Last week, I had the privilege of attending Annual Conference in person at the Bayfront Convention Center in Erie. Almost every year since I was 16, I have attended Annual Conference, but I never considered it a privilege until this year. That’s because pandemic-related restrictions meant not everyone was able to attend in person. Most clergy, and almost all lay delegates, attended remotely, watching through a TV or computer screen. The much smaller crowd served as a visible reminder that the pandemic is not yet completely over.
I was fortunate to attend in person because I serve on our Conference’s Board of Ministry, and I oversee the trainings and development of new pastors as they begin serving in ministry and pursue ordination. This year, I was also able to celebrate the ordination of my aunt, Valerie Mize. She is the 5th person in our family to be ordained in the United Methodist Church, an achievement that testifies to the faith and witness of my grandmother, who discipled all of us at one point in our faith journeys.
Aside from this celebration of family achievement, my favorite part of Annual Conference this year was the hugs. After more than a year of waving at people from 6 feet away, or through a screen, I was overwhelmed with joy at being able to embrace some of my colleagues and friends – most of whom I had not seen for almost 2 years. We were like Jacob and Esau, or the father and the prodigal son, so excited to see another that in some cases we ran toward each other for the blessing of an embrace. Never again will I take face to face conversations and holy embraces for granted.
This pandemic has given us greater appreciation for many things we used to take for granted. As church attendance continues to grow, I’ve heard so many of you say how thankful you are just to be in the physical presence of others as we worship together. Something we used to take for granted – worshipping together in person as a congregation – is now a blessing that almost brings us to tears of joy.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I imagined the return to in person worship as a single moment: we’d go from completely remote to completely together again, all in a single week. Instead, you’ve all been trickling in slowly, as your vaccination status and comfort level has allowed. And with young children still unvaccinated and summer vacations already starting, it may still be several months before the pews are again as full as they used to be. Even then, any given Sunday will include 10 or more online worshippers – vacationers, business travelers, new visitors, and families who couldn’t get the kids out the door this week.
But each Sunday feels like more progress towards a new normal. We may not be able to mark the exact moment when this pandemic is over, but I am definitely celebrating every holy embrace along the way. Keep the faith, and we’ll get there soon!