Tucson Clergy: Our Churches aren’t closed, and our church buildings will not open yet
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Tucson Clergy: Our Churches aren’t closed, and our church buildings will not open yet

The following is the opinion and analysis of the writers:

Last week’s headline that the White House has now decided that churches are essential and should reopen immediately caught us by surprise.

It caught us by surprise because we already knew that our faith communities are essential. While our buildings may have been closed, the church has never been closed.

Our worship may look different but our mission has always been the same. We continue to hold worship services together (now online), and in collaboration with our community partners we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick and welcome the stranger.

We advocate for the oppressed and marginalized, and when those in power attempt to criminalize humanitarian aid, we speak truth to power. We do all this because prioritizing the well-being of those at the margins of our society is at the center of our faith.

The announcement from the White House that churches are essential was not news to us. What troubled us, however, was the coinciding order to “reopen churches.”

It was surprising because, as we see it, we’ve never been “closed.” The church is the people and not the buildings we inhabit. The church therefore cannot be closed. To say otherwise is a misnomer.

Our congregations are still gathering online with worshippers joining in from around the country and even from other countries. We continue to hold Bible studies, prayer circles, fellowship hours, small group gatherings, opportunities for children, youth, young adults and even celebrate Communion.

Our parishioners are calling, texting and writing notes to one another, and visiting (with appropriate distance, of course).

We can do all of this online while simultaneously following the guidance of scientists and public-health officials whose wise counsel helps us to live out the central truth of our faith: loving our neighbors as ourselves, which always calls us to prioritize the well-being of all, especially the marginalized.

We give thanks to God for the gift of scientists, and we want to honor their expertise.

Our churches are not closed. Our buildings are closed.

As the Apostle Paul told the people in Athens: “The God who made the world and everything in it, He who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands” (Acts 17:24, NRSV). God’s presence is never confined to our buildings, and our buildings do not have to be open for us to be the church.

We miss seeing our congregations face to face, yet we cannot in good conscience return to in-person worship until it is safe for everyone, especially the most vulnerable in our communities. To do so before it is safe for those who Jesus refers to as “the least of these” would work at cross purposes with what we believe is the central truth of the Christian faith.

When will we reopen our buildings? We don’t know, but we do know that the decision to do so will place the well-being of the vulnerable in our communities at the center of all we do.

We know that we will continue to follow the guidance of public-health officials as we seek what is wise and prudent not only for our own faith communities but our wider community as well.

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians that “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect” (1 Corinthians 12:22-23, NRSV).

Until the day comes when we can safely reopen our buildings, we will continue to be the church. We will never stop being the church.

This guest opinion was signed by 10 local Protestant clergy members: Taylor Burgoyne, pastor of Eastside Covenant Church; the Rev. Michael Lonergan of Church of the Painted Hills UCC; the Rev. Owen R. Chandler of Saguaro Christian Church; the Rev. Kelley Dick of Saguaro Christian Church; the Rev. Bart Smith of St. Mark’s Presbyterian; the Rev. Alison Harrington of Southside Presbyterian Church; the Rev. Ailsa Guardiola González of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); the Rev. Tina Schlabach of Shalom Mennonite Fellowship; the Rev. Carol Rose of Shalom Mennonite Fellowship; and the Rev. Steve Keplinger of Grace St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

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