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