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Can faith communities get back to normal? (They're in it now.)

Overall, the Covid pandemic has been brutal on houses of worship.

2nd-towerSome have closed for good. Many have experienced severe budget problems. When congregations have been able to meet in person, the normal attendance numbers often have been way down.

And as this Associated Press report on this subject suggests, it's been happening everywhere.

The story says that things got so bad at the Biltmore United Methodist Church of Asheville, N.C., that its building has been put up for sale.

But, the story says, "Biltmore is just one of an untold number of congregations across the country that have struggled to stay afloat financially and minister to their flocks during the pandemic, though others have managed to weather the storm, often with help from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, and sustained levels of member donations."

And it's not just Christian churches that have suffered. It's also mosques, synagogues, temples and other houses of worship that are home to lots of different congregations.

The congregation with which I'm most familiar because I've been a member there for more than four decades is Second Presbyterian Church of Kansas City. It, too, has suffered financially and experienced a decline in attendance for in-person worship, when that finally returned. But on the whole we've done remarkably well.

For instance, a few weeks ago we brought in 10 new members. And soon after that added nine more through our confirmation classes for teenagers. We've struggled some to gather financial pledges for this new year, but overall it's not been a disaster. Indeed, our total membership number actually grew this past year despite several deaths of members.

Still, all of us -- and people in countless other congregations -- long for something like normal times (whatever that term means).

But here's what I think is important for such congregations to remember: They are built for abnormal times. Which is to say that they know that throughout history people of faith have faced challenge after challenge, including plenty of trouble of their own making. What keeps them going is a faith that God has called them to respond to whatever is happening in the world around them with compassion, love, understanding and inventiveness.

In just the past century-plus, people of faith have had to respond to two world wars, several pandemics, economic depressions and recessions, terrorism committed in the name of faith, environmental disasters, meteorological catastrophes, stunning technological challenges and more.

There simply are no normal times. And the most adaptive and wise among believers know that. So let's quit pretending that there is smooth sailing ahead. Any calm seas are simply a temporary reminder that they won't last. It's the willingness to trust that despite all of this there is a god who created the world out of an impulse of love. That should be all people of faith need to know.

(As for "normal," the photo here today shows the work in progress a couple of years back on repairing the tower at my church. Just part of adjusting to changing needs.)

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Until the other day, the chapel at Princeton Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian institution, has long been named for a slaveholder named Samuel Miller. But Princeton's board, under pressure from the seminary’s Association of Black Seminarians (ABS) and allies, has voted to remove the Miller name and simply now call it the Seminary Chapel. So, first, congratulations to the board for doing the right thing, but more congratulations to the ABS for putting this matter on the board's agenda. Heaven knows if it ever would have been considered otherwise. But the question that the RNS story to which I've linked you doesn't address is whether Princeton will simply cancel and disappear Miller or whether the story of his long years of being honored by Princeton will be told for future generations so that despicable history isn't lost. Such actions as removing statues of Confederate generals should be just one step in redeeming history. Once they're removed, the story of how they got honored in the first place and why, finally, they were determined to be unworthy of honor needs to be told for future generations. If those stories are lost, future generations are more likely to have a distorted view of their own history and, thus, be more likely to repeat the worst parts of that history.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about Black people with ties to Indigenous people -- now is online here.


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