Reflections from President Rev. Dr. R. Guy Erwin

Reflections from President Erwin
September 3, 2021

Week of Pentecost 14

Dear ULS Community:

Well, what a week this has been! The anticipation I have felt for weeks about the beginning of the semester has been matched by an eventful few days—but not entirely in the ways I had imagined. Still, it’s been good to see some in-person courses start up; it’s been nice to have faculty colleagues be on campus and in their offices; and it has been especially pleasant to be able to worship together again, even if not all in person.

The joy of starting anew is only slightly diminished by the continued care we must take in this time of pandemic. It’s clear that we’re all weary of the additional effort that it takes to do what we love in ways that demonstrate care for each other and the wider community, but by now we’ve had so much experience of it, that it has settled a bit into the area of “ongoing inconvenience” more than frightening emergency. It’s clear that we long to be together more closely in community, and we will find some new ways to do that in the weeks ahead, as we adjust to this semester’s “revised version” of the ongoing pandemic reality.

For me it’s been a slightly more complicated week than usual, too—normally, this would have been our “Gettysburg week,” but since we were here several days more than usual last week (and are leaving for our trip to Montana and California on Sunday) we decided to make the visit to Gettysburg this week a little shorter, and only spend three full days here. Coincidentally, those turned out to be the days of the storm—Hurricane Ida’s tail lashed us on both campuses, but the overall impact in Gettysburg was less severe than in Philadelphia. Except for some water leaking in, in a few places where we wish it wouldn’t, our campuses came through the storm all right and we can be relieved. I wish I could say the same of Philadelphia generally—streets and highways we visited last week with our houseguests from California appeared—to our friends’ astonishment—on their TV screens back home this week, completely flooded.

In Oklahoma, I grew up with tornadoes being an annual threat and the most common local natural disaster—I never imagined that Philadelphia would be a place were people would have to take to their cellars for shelter from one. Even ULS faculty teaching in the Brossman Center on the Philly campus had to take refuge from the storm in the building’s basement. This is not something we will soon forget, and it gives us but a taste of the much greater devastation on the Gulf Coast, and we can be grateful that it wasn’t even worse.

When Rob and I get back to Philly later this morning, we’ll find out if there was any water damage at our new home. We’re not too worried, because we made (very expensive) water remediation improvements to our basement last fall when we moved in, with two new battery-supported sump pumps and all that stuff of which Californians have little idea. I learned then that the slightly exciting-sounding “French drain” is nowhere near as romantic as its name implies. But the proof of the drainage system is in the draining, to paraphrase the old saying.

The only small casualty of our very rainy Wednesday was me, as I managed to slip and fall on the mailroom floor in Valentine Hall here in Gettysburg. I was clutching an armful of mail, gingerly carrying a very wet umbrella, and because of the fog on my glasses from my mask missed a half-step down and fell to the floor like a sack of wet sand. It was mortifying and painful, but no permanent damage has been done and I can manage the slight loss of dignity. I did pull a muscle in one of my thighs that has me limping a bit, but each day since has seen clear improvement and I am not worried. It’s just one of those things that reminds one of one’s age, that I no longer “bounce,” and a fall like that can make everything hurt for a while.

The highlight of the week for me has been the two worship services in which I was able to participate: our Wednesday ULS midweek community service and the on-campus eucharist on Thursday. The former is “polymodal”—with people in both campus chapels, with us on Zoom, and also on YouTube—and it is our main community worship each week. The eucharist on Thursdays is in-person, in both chapels at the same time, but not broadcast more widely. I preached and presided at both in the Gettysburg chapel this week; Dean Sebastian is taking a turn this coming week from the Philadelphia chapel. We also had the first evening prayer service on Zoom on Tuesday evening—those, for the time being, will be Zoom-only.

What a joy it is to be able to worship in our chapels again, even if in small numbers, masked and distanced! Being able to sing and pray together again makes the other inconveniences seem less of a burden. Anyone who wants to watch Wednesday’s service after the fact can find it saved on the ULS YouTube channel. We don’t make the Zoom links to our worship services universally available (there are security risks in that) so we provide the YouTube livestream as well on Wednesday, but if you have a special desire to take part by Zoom, please let us know by e-mailing Linda Fiore, our director of marketing and communications, and she will set you up.

We have such beautiful and resonant worship spaces on our campuses, and I delight in our using them again! I hope that our now almost two years of working and teaching and studying from home will not provide too much of an obstacle for us to return to on-campus work. I know that it will not be the same, but to sustain a healthy on-campus student population, we will need to reflect on the great benefits of face-to-face communication and the joys of community life. We’ll get there—even if it takes another semester of carefulness first—and we will welcome people to be with us and together again on our magnificent campuses and in our historic buildings.

Until then, we’ll do what we have to do. We will simplify where we must, but we are at this point still expecting that most events in September will be virtual, but that the inauguration events in October will happen as planned. We are an almost completely vaccinated community being as careful as we can, and I think that is working well right now.

I’ll be out of town next Friday, so you’ll hear from me next on September 17. I’ll be attending the installation of my successor as bishop of the Southwest California Synod in Los Angeles. I’ll report back on that and any other adventures when I return.

Take care! God bless you all.

Yours faithfully,

Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair
and Professor of Reformation Studies
United Lutheran Seminary

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