janelle-hiroshige-headshot2Summer of 2020 (and the whole year in general) is a strange one, to say the least! When it comes to Candler Advantage, I never imagined doing an internship at my church without physically gathering together. I never imagined preaching to a green light on my computer and hoping that I didn’t forget to unmute myself. I never imagined sitting in uncertainty for so long.
 
Yet, here we are.

My church site for Candler Advantage is Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Atlanta. I have been an intern there for almost the entirety of my seminary education. 60% of Holy Comforter’s congregation lives with mental illness and many parishioners live in personal care homes throughout Atlanta. Throughout the week, the parish acts as a day program called The Friendship Center for adults marginalized by mental health challenges and poverty.

When the pandemic first began, most churches naturally switched to online platforms. We did as well. However, that first Sunday on Zoom, it was blatantly obvious that most of our congregation was missing. Due to limited access to internet and cell phones, many who lived in personal care homes were unable to participate in a Zoom call. Likewise, I talked to some who do have the access, but choose not to because it is so different from in-person worship.

Suffice it to say, I was unable to figure out a way to make things like they were again. There is no turning back now. COVID-19 has made the social and economic disparities in our own church more pronounced. It is frustrating and sad.

Yet, what I can do is visit people and check in on them. So that is what I have been doing. It’s a simple act, but to me it feels like church.

I decided to bring my camera along on these visits to take “porch photos” because I felt like this time needed to be documented. (And don’t worry, all of these were socially distanced encounters outside, often with a mask.)

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On these visits I have picked wild blackberries. I have laughed and shared stories in the front yard until it was too dark for any of us to see. I have heard about difficult things people are going through. One parishioner was relieved when I said that I had been bored in quarantine because he thought he was the only one.

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Another asked to see the photos I was taking and exclaimed “Wow, I am pretty good looking, I always thought I was ugly!” A simple visit quickly turned into a pastoral care conversation which quickly turned into friendship. I’m thankful to have these photos as memories of a place and its people that have been so formative in my life and growth as a future minister.

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Last week the parish administrator and I looked inside a dusty old box in the church office with “History of Holy Comforter” written on it. Inside were several iterations of history books written by members of the church, historical documents and even vestry notes from 1902! Reading through the history of our church helped me realize that we have always been going through change. I believe that today we are on especially fertile ground. My hope for Holy Comforter and other churches is that God’s spirit would continue to expand our imagination of what it means to be church, to render the incarnate Christ present — here, today. That we would be willing to loosen the grip on “this is how we’ve always been doing things” in order to better witness to the present moment and to the very people who are in our midst. By God’s help may we creatively live into our baptismal covenant to seek and serve Christ in all persons and to respect the dignity of every human being.

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Had this been any regular summer, I would have interacted with parishioners on the church grounds, never connecting with them in their own space. Instead, I have spent a summer driving all around Atlanta meeting people in the intimacy of their front yards and in the neighborhoods they call home. I do not think I would have connected in the way I have with the parishioners at Holy Comforter had it been any regular summer. Now I know that Percy lives just down the street from the Davis family and that my priest lives around the corner from Sharon’s group home. These are not just mere facts, but ways that I feel interconnected with my church and with my city. For it is in this that we learn to care well for the places we love.

I hope to compile these photos with some stories in a book and leave it in the dusty old box. Who knows, maybe someone will discover it 50 years from now and know that we were here and we loved this place too.