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BY GUTHRIE GRAVES-FITZSIMMONS

June 16, 2021
"Vaccines push the question: Are you going back to church?" by The Washington Post. "Faith leaders have been anxious about this moment since the pandemic broke out a year ago, and the possibility that Americans, in their secularizing, convenience-oriented country, would spend a year away from houses of worship and decide it suited them just fine. All year clergy have been waiting to see if slews of people will decide to become virtual-only members, flit between multiple virtual services, or just quit congregational life altogether."
"Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord." - Psalm 150:6
I was more prepared than most for the transition to online worship. I've worked remotely since 2014 since I left for seminary in New York City and remained working part-time for the organization in Washington, D.C. where I mobilized faith communities for immigration reform. I was frustrated with the awkwardness of Zoom ("I think you're still muted") long before that became a national obsession. The Resistance Prays continued as normal throughout the pandemic, as did other online ministries I support. While work changed some with no more travel, I'm grateful that I was able to continue my work due to the wonders of the Internet Age.
 
Yet I was still very emotional returning to in-person worship this past Sunday at Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. As my husband and I sat in the front row on Sunday, surrounded by church friends with whom we had spent so many hours in Zoom windows over the pandemic, I found myself transfixed by the worship experience in a way that I've rarely experienced in my lifetime of regular church attendance. The ability to gather in a sanctuary, which I never found remarkable before, was now extraordinary. As I went to the pulpit to lead the congregation in the call to worship, I looked out on my church family with a newfound gratitude. Today's prayer is an adapted version of the prayer I offered during the service. 
 
I heard our church's new senior pastor, who was called to lead us during the pandemic, preach in person for the first time. It was a powerful sermon that drew inspiration from the "bouquet of humanity" remarks Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison delivered after the guilty verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial. My favorite part of the service was the hymn "In the bulb there is a flower," which directly followed the sermon and directly tied to the flower metaphor - and which also happens to be one of my favorite hymns. As we rose and sang together, it felt like a defiant declaration to me:
 
There's a song in every silence, 
seeking word and melody;
there's a dawn in every darkness 
bringing hope to you and me.
From the past will come the future;
what it holds, a mystery,
unrevealed until its season, 
something God alone can see.
 
Now I'm back at the computer, returning to my online ministry, wondering what to write when the online experience feels lackluster to me at the moment. Don't get me wrong: I still am a big believer in online ministry. One of the reasons I started The Resistance Prays was because so many progressive Christians feel disconnected from churches and can't find any in their local area that reflect their values. I've heard from so many readers over the years who found connection through these devotionals. I also know that many people can't physically attend church and that alternative options make that possible. I hope livestreaming church continues as an issue of accessibility. And I'm going to continue sending Tweets out into the void of the internet and signing the Christian social justice petitions organized by Faithful America and others. 
 
Yet I must confess that I do believe these 15 months away from in-person church - and, for much of it, in-person Christian social justice activism outside Black Lives Matter protests - leads me to understand the importance of gathering together in sanctuaries and on the streets being an essential part of ministry. I've longed to be back in an office because I miss the connection of getting to know my colleagues. I've reflected about how many of The Resistance Prays team, including our managing editor Sara Elliott Holliday, I've never actually met in person and how much I'd like to one day. Sustaining activism over a lifetime is a difficult endeavor, and I'm more aware than ever before in my life how important physical presence and community are to that goal. 
 
As I write to all of you out there on the other side of computer and phone screens, I give thanks to God for the connection we've created online, and I pray that you have a community of progressive Christians you are connected with in-person as well. I hope we can connect in the future (I'll be speaking at the Wild Goose Festival this September, I'd love to see you there!) in person and that I'll see you at future social justice marches.
Are you connected to a social justice-oriented Christian community in person? Consider finding a new one or reconnecting with an old one as in-person gatherings return.
Holy One, We give thanks for the ability to return to in-person worship in many parts of the country and soon in many more, as we continue to grieve for the toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on our lives and the world. Throughout human history, we have built sanctuaries to connect with your divine presence. In these places we call holy, we reorient our lives away from their ordinary courses and reorient our being to be aligned with your will for humanity. May we enter sanctuaries again with praise and be transformed by your presence, so that we may then transform the world in the direction of equity and justice. Amen.
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