touch. Last evening we (virtually) celebrated Holy Thursday with other churches in El Valle District, reflecting on Christ’s presence in Holy Communion. Although we aren’t able to gather for Holy Communion at this time, we acknowledge and give thanks for the fact that we are still connected with one another and with Christ through the Holy Spirit – his presence. Before his crucifixion, Jesus gathered with his disciples for an intimate meal. This supper was the last at which he’d be physically present with them. After supper, he washed their feet – a deeply intimate act that conveyed humility and compassion and mercy to his friends. It made tangible his new commandment to them to love each other has he had loved them. After all, loving another human requires all of these things. Then Jesus reminded them that in a little while he would go to the Father and they would no longer have his human presence with them. He assured them, though, not to worry, not to be troubled, that he would ask the Father to send the Holy Spirit to be with them to be their Advocate and their Comforter. He would not abandon them, he said.

25 Jesus’ mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene stood near the cross. 26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.”  27 Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that time on, this disciple took her into his home. – John 19:25-27

Even on the cross, Jesus understood the human need for love and connection. Perhaps he was just being a good son, making sure his mother is cared for, but he had brothers and sisters for that. Maybe he knew his beloved disciple needed a surrogate mom, though he probably was used to not having a family around since he was an itinerant preacher like Jesus. No, I think in this moment, Jesus is reminding them – and us – of his ultimate message: love one another as I have loved you. Love one another as if you are a family. You are a family now. Show the love that I have shown you to one another because you are going to need it. You won’t see me physically, but you will see me – you will have my Spirit within you. Love one another.

What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul, what wondrous love is this, O my soul!

American folk hymn, The United Methodist Hymnal, #292

El Mesías UMC – Response to the COVID-19 / Coronavirus

Dear ones,

On Friday, March 13, I was privileged to meet with representatives from Mission Consolidated Independent School District and clergy members from Mission, Alton, and Palmhurst to discuss efforts to prevent COVID-19 (coronavirus) in our communities. I have also been receiving communication from Bishop Schnase and leaders in the Río Texas Annual Conference regarding best practices in our congregations to “flatten the curve” – stop the spread – of this virus. While we have no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Río Grande Valley, there are 39 confirmed cases in Texas as of March 13, not counting travelers being quarantined at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. This may seem like a very low number of cases, but this virus is highly contagious. We must take seriously the nature of this pandemic, working to prevent and to prepare for cases in our community.

On Friday, Governor Abbott declared a state of emergency for all Texas counties, followed by a national emergency declaration by President Trump. During a press conference yesterday, Governor Abbott made this abundantly clear: Everyone must participate in order to stop the spread of COVID-19. While you may not personally be at risk, you have family members, fellow church members, friends, and neighbors who are. As Christians, we are called to live out the Greatest Commandment: to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. In the Gospels, Jesus cares for the poor, the vulnerable, and the sick, teaching us to care for the “least of these” because when we do, we are caring for Christ himself (Matthew 25:31-46). Now, more than ever, is the time to practice this by putting the needs of others before our own.

In light of all of this, we will be making the following changes to worship:

  • We will refrain from handshakes and hugs during passing of the peace. Instead, you may place your hand over your heart as a gesture of love.
  • We will refrain from passing the offering plate. Instead, you may come forward during the offertory and place your offering in the designated basket. If you are unable to come forward, simply raise your hand and the pastor will collect your offering and place it in the basket. Hand sanitizer is kept in the pulpit in order to ensure that the pastor has clean hands.
  • We will have designated greeters to open doors in order to ensure that only clean hands touch the main entrance and Sanctuary doors. All greeters will wash their hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds before passing out bulletins or opening doors.
  • Hand sanitizer will be available in the entry to the Sanctuary, but please note that washing your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds is the most effective method for preventing the spread of disease.
  • The pastor will refrain from handshakes or hugs at the door when people are exiting after worship services.

In addition to these changes, we are suspending all small group meetings outside worship until further notice. We are also implementing a stringent cleaning policy to all areas where people gather and to our kitchen and restrooms. We are paying particular attention to door handles, light switches, tables and chairs, and the Sanctuary pews, disinfecting these regularly according to Centers for Disease Control guidelines.

Most importantly, if you are sick (fever, chills, cough, runny nose), please stay home. Help us protect other worshippers by taking time to rest and recuperate. Likewise, if you are uncomfortable about attending worship due to health concerns, please don’t hesitate to remain at home. We offer a Facebook Live stream of our 10:45 AM worship service on Sundays so that those who are unable to attend in person may still worship. During the offering, you may give your tithes and offerings online through the GivePlus app or at our website under the “Donate” tab. You may also mail your offering to the church at P.O. Box 4787, Mission, 78573. If you are unable to join our live stream, read a Psalm and a Gospel text and spend time in prayer. Listen and sing along to hymns or contemporary Christian music. Talk with your loved ones about how you have seen God at work in your life. All of these are ways to be worshipful.

At the pastor’s discretion, Holy Communion and/or worship may be postponed should the need arise. This will be done in consultation with the District Superintendent and El Mesías’ Administrative Council. Please be assured that I am in contact with the appropriate church, community, and conference leaders, as well as consulting the Texas Department of Health and Human Services and Centers for Disease Control for reliable, updated information. As this is a constantly changing situation, please subscribe to our Facebook page (@ElMesiasUMCMission), Instagram feed (elmesiasumcmission), or visit our website elmesiasmission.org for updates. You may also contact Pastor Amelia at (956) 203-0431 for more information.

As the Body of Christ, we believe in God’s goodness and grace. We believe in God’s healing power and God’s ultimate wisdom. During times like these, God calls us to exercise good judgment and to care for the vulnerable around us, while trusting in God’s love and provision. As God’s people, we find our hope in the One who offers us abundant life, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ whom God sent into the world not to condemn it, but to redeem it. Let us be in constant prayer for our world, our nation, our leaders – global, national, and local, all of those who have lost loved ones, and all of those affected by COVID-19. Let us pray for God’s healing, protection, and wisdom.

In Psalm 46 we read, “God is our refuge and strength, a help always near in times of great trouble. That’s why we won’t be afraid when the world falls apart, when the mountains crumble into the center of the sea, when its waters roar and rage, when the mountains shake because of its surging waves.” It may feel like the world is falling apart, but in fact, we are seeing blessings in the midst of this great challenge: unity instead of division, compassion instead of indignation, humor instead of despair. God is at work in even the darkest of times, shining the light of peace, hope, and eternal life. May we be beacons of this very same light all to the glory of God.

Grace and peace,

Pastor Amelia