A Very COVID Christmas: A Socially Distanced Pageant for Times Such as These

It is no secret in my congregation that I consider myself a Christmas pageant aficionado. I love them all: from live animal pageants with stage mothers and tap-dancing angels to no rehearsal instant pageants that rely on an element of chaos and involve the whole congregation. I believe dressing up, singing Christmas carols, and standing next to a plastic doll is good for the soul. It brings folks together.

So you can imagine my dismay when I realized that St. Peter’s was not going to be able to have our beloved Christmas pageant this year due to social distancing. Without Christmas parties or church gatherings, people will be looking for a chance to decorate and spread joy.After weighing the pros and cons of a zoom pageant, I had an epiphany. 

How about a drive-through Christmas pageant? 

The idea is simple–a little like a progressive dinner. A few weeks before the event, we will ask folks to sign up for scenes in the pageant. The number of families interested will determine the number of scenes. Then, each family will be tasked with creating their assigned scene in front of their home–the scenes can be as basic or elaborate as desired. 

Here is one example of how the scene breakdown might work: 

Scene 1: Caesar Augustus
Scene 2: Mary, Joseph, and the Donkey
Scene 3: Innkeepers
Scene 4: Angels
Scene 5: Shepherds
Scene 6: Wise Men 
Scene 7: The entire Nativity Scene back at the Church  

A congregation interested in doing this could add or subtract scenes as needed! If you have a bunch of folks, consider double casting and having a Friday drive through and a Saturday drive through.

The week of the pageant, we will email maps of the route to everyone, invite our whole town, and share the event on Facebook. The route will have a corresponding Christmas playlist available via Spotify. We’ll film the pageant so participants can see it later. 

People will be invited to drive through the Christmas pageant route from 5:00-7:00 p.m. The pageant will end at St. Peter’s with a candlelight nativity scene. Faith, hope and joy will be restored! (And because this is 2020, we’ll also plan for a rain date.)  

Whatever your congregation decides to do for a Christmas Pageant, it will be wonderful! As long as you are involving people and telling the story, you can’t go wrong. 

My prayers are with you all as we journey together through what will be an unforgettable Advent and Christmas season. May God Bless us, Everyone! 

The Rev. Emily Lloyd, rector
St. Peter’s, Poolesville

The Role of the Church in the Election

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven… 
Acts 1:1-2 

The Presiding Bishop has something important to say to us now.

Last week Bishop Michael Curry addressed all the bishops of the Episcopal Church in a virtual gathering and then distributed both a video recording and the text of his address as “A Word to the Church,” to be shared with all Episcopalians. Please take the time to watch or read his message: What Did Jesus Do?  

Clergy of the Diocese, this would be an appropriate message to put before the congregation for a Sunday morning sermon, which given our COVID modes of worship now is more easily done.  

He begins by setting the context:  

This November, the people of the United States will elect a president and many others to public office. This election occurs in a time of global pandemic, a time when there is hardship, sickness, suffering and death. But this election also occurs in a time of great divisions. Divisions that are deep, dangerous, and potentially injurious to democracy. So what is the role of the church in the context of an election being held in a time such as this? What is our role as individual followers of Jesus Christ committed to his way of love in such a time as this?

Citing the passage above from Acts, Curry suggests that Jesus’ words and deeds are our precedent. “Simply asking the question, ‘What did Jesus do?’” Curry writes, “and summoning the Spirit to help us apply it to our lives and to our times, may mean the difference between the church simply being another religious institution that exists for its own sake and the church being a Jesus movement that courageously follows the way of Jesus and his love.” 

Regarding the elections themselves, Curry is clear that as a church, our role must be non-partisan. Religious organizations are prohibited by law from publicly endorsing, supporting, or opposing candidates. Moreover, Episcopalians can be found at every point on the political spectrum. “The Bible says that we have one Lord, one faith, one baptism,” Curry writes, “not one political party.” That is as it should be. As in the wider society, all are to be respected in the Church. 

Then, in a sentence that sums up his entire thought, Curry states: Partisan neutrality does not mean moral neutrality. Instead we look to Jesus–what he taught and what he did–as our guide and precedent.  

  • In Jesus’ summary of the Law: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” 

  • In Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan which describes one who helps another even though they were a different religious tradition, ethnic group, and perhaps  their politics and worldview. That is what loving your neighbor looks like. “Go and do likewise,” he said. 

  • From the the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor and the poor in spirit”; “Blessed are those who are compassionate and merciful”; “Blessed are the peacemakers”; “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst and labor for God’s righteous justice”; “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, pray for those who despitefully use you.” 

These are the precedent for what it means to follow in the way of Jesus, Curry argues, “in the first century or the 21st century.”

Regarding our specific actions in the election season, Curry passionately encourages us all to vote, encourage others to cast their vote, and assist those whose right to vote has been compromised. “Voting is not a popularity contest between two candidates,” he writes. “It’s a discernment of moral values as they are expressed in public policy. It is an act of moral agency.” Voting is a sacred privilege for which people deprived of the right to vote have given their lives.

Yet Curry is clear the vote is not enough to heal our nation. He speaks directly to the “death-dealing depth of racism and white supremacy deeply embedded in the soil and soul of America.” Alongside the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others, Curry laments the shootings of two deputy sheriffs as they sat in their car and those who shouted outside the hospital ‘Let them die’. “We cannot go on like this,” he warns. “These divisions are dangerous, injurious to democracy itself. We must, and I believe we can, find a better way. . . I am a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, because I believe he has shown us that better way.”  

Our Presiding Bishop inspires me to engage our civic life wholeheartedly, doing all I can to further the moral vision I see in Jesus, but in such a way that all feel inspired to do the same, no matter their views. In the Church we do not speak or vote with one mind, but we follow the same Lord. An election season is a time of robust debate and mobilization. For Christians it is yet another season to live the way of love.

You may be seeing more of Bishop Curry on television and social media these days. He’s making the rounds to discuss his new book, Love is the Way: Holding onto Hope in Troubling Times. I’ve ordered my copy and hope you’ll do the same, so that we might read and reflect on his message together. It takes all we have to hold onto hope in troubling times, but Jesus promises to see us through. Bishop Curry encourages us to walk together as the beloved children of God that we are. 

The Church as a Hotspot: Providing Internet Access to Students in Southern Maryland

There are no words to express the gratitude we have for our St. Mary’s County educational system. The teachers and administrators are working extra hard to understand and learn a process whereby our children can be educated during these uncertain times. Their dedication is an inspiration and a blessing.

For several years, Church of the Ascension in Lexington Park, Maryland has been in a partnership with Lexington Park Elementary school, offering an after-school tutoring program for primary students. When the coronavirus pandemic required the closure of school buildings and a pivot to online learning, we approached Dr. Rebecca Schou, principal of Lexington Park Elementary and Ms. Kelly Courtney, principal of Piney Point Elementary to see how we could help. They indicated a desire that we continue to support their students and during our discussion about what the help might look like, we learned that of the 18,000+ students in the St. Mary’s County Public Schools district, there are 147 families without access to the internet.

In direct response to the needs expressed by our principals, this fall we will expand our tutoring program by offering Church of the Ascension and St. George’s in Valley Lee as points of internet connectivity, supervised “hotspots” where students can bring their devices and access the virtual classroom. We’re inviting parents, too. 

We’ll host two daily sessions Monday through Thursday–one group from 9:00 – 11:00 a.m., and a second from 1:00 – 3:00 p.m. To start, we have six 2nd and 3rd graders per session lined up. We’re working with both the school system and  the SMC Department of Health to be fully compliant with CDC guidelines. 

We’ve also established volunteer opportunities for college and high school students looking for credit and service hours. SMCPS uses the Schoology platform, which is directed by the classroom teacher so the role of the volunteer will be monitoring, making sure students are able to log in, and answering questions. As we grow our volunteer corps, we’re looking to our surrounding communities: our sister Episcopal churches, young professionals’ groups, the College of Southern Maryland and St. Mary’s College, and high school students. The need is high and we welcome those who can help. 

If you’d like to volunteer, please email me

The Rev. Marty Eldredge
Deacon, Church of the Ascension, Lexington Park and St. George’s, Valley Lee

What Date Do You Run Out of Food?

When the Episcopal Diocese of Washington voted to become a “Sanctuary Diocese” in January 2018, confronting a pandemic disease was probably not what the authors of the resolution had in mind. Although diocesan churches were encouraged “to serve as places of welcome and healing, and to provide other forms of material and pastoral support for all persons, regardless of immigration status,” likely no one envisioned what 2020 would bring. 

While the concept of sanctuary dates back thousands of years and was a feature of Judaic, Roman, and later British Common Law, the modern-day Sanctuary Movement dates to 1980 and two congregations in Tucson, Arizona that began assisting refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala. Nearly 40 years later, Washington, DC, is one of more than 500 sanctuary locales across the United States and home to dozens, if not hundreds, of initiatives working in solidarity with or support of the rights of migrants and refugees. 

St. Stephen and the Incarnation Church, located in Columbia Heights just off 16th Street Northwest DC, provides a home for several initiatives that work to meet the needs of immigrants, refugees, and other vulnerable people affected by the pandemic. Blessed with a massive building, early on in the pandemic St. Stephen / San Esteban was able to turn its basement dining room and nave into a space to  store and pack perishable and non-perishable food, diapers, toilet paper, cleaning supplies–the necessities of life. 

Four organizations–Loaves and Fishes (a ministry of St. Stephen / San Esteban), Sanctuary DMV, Thrive DC, and We Are Family–do some or all of their work from our church building, benefiting from the fact that the church has been in the food “business” since the mid-1960s, when the congregation first began sharing food with its neighbors. Each of these initiatives has significantly increased its outreach efforts in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Thrive DC, which works to prevent and end homelessness, was providing 60 people with free groceries at its regular Thursday food pantry, immediately prior to the COVID-19 lock-down. By mid-July, they had provided groceries and emergency supplies to more than 3,000 people–and several hundred meals each day.

  • We Are Family, which supports the needs of senior citizens–especially those unable to leave their homes–had, by June, increased its deliveries of free groceries to reach more than 900 households.

  •  Loaves and Fishes, which has provided weekend meals to people in the community for decades, moved from preparing hot-cooked meals to bag lunches and is now providing a mix of bag and hot-cooked lunches to about 125 people each Saturday and Sunday. They have also distributed more than $10,000 worth of gift cards to people in need of food, most of them undocumented immigrants.

  • From helping a few hundred people early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Sanctuary DMV has since supported an estimated 30,000 people with food and essential supplies across the DMV. They have raised more than $240,000 in donations–but more funds and more volunteers are needed, as they have a waitlist of more than 3,000 requests for help. (And by the time these words are published, these numbers will be out of date.)

“What date do you run out of food?” 

This is one of three questions asked by Sanctuary DMV volunteers when they respond to a request for help, because right now, the demand far exceeds the supply among those who may not be able to buy food. Food, shelter, water, heat/cool–these are the basics for survival. Sanctuary DMV was established to help in these situations, and is linked to a network of some 70 faith-based organizations across the DMV, some of them churches in our diocese, including St. Stephen’s / San Esteban. 

For the undocumented accessing these necessities is only one of the challenges before them. The undocumented also face the threat of deportation–and of detention in places severely affected by COVID-19–as well as the fear and worry associated with being removed and leaving young children behind. 

What happens to young children in these circumstances is the focus of the Standby Guardianship Project, which has online resources to help undocumented parents–especially in Maryland–ensure the care and safety of their children, without going to court, if they are disabled (by illness, for example) or removed. Thanks in part to the efforts of another St. Stephen / San Esteban parishioner, there is now a Standby Guardianship law in Maryland. Similar emergency legislation in Washington, DC, has since expired; a permanent law will require public hearings and Congressional approval.

How can we help? 
Time, talent, and/or treasure are needed by organizations acting in solidarity with their fellow DC, Maryland, and Virginia residents, of which these are but a few:

Sally Ethelston
Postulant for the diaconate, St. Stephen and the Incarnation / San Esteban y La Encarnación

This article draws on information provided by Denise Woods, volunteer coordinator for Sanctuary DMV Food Justice Initiative; previously published materials, in particular an article by Loaves and Fishes; and conversations with members of St. Stephen and the Incarnation. 


Engaging the Needs, Hopes, and Concerns of the World: The Charity to Justice Continuum

How do you engage the needs, hopes, and concerns of the world?

Deacons are tasked with assisting faith communities to grow in their response to the needs, hopes, and concerns of the world. In other words, deacons encourage their communities to develop justice ministry initiatives. Helping the community learn and develop ministry in ways different from “how we’ve always done it” can be a challenge. Welcomed or not, change–in how we learn, worship, or grow–is difficult. 

One tool that can remove the emotional attachment inherent in change is the Charity to Justice Continuum. The Continuum helps individuals and faith communities assess their progress on any justice concern by asking a series of questions that allow folks to evaluate and discern community involvement and engagement in social change. We teach the Continuum in the Diocese of Washington’s Deacons School.

There are two important things to keep in mind when using the Continuum. The first is to understand that its value comes from engaging the justice concern under consideration at every aspect of the continuum, not in placing emphasis on any single part. The second is to be honest as you ask and answer the questions in the evaluation process: What are we doing? How are we engaging the community? Are we taking risks? Are we following the gospel imperatives to proclaim good news, release captives, provide sight, free the oppressed?

There are four components to the Charity to Justice Continuum: Charity, Service, Advocacy and Justice. Connecting ministry to all four of these dynamics can provide a way for every member of the faith community to engage in the ministry and offers a holistic approach to any particular justice initiative. A Continuum is a sequence or progression of values with slight differences from element to element. The extremes are quite different and all are necessary. 

Let’s follow the Continuum on one justice initiative–food inequity.

The Continuum begins with Charity. In the case of food inequity, the immediate problem is that people are hungry and the response is to feed them. Often charity can take the form of bringing a canned good to church every Sunday or writing a check to your favorite feeding program. Until no one is hungry, charity will always be needed. There is little risk involved for the giver and almost no relationship. Charity is distant, yet it focuses directly on the problem and can give immediate satisfaction to the giver. 

Service takes on a little more risk and more time for those who choose to engage this part of the Continuum. Those who engage in acts of service may or may not develop relationships with those who are hungry, but they will likely develop relationships with the community that is participating in the service. Service focused on food inequity concerns might include serving a meal in a soup kitchen, making sandwiches for distribution, or handing out groceries at the local food shelf. This can be a good formational experience for those involved and an easy way to see firsthand the realities of hunger in our society. 

Moving to Advocacy alters the focus from “doing” to confronting society’s causes of  hunger . The person or community participating in advocacy will take greater risks for those who are hungry. They will provide a voice for those who do not have the power to address our broken systems and they will broaden relationships in order to connect people and programs. The focus moves away from feeding hungry people to the rights of hungry people. 

And finally we come to Justice. People participating at this level of engagement and risk seek to empower those who are hungry, develop networks that work together, and organize communities to focus on the causes and systems that create food inequity. This quote from Archbishop Desmond Tutu explains justice: “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”

We need ministry in all four stages of the Continuum so that hungry people are fed, even as we struggle upstream to combat the root cause of hunger. Deacons are catalysts in this effort, assisting individuals and faith communities in responding to the needs, hopes and concerns of the world. 

Deacons always ask: what are we doing and how can we do more?

If this is a question you ask on your own behalf or in your faith community, consider using the Charity to Justice Continuum to aid you in your efforts.

The Ven. Sue von Rautenkranz