With a new month comes an update on where we are with our building closure and pandemic response.
Since our preschool opened for students on January 11, we are starting to see people inside our facility again which, for this pastor, is cause for both celebration and cautious optimism. Stephanie Train, our "new" director of the Embry Hills United Methodist Preschool & Kindergarten, joined our staff in June of 2020 and really hit the ground running. She used the time when the school was closed in the first semester to learn the processes, history, teachers and staff, and families of our preschool community. She also used that time to learn as much as she could about COVID-19 so that the re-opening of our school could be as safe as possible. With about 50% of our normal enrollment and the return of many of our teachers, the school has opened, and things are off to a good start. Children stay in their classrooms except for P.E. and Chapel which both take place outside. P.E. moves inside only when weather is severe, and Chapel does not happen if weather does not permit. They are practicing good social distancing (I have witnessed this first-hand...at a distance, of course!). Teachers and students are wearing masks. Temperatures are measured every day at drop-off. Parents don't enter the building. Good policies have been put into place in the re-opening plan that was created specifically for the school and approved by our Re-Gathering team late last fall. I am grateful for Stephanie's careful leadership in developing that plan, and I am grateful for the support for our school and her leadership shown by the Administrative Council when they approved her plan for re-opening the school in November of 2020.
What does that mean for the church?
This is the harder part. The facility remains closed for all church activities and gatherings of any size as we continue to monitor new case numbers and test positivity rates in Dekalb County. I regularly monitor reports from the Georgia Department of Public Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and www.covidactnow.org. As of today, February 1, we are still in the red zone, with dangerously high new case numbers and a test positivity rate of greater than 10%. But I am also cautiously optimistic, as that positivity rate seems to be going down slowly and we are not in the "reddest" red zone. I never imagined I'd actually feel relieved at the knowledge that there are different levels of "red zone" and that we are not in the "reddest" level at this time. My, how perspectives change over time!
One thing that has not changed is that we are taking things one day at a time. I know you do that in your personal lives, and we are continuing to do that as a church. We are monitoring our financial position. We are continuing to plan and offer worship weekly, even though it is mostly virtual right now. We are monitoring pastoral care needs in the congregation. We are monitoring Sunday school classes and small groups and other spiritual growth opportunities to be sure we're doing all we can outside the walls of our facility to help you grow. We are doing what we can to continue to reach out to children and youth and offer them tools to grow spiritually at home. We are monitoring the needs of the community and finding ways to serve those needs as safely as possible. A couple of ways we are able to do that involve Snax Sax and blood drives. While we can't pack Snax Sax as we did in years prior, we are able to provide food boxes to families in our local community through your generosity with financial support and food donations and the gifts of time from a small team of volunteers. And we have continued to host American Red Cross blood drives under their strict guidelines due to a critical need for blood that has continued to exist since the pandemic first broke out last spring.
But we miss being together so much! I know you do. Please know that I do, too. Ministry is deeply communal. My work seems empty at times without being able to see and talk with you face to face. I live for Office Hours on Sunday afternoons. I look forward to meetings even on zoom so that I can see and hear you. I think of you by name and face when I'm preparing sermons, wondering what would be most helpful to you each week. As much as I long for getting back to some of the ways things were before, I remain cautiously optimistic about opportunities to reach new people with the gospel by doing things differently than we did in the past. For example, I offered a small group on Tuesday nights in January, and the group consisted of EHUMC members, community members, and even members of other churches who were looking for a new small group opportunity. It was a great opportunity to get to know some folks outside the church! I've really enjoyed hearing and seeing some of the folks from the Sandy Springs UMC in worship over the last few weeks.
When will things get back to any sense of normal? I do not know. But I have faith in you! I know you will continue to find ways to stay connected to God and each other. We are here to help you do that in any way that we can.
Better days are coming. And there is still good to be experienced now--it just looks differently now than it once did. Our hospitals and their staff are working so hard. Teachers are adapting to so many changes. Students are learning new skills and perspectives that will (we hope!) make them better global citizens. God has not forgotten us. God is still at work, just in new ways.
I continue to celebrate the great privilege of being your pastor. I am cautiously optimistic about our future. And as John Wesley said at the end of his life, "The best of all is God is with us."