Reflections from President Erwin
September 11, 2020
Week of Pentecost 14
Dear ULS Community:
Over the last couple of weeks, my weekly reflections have centered on questions of race and racism, and our struggle as a diverse community to hear and understand the toll racism has taken on the lives of many of our neighbors and siblings in Christ. I am committed to work to mitigate and resist racism as it lies within my power, and to help lead ULS into further efforts to do the same as an institution--and I’ll have much more to say about that moving forward.
But this week I’d like to turn to another, more limited—but very acute—problem we all face together: the debilitating impact of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic on our lives as individuals, families, church congregations, and society as a whole. And, of course, these aspects of life come together for most of us within the seminary community. When the pandemic became a clear public health crisis six months ago, and state and local governments began to take actions and issue directives in response, I was serving as an ELCA synod bishop in the nation’s second-largest metropolitan area, Los Angeles. As a church, we responded as quickly and decisively as we could. I know ULS did the same.
I remember being sharply rebuked by one of my pastors for declaring quite firmly my belief that in-person worship should be suspended immediately, with less than a full week’s notice. Of course, that was disruptive for congregational life, but most of my congregations were still able to do it as quickly as that—and many have not looked back since that time. In retrospect, it was not a moment too soon, and not an over-reaction at all. Like every urban area, Los Angeles was hit hard by the virus, but not to the same degree as New York City or even Philadelphia—most likely because it is less densely settled than East Coast cities—but I like to think the quick response of churches like ours helped reduce the spread of the virus and set a good example for our neighbors.
The sense of emergency we felt, the urgency to take action, and the scramble to reorganize church and personal lives to accommodate the new reality was difficult and painful for some, but was also a bit exciting—we were being stretched to meet a sudden and important need, and finding in ourselves and our communities new capacities for resilience and change. Our synod office became a kind of “mission control” where we could encourage the resource-rich congregations to help those with less capacity, and could even provide some central resources of funds and skills to help our church continue to worship and serve in new and safer ways. I’m sure the same modes of switching into high gear happened at ULS as well—at least that is what I observed long distance—and being here now I want to say a word of gratitude to the ULS COVID-19 task force for its conscientious and thoughtful work.
Since arriving at ULS and learning a great deal more about its operations, I have come to appreciate even more the nimbleness with which the whole community—students, faculty, and administration—have responded and adapted to the situation. In comparison with many other educational institutions, the “two campus” nature of ULS had already fostered the “third campus” culture of distance learning; the introduction of remote learning aspects into most ULS courses had given us a leg up on the quick move to all-digital instruction from one week to the next. I can’t say strongly enough how much I appreciate and admire the flexibility and resilience shown by all segments of ULS’s community—faculty, students, and staff—in making those rapid changes last semester. It took energy, hard work, and much patience.
That groundwork made it much easier for ULS to move into this new semester in which we are still doing everything remotely, even asking faculty and staff to keep working from home when possible. The new semester seems to have started off without significant problems. Again, it is the resilience and good cheer of our people that has made this work. Life on campus is only a shadow of what it used to be, but we are managing: everything essential is being done, and indeed some kinds of longer-range work may be possible in the quiet time on our two physical campuses. It was a strange time to change presidents, too, and yet we managed that, you and I—and here I am among you.
But now, six months after the crisis hit, the novelty has entirely worn off. We have moved from “We can do this!” to “Do we have to keep doing this?” It grows harder, not easier, to sustain the sense of purpose that drove us when the crisis was new and the danger of infection so acute—and so immediate. Now the pandemic is part of the deeper background of our lives, and is a long-term phenomenon. This is the hard part: living with something that disrupts our lives and frustrates us, without any clear idea of how long it will last. Every day brings new guesses, but no one can really predict even the middle-term timeline for how we will live with this virus in our midst.
That’s what concerns me in particular this week—that we think together about our future as a community living with the pandemic. On the surface all is relatively well. We have made a good start on a new academic year. Our on-campus population, small as it is, is stable and well-ensconced, with masks, social distancing and sanitizing protocol. We have done all we can to protect our own community, and we have helped others in need as we can. But we suffer, I believe, from some pandemic fatigue, and (speaking also for myself) we need to find ways to strategize a longer-range challenge. The great likelihood is that this pandemic will not end soon—or end all at once with the introduction of a safe, effective and universally-available vaccine—but that it will be with us for some time to come. Though the general danger of infection may lessen, the virus remains potentially deadly for those exposed to it, and it is likely to survive longer than we like to think.
This is a hard truth for a community like ULS (or the church as a whole) to absorb, because it will mean long-range changes in our way of being. We depend on a sense of community as believers—we are committed to a kind of “togetherness” in Jesus’ name as a way of experience God’s presence in the collective. We are called to common worship. In this seminary community we learn best face-to-face, and we value the interaction made possible by being together on campus. The loss of this is profound and painful and unsettling—and I think we need to be honest about this pain and the anxiety it creates if we are to move forward in healthy and realistic ways.
Students—especially those who just finished their programs in the spring or are just starting them this fall—have had their plans upended by this disruption, and the farewell to the former and the welcome to the latter have felt inadequate and incomplete, no matter how hard we’ve tried. I feel this quite acutely in my own life—starting as president in a time when a face-to-face meeting is impossible has been hard for me, who in normal times by now would have visited every office, shaken every hand and seen each new student to say welcome. But I am trying to figure out ways I can safely reach out to students individually or in small groups, but avoid the now-tiresome Zoom gallery of boxes. Please help me with that. If you can think of ways for us to connect, please share them with our communications director, firstname.lastname@example.org, and she’ll share them with me.
Our residential students on both campuses are handling the challenges with good cheer and great care: I see this first-hand from living in Wiedemann right now, where masks, social distancing and frequent cleaning are a fact of life. On the Gettysburg campus the situation is more complicated: our long-standing rental of excess housing space to Gettysburg College (a very important source of revenue for our programs and a way to keep underused buildings in use) has brought two populations together in ways that have not been easy for all. But there was no avoiding that, and Gettysburg College’s own quite intensive testing of its students has now led to them sending most students home. Only a very small number remain on our campus, and we remain in touch with the College about them. We’ve tried to keep our Gettysburg residents informed about all this as it has developed. It’s important to emphasize that our campuses have never been oases of safety from exposure, and though we have been careful, our campus housing has the same risk factors as high-occupancy housing anywhere. Every time we leave campus for grocery shopping or other off-campus needs, we create a new interface with the wider society and potentially carry the virus along with us.
For their part, ULS’s faculty have responded to the challenges of distancing with skill and dedication. That does not surprise me, as they are people of great ability and strong commitment to what they do. Teaching happens in so many ways and on so many levels, that even deprived of some of the normal tools, our faculty manage to not only communicate the content of their courses, but also their personalities and energies for teaching and ministry through the means they still have. I thank them for that, and hope they are able to find enough personal renewal time to sustain this harder way of working for the months ahead. I will be checking in with as many of our faculty as I can to find out how they are coping. One of the smaller things many of us are regretting is the cancellation or alteration of the annual scholarly gatherings like the AAR/SBL year. We used to look forward to those so much for stimulation and fellowship. But any scholar is committed to their work for the long haul, and we all know there will be better days ahead and more time and ways to gather.
Even our staff, whose work is mostly invisible even to students and faculty, have been struggling hard with the challenges of working from home. Most of us have in the past relied on physical proximity to help us build collegial teams and manage the intensity of the work we share. When you’re working from home, it’s harder to pace yourself: some may fall into a trap of overwork or anxiety—others may begin to feel disconnected. We are still encouraging work that can be done from home to be done that way, but individuals who need to be in their offices may also work there, if they can do so safely and with the approval of their supervisors. If you have any interaction with our hardworking—indeed overworked—ULS staff, please let them know you appreciate what they do to keep us going as an institution and a community. I am trying to keep the lines of communication open with staff so that they can know in an ongoing way how much I appreciate all they do for us.
We wrestle also with knowing what God expects of us in this challenging time. I was encouraged to be reminded in Dr. Carlson’s sermon on Wednesday that God does not abandon us even in times of disaster that might seem like times of divine absence. I take comfort in Martin Luther’s teaching on God’s hidden solidarity with those in pain, demonstrated to us in Jesus’ life and suffering. And as I was reading this coming Sunday’s gospel lesson from Matthew 18 (the parable of the unforgiving servant) it occurred to me that even within the broader reality of God’s endless mercy and love toward those God has made, we do well to take the point—in good times as in bad—that forgiveness and forbearance toward one another should be one of the marks of Christian community.
I know that the pandemic restrictions to life (not even to mention the tension in our political society and the racism we wrestle with every day) have a tendency to make me less patient and more anxious than I want to be. To regard those around us and the situations in which we find ourselves with patience and forbearance is hard work in normal times—right now, with all we have to contend with, it is especially difficult. But we must keep trying—on this September 11th as we did nineteen years ago today—to stand in solidarity with one another.
It is my prayer that you will be able to find, in this week and the weeks ahead, the strength you need for the challenges you face. I also hope that you will experience God’s love and mercy in the patience, kindness, and forbearance you experience from others in your orbit of life—your families, your co-workers, your friends, and those God has given to us as our neighbors. Do not be afraid—for we are not alone: we have each other, and we have Jesus. In fact, we have all we need, for this day and every day. God bless you.
Yours in Christ,
Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair
and Professor of Reformation Studies
United Lutheran Seminary