Pastors say hope prevails through Delta
By Lindsay Peyton
COVID-19 continues to plague Texas. In August alone, 3,300 residents died from the virus, the “Texas Tribune” reports. Hospitalizations increased, and by the end of the month, 13,768 Texans were hospitalized. Churches in the Texas Annual Conference have witnessed the rise of the Delta variant and are finding ways to hold onto hope in a tumultuous time.
At Emanuel Christian Family UMC in Pasadena, COVID-19 has been a factor since the very beginning. The church had only just opened when the pandemic arrived.
Pastor Ruben Olivares quickly moved services online, and the church was among the many in the Conference to discover new ways to stay connected. A few months ago, the congregation was able to return to the building. Now, Emanuel Christian Family UMC faces the fourth wave of the coronavirus.
While Emanuel Christian Family UMC members have attended worship services in person since Easter, Olivares explained that a number of congregants are still uncomfortable about coming together, especially with the Delta variant. “Most of them prefer to meet on Zoom or Facebook Live,” he said.
Being away from his congregants, however, is a challenge. “It’s so hard to do ministry this way,” Olivares said.
Share best practices
To gain strength through these trying times, he advises clergy to stay in touch, talk, share their technology best practices and encourage one another. “We have to remain in conversation with other pastors and get support,” he said. “It’s so hard.”
Leaning on faith is critical for pastors and parishioners alike. The name of the church has become a mantra, Olivares said. After all, Emanuel means “God is with us.”
“No matter where we are, or what we’re dealing with, God is with us,” he said. “God is in control.”
Pastor recovering from COVID
In Tyler, the Rev. Tabitha Mock Rankin, director and campus minister for the Tyler United Wesley Foundation, is recovering from COVID. By late August, she returned for her first full week at work at the Wesley House.
Before, a lingering exhaustion made it impossible to stay any longer than a couple of hours at a time. “I just couldn’t get enough energy,” Rankin said.
The Wesley House was also affected by COVID at the start of the school year. The fall retreat that normally welcomes students was canceled. “We had to revisit, replan and restructure,” Rankin said.
Instead of heading to Lakeview for the weekend, students went to the nearby Fairwood UMC. They made day trips, rather than staying overnight. The amount of bus trips increased to allow passengers to properly space out.
“I was saddened because we didn’t get to go to Lakeview, but I would have been more heartbroken had we gone and something happened,” Rankin said.
She also had to postpone their fall fundraiser. The move is especially challenging, since the foundation depends on gifts and donations. “But again, I’d like for us to be safe,” she said.
Still, students moved into the dorms at the Wesley House, located on the campus of Tyler Junior College, and classes began on Aug. 23. “Our students start school with the sense of ‘I have a family here,’” Rankin explained. “They’re already praying together.”
She regularly reminds them to don their masks and keep their distance, when they step out of the dorm into a shared space. “I’m able to testify to them that I survived COVID-19, and I don’t wish it on my worst enemy,” she said. “Please take it seriously.”
Rankin’s guiding principle are John Wesley’s rules: “Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God.”
“You can’t say you love God’s people and creation, when you won’t do your part to keep yourself and everyone else around you safe,” she said. “As people of faith, we know that God is able to do anything. At the same time God blessed us with common sense. Keep your mask on. Have faith that God will do the rest, but we have to do our part too.”
In spite of the obstacles, the work at the Wesley House continues. There are still lunches on the lawns. Ministry continues, and God is still at work, Rankin explained.
“The thing that keeps me grounded is I have this immaculate faith,” she said. “It takes a lot to shake me. I believe in standing on the promise of the Lord.”
Rankin also pointed to scripture. She explained, “There are times in the Bible when Jesus would tell someone, ‘your faith has made you whole.’ Jesus would heal someone and then send them out with a mandate, ‘Now that you are healed go help someone else.’”
“Pray and discern,” she advises students. “And do your part and slow the spread.”