Vicar’s Report to the People of Grace Episcopal Church
Dear People of Grace Episcopal Church:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
As we gathered last year on January 19, 2020, our Annual Meeting was alive with excitement, hope and vision. The Parish Hall was so full of people that we had to put out more chairs! We celebrated a record pledge campaign and increasing average Sunday attendance; we welcomed the newly confirmed, newly baptized and newly transferred in; we looked forward to major new campus improvement projects; we marveled in the banner year that 2019 was for our school.
To be sure, the Coronavirus pandemic quickly extinguished excitement, stymied progress toward our vision, and threatened our school’s existence. In the interest of being honest, we must admit all of that is true. However, this is not all of the story. We were ready for the difficult year that 2020 would prove to be.
I invite us to recall the account of Joseph in the book of Genesis. After a great deal of personal hardship, Joseph is eventually promoted in Egypt to oversee planning for the coming famine, of which Pharaoh’s dream has foretold. Seven good years of harvest afford the ability to store grain up for lean times. The Egyptians weather seven subsequent years of drought and scarcity, and even provide for some of their neighbors, because of the good years that had come before. God is not surprised by famine. God is not surprised by pandemic.
When I joined this community almost three years ago, we were in a very different place in terms of finances, energy and vision. We could wonder how Grace might have fared, had the experience of 2020 landed in 2018 or 2019. But it didn’t; and we have been able to not only survive but in some ways thrive during these tumultuous times.
In 2020, the people of Grace contributed more than $4000 and countless car loads of nonperishable food to our neighbors through Braes Interfaith Ministries. We hosted 4 blood drives in Parish Hall to support the sick and suffering with the Gulf Coast Regional Blood Center. Through the Vicar’s Discretionary Account, thousands of dollars have been distributed to those experiencing financial hardship as a result of the global pandemic. Our campus is a place of hospitality during the era of social distancing: neighbors find refreshment in our green spaces, playing soccer, having picnics, running their dogs; Camp Gladiator workouts happening twice per week in our parking lot; local groups and families grow their own fresh food in our Community Garden.
We have continued to worship. Through generous gifts from people of Grace and the Diocese of Texas we have built technological infrastructure to support online worship well into the future. While we currently pre-record our Sunday morning services, new cameras, lighting and computer software will allow us to broadcast future live services directly to the internet for those unable to join us in person. Our reach beyond the walls of Grace will be able to continue into the future because of the impetus for these upgrades during the pandemic. Our music ministry has adapted to accommodate both the limited availability of choir & instrumentalists and the need for consistency in our online presence. Investments in our music budget have afforded an important new outreach – support of local musicians during a time when many other performance opportunities have dried up. We are blessed by the wonderful musicianship of those who join us, and we bless them during this time of “famine.” We also continue to offer special worship opportunities on Zoom for folks to gather in a less formal way to pray and grow together. We are blessed with beautiful outdoor spaces, including the crown jewel of our community – The Tree of Life Labyrinth and garden. This has been a wonderful space to gather for School Chapels, Sunday 4:00 services, and even a wedding! The Labyrinth Garden, along with our parking lots, have hosted worship as we’ve begun to migrate back to campus for some live gatherings. The refurbished “cross on the hill” marks a sacred space at the east end of our campus for more public gatherings.
While we have needed to stay physically apart, perhaps the greatest challenge has been in continuing to foster rich and meaningful connection. A sense of belonging is arguably the most important component of church participation and membership. Newer members may have been disproportionately hindered in finding these connections in a time of distance. Our efforts in this area have certainly centered around Zoom and training to use this and other technology. I am incredibly proud of our members, especially our legacy members, for sticking with it and learning to navigate the online world to stay in community. We have migrated Sunday School, special series like Contemplative Practices and Compline, weekly meetups for Women and Men, Daughters of the King, Church & School Governance meetings, Worship Participation (readers, prayer leaders, responders, preachers), and much more all to Zoom in order to continue fostering community. We look forward to the day when some of these activities can again take place in person; and we also know that online connection is here to stay. Zoom (or some alternative meeting technology) will be an ongoing part of our community’s life in the years to come. Also, members of our Bishop’s Committee will continue to reach out via phone calls, as they did in 2020.
Building on the Legacy
In 2020, we celebrated our community’s first “Ten Years of Grace.” It was an important milestone to mark God’s presence with us, leading us into renewed ministry and mission. In 2021, our theme will be “Building on the Legacy.” In this coming year, we will be intentional about honoring and preserving the legacy of those faithful saints on whose shoulders we stand as we work with God to build a church for the future. Building on their work, we will look forward into a post-pandemic world to imagine with God how our church will evolve and grow in new ways.
I am grateful to be with you in this life of faith, now entering my fourth year together with you as Vicar. What a gift to have one another in these trying times!
The Rev. R. Scott Painter, Vicar
June 26, 2020
Dear People of Grace,
Your Wardens and I have been hard at work for the last several weeks putting a plan for us to safely regather for in-person worship. Our “Imagine Regathering” plan has been approved by Bishop Monterroso. We have been looking forward to our first opportunity for public worship since mid-March, tentatively scheduled to take place on Sunday, July 12.
Yet, I must share with you that we will need to wait a little longer. I received a letter from Bishop Monterroso last week, asking that congregations in the Houston area suspend in-person gatherings until the current surge in the COVID-19 situation improves. Also announced was the postponement of the Deacon's Ordination service scheduled for this coming Saturday at Christ Church Cathedral. The delay in this ordination impacts people close to our congregation: Marcia Sadberry, our former seminarian intern, and Luz Cabrera Montes, granddaughter-in-law to Padre Alejandro and cousin to Ellis. Once we know the new date of the ordination service, we will be sure you are informed.
As I have said from the beginning, our decision to say apart as a congregation is motivated by love for one another; not by fear. We will continue to be leaders in the community, examples of self-sacrifice for the good of others. Out of love for our neighbor, I ask that we all continue to be diligently conscientious about contributing to public health during pandemic: we should be staying home as much as we possibly can, wearing masks when we must be out and about, maintaining a minimum 6 ft social distance from anyone not living in our homes, and washing our hands and sanitizing thoroughly. As Christians, the central event of our faith is the total sacrifice of our Saviour for the sake of all. Our commitment to follow Jesus means, at a very minimum, that we will always choose our own inconvenience for the good of others.
All of this leads me to announcing, sadly, that we will not regather, as planned, on July 12th for in-person worship. Please know that we continue to monitor the data coming out of the CDC, state & local governments, The Houston Medical Center, and any other credible scientific information we can obtain and absorb. As soon as the data supports physical regathering as the reasonably safe, responsible, and LOVING thing for us to do, an announcement will be made. Our hope beyond certainty is that we may regather in August.
I am pleased to share with you that we are moving forward with a contract to assemble, install, and train our team to use higher quality technology for our video recording and editing efforts around weekly online worship. These improvements will be a great help to us during this time apart, but they will also be able to support our commitment to continuing our online worship presence into the future, even after we have begun to gather at the church for worship once again. This work is being made possible in large part by an anticipated grant from the Diocese of Texas and a generous donation by a member of the Grace family.
I am so proud of our church community and how we have tenaciously stuck together during this unprecedentedly trying time. Please take time this week and reach out to someone you haven’t spoken to in the last couple of months. Check in on them. Pray with them. Ask if you might be able to help one another in some way. Continue in the way of love.
With you on the way,
I was recently reminded by a colleague about the Italian origins of the word quarantine. Literally meaning, “the span of forty days,” the word was used in the Middle Ages to describe the keeping of ships waiting off port for 40 days to prevent latent cases of plague coming on shore.
Of course, the number of forty is familiar to readers of the Bible. The number forty is always used to describe a time of exile, wandering, loneliness, and testing. We recall the story of Noah, when the rain fell for forty days and nights, forcing Noah and his family to be at sea until the storms calmed and new life began to spring forth; and, the story of the Israelite sojourn in the wilderness for forty years, between escape from Egyptian captivity and entrance into the Promised Land; and, of course, the forty days and nights after his baptism that Jesus stayed alone in the wilderness, tempted and tested, before starting his public ministry.
In these biblical stories of quarantine, time is spent apart: a time of consecrating self and community to God and God’s purposes in the world.
I have a conflicted relationship with the season of Lent. It is not easy for me to sit still; I find it difficult to act in particularly pious ways (like fasting, extended prayers, ritualistic spiritual practices); and I certainly don’t love religious language reminding me about my own sinfulness or claiming a general “wretchedness” somehow inherent in all human beings.
I am quite sure that I am not alone in this. People very close to me (who may or may not live in my own home) freely express, throughout each Lenten season, their frustration with the language, expectations, and general drudgery often imposed by churches in their Lenten liturgies. More than a couple of folks in the Grace community have shared similar sentiments. And a striking data point reinforces this truth about us: in both of the last two years at Grace, four of our lowest attended Sunday morning services were during the season of Lent. Last year, our average Sunday attendance--for all of 2019--would have neared or surpassed 80; but instead, because of low worship attendance during Lent, it remained in mid 70’s. (for reference, our average Sunday attendance in 2017 was 56.) So, it may be that many of us find Lent to be good time for a little “break” from church. 😊
This year, we are praying and planning for a meaningful, inspiring, and joy-filled experience of Lent. (We are not putting away the maracas this year!) We will incorporate elements in our liturgy we pray will inspire hope, meaning and gladness even as we are careful not to shun the particular gifts of the season to guide us in repentance, lament, and solidarity with a broken and hurting world. We are scheduling special formation and fellowship programming to inspire growth in a centered and purposeful life.
“Diversity is inviting someone to the party. Inclusion is asking them to dance.” – Unknown
Dear Friends in Grace,
I am so proud of you. So proud of us.
As I reflect back on the last 20 months, especially back to the beginning of my tenure as your Vicar, I am in awe at the distance we have already traveled together. With God’s inspiration and wisdom and help, we are growing and thriving -- in hope, in vision, in worship, and in numbers.
I am amazed by the grace with which you have embraced all kinds of changes to expand the breadth of our love and welcome. We continue to update our campus for efficiency, attractiveness, and accessibility. We are trying out new prayers in liturgy (approved by General Convention last year). We are learning new music for worship, experimenting with new ministry ideas to foster connection and outreach, and working to reorganize our staff and lay leaders to involve more and more people in the leadership and life of Grace.
We are Growing in Grace!
“Grace Upon Grace: God’s Increase and Our Response”
There is a particularly beautiful sentence, situated in the midst of the gorgeously poetic first chapter of the Gospel of John. These words always overwhelm me when I hear them; they inspire me by revealing the infinitely limitless generosity and benevolence of our Creator; they stir up within me deep gratitude, wonder, and even my own desire to grow as a gracious and generous person made in God’s image.
“From God’s fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” John 1.16
As our 2020 Stewardship Pledge Campaign gets ready to kick off on October 20, we are embracing this truth of God’s lavish and limitless GRACE as our campaign theme. During the Campaign, we will hear stories from members of our community who have experienced one surprise of God’s faithfulness after another, living out the truth that there is no end to the goodness God has for us.
What are you for?
I remember many years ago, in the aftermath of a personally devastating experience, I came to a poignant realization about myself. The epiphany didn’t come easily; in fact, I had to wallow in a great deal of anger, regret, and resentment first. Someone had inflicted great pain on me; I had chosen to operate in the wrong system; I had been wronged. And my focus was on that wrong.
At a pivotal time in that process, I became aware of something very problematic in my life up to that point: the awareness that for many years I had been charting my life’s course according to what I was against, what I was not, what I didn’t want. The problem: I didn’t know what I was actually FOR.
This revelation allowed me, over time, to rebuild a huge part of my life on very different terms. I began articulating what was most important to me, what brought the most joy, what kind of work was truly fulfilling.
The fact that I was able to make this profound shift in my life – from “against” to “for” – is in large part the reason that I found my way into the vocation of a priest and, eventually, into the call to be Vicar of Grace.
During the past several months, the Bishop’s Committee and I have been discerning what we are “FOR” at Grace. We have reviewed and considered the results from the Holy Cow! Survey; we have reflected on worship, outreach and fellowship programs at Grace; and we have engaged many thoughtful conversations with lots of folks in the congregation. Out of this work, we have drafted a list of “Core Values” for Grace that we believe reflects the reality of who we are and who we are becoming as a community.
Core Values are the things we value most of all – the convictions, commitments, and investments we are FOR. Knowing and talking about our Core Values will help us make decisions that are based on shared priorities and commitments. It helps to put the factors of individual personalities and personal passions at the service of the whole congregation.
As Christians, we are always challenged to be on the move. The stories of our tradition testify to a life of faith spurred to action, called out of comfort, inspired to cross borders, and compelled to press forward.
We recall the voice of God to Abraham, inviting him to move faithfully to a strange land; or to Sarah, promising that she would bear a child in old age. We think of the prophet Isaiah, who challenged Israel to “enlarge the place of your tent” to facilitate the enormity of God’s blessing that was promised to come; and Jonah, commanded to travel to the land of his enemies and call for repentance (with the terrifying prospect that they might be saved!). And, of course, we always lift up the witness of Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, who “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself...being born in human likeness...and became obedient to the point of death,” as St. Paul proclaims to the Philippians.
To walk this life of faith, and especially to follow our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, is to walk a path fraught with change and transition and difference, through a landscape dotted with promise and hope and renewal. We walk this path for a purpose – that we may, more and more, accept God’s dream for our lives and enact God’s dream for this world.
“God's Creation gives us a model for making and sharing homes with people, but the reality of God's Trinitarian life suggests that Christian hospitality goes farther than that. We are not meant simply to invite people into our homes, but also to invite them into our lives.” –Lauren F. Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath
I’ve been thinking a great deal about hospitality lately. I’ve been thinking about what it would take for us to make the kind of space in our life together in order to nurture meaningful and lasting connection for newer members and newcomers to our church community.
Grace is truly a welcoming congregation. Almost everybody agrees on this. When folks visit our campus, whether for school business, for a community event, or for worship, they are met with love and kindness – consistently greeted with warmth, generously assisted in finding their way around, kindly thanked for being with us and always invited back. We welcome visitors unconditionally, affirm difference and diversity, and make space for the new experiences and perspectives that others bring. I am so grateful that this value of welcoming was already wholeheartedly embraced before I arrived at Grace early last year.
4040 W. Bellfort Ave. Houston, TX 77025
Sundays: Main Service - 10am
Evening Service - 5:30pm