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Guest Post: Where we have to go

by Richard Elliott: Board Chair Elect, American Congregational Association; Director of Campus Operations, Park Street Church

Miss Treadwell had all the neighborhood kids over every Saturday to eat popcorn and watch movies— bonafide films from the library—on a projector that we used to fight to help her thread through the gates and sprockets.  Unlike our parents, she was always happy to see us with a cookie jar that was perpetually, magically full.  Years after she passed, I learned from my mother about the pain that Miss Treadwell experienced in her life.  The bigger, and not better, portion of her years were spent in bitter alcoholism where she lost friends, family, and entire years.  Somehow, thankfully, she found both recovery and faith and was guided by the poem, The Waking, by Theodore Roethke, which goes in part—

I wake to find, and take my waking slow
I learn by going where I have to go.

These days, we are all learning by going where we have to go, and it doesn’t feel entirely pleasant either.  The norms and comforts of our habits and traditions are disrupted and shaken, and we all wonder when we get back to normal after Covid 19…what will “normal” look like?  At Park Street Church, just around the corner from the Congregational Library and Archives, our 890 person sanctuary has turned into (of all things) a “production studio” where small numbers of appropriately socially distancing ministers, musicians, and choristers, gather to worship to a (thankfully) much larger streaming congregation.  The chat feature on the sidebar of the YouTube stream lights up at one particular point in the service:

…peace of Christ- Everybody.
…peace to you- wish I was there!
…peace of Christ.  I’m in Turkey right now, worshipping with you.

Passing the peace of Christ has gone virtual.  We are learning by going where we have to go, indeed.

We also learn, however, by discovering where others before us have gone; for example, a good friend and former Director of the Congregational Library, Margaret Bendroth, calls this engagement the “spiritual practice of remembering.”  And, when tired of swiping from our news feed, to Instagram, to Facebook, and back again while riding a dull carousel of boredom, we can remember that there is an entire world at our fingertips at 14 Beacon Street.  These archives can uplift and enrich us with a perspective, wisdom, and comfort where all the social media in the world will never scratch the surface.

The main perspective is simply this: the unsettling world of pandemics, contagion, and economic turmoil where we find ourselves is hardly “new” news.  The veneer that has been stripped away to expose our fragile mortality, which we are all seeing in technicolor through our news feeds today, was in fact a constant companion of life in the 1700s and 1800s.  In the Congregational Library and Archives’ New England Hidden Histories, one page of church records from the Byfield Parish Church heartbreakingly records the deaths of 11 different children in the congregation due to such maladies as “throat distemper,” or simply a vague “sudden illness”… and this all on one page.  Faith was not merely a comforting blanket; rather, it was a life preserver that our forefathers and foremothers clung to for dear life… as should we.

We are also learning that there is much encouragement to be gleaned in these trying times.  Last week, Park Street Church spent the week discussing how to meet the desperate and daunting challenges facing the homeless in our community.  By trying to find a way to respond in a meaningful way in the face of such need, I was encouraged by a church member who lived 160 years earlier.  In 1859, Senior Pastor Dr. Silas Aiken, who was able to choose from any number of illustrious members to pay tribute to for the church’s semicentennial, honored Mr. George Homer “which called out such an affecting demonstration of esteem on the part of crowds of the poor, and those in humble conditions in life, whom he had relieved or assisted in ways unsuspected by the world.”  Likewise, Jesus reminded his disciples that the poor would always be with us; but seeing how our church’s history has always been marked by acts of benevolence and charity, I was encouraged to think about the legacy that our churches should be leaving as I perused our archives.

In our Pre-Covid 19 culture, it was not a cognitive leap to suggest that the world was becoming more insular, less connected, more narcissistic, and vapid… what we needed most was to turn off the computer and get outside.  Consider then the irony of Coronavirus as we were asked to turn to technology more, stay indoors, and rely on the internet for education, familial and social connections.  Perhaps the better part of learning “by going where we have to go” lies in realizing that our amazing history has not been tried and found wanting—maybe it just needed to be tried.

In the past weeks, I have taken the opportunity to read testimonies of faith, and pour over journals, sermons, and church histories; real hours have been spent wandering the virtual stacks of the Congregational Library and Archives.  I have been encouraged, uplifted, and instructed, and I am grateful.