This is a time of superlatives. “Never before have we,” “unprecedented social change,” “reorganization on a civilization level” can easily be used to describe the news. In less than a week, more than half of the churches in the DSC switched to online worship. Our clergy and laity have completely reimagined the “life of the church.” As one person said “we have chucked the words ‘we have never done it like that before,’ out the window because we have never done any of this before.” It is as if we have rediscovered the what it means to be church in the beginning. We are trying new things, imagining the impossible, and creating in the wake of destruction. We are that new creation Paul preaches of in 2 Corinthians 5:17 “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” But faith does not diminish the pain of grief. The world as we knew it has changed, and with that loss comes grief.
For some, we have lost loved ones, a pain so deep it cannot be described. For others we have lost jobs and our livelihood. For many we have lost our freedom to move around. For others we have become completely isolated. For all of us things have changed irrevocably, there is no way back to change the past. There is only the unknown of the future. A future that can perhaps be described best by our own past, those who lived through the 1918 Influenza.
As a pastor I am a historian. There is no way to describe the passion of Christ, or the miracles of the faith, without some attention to the fact that we are trying to make 2,000 year old stories relevant to audiences that have never seen a chariot rumble down the streets, or walked the roads of Jerusalem under the watchful eye of a Roman garrison. And like the disciples who have gone before us, perhaps it will comfort you to know that just 101 years ago the Methodist churches of Arizona, California, and Nevada endured a similar catastrophic epidemic. But unlike that plague, we are living in an erra of connectivity unimagined by our ancestors. What they accomplished with horses, trains, letters and flyers, we accomplish in a fraction of a second with computers and the internet.
Here are some reflections from the Journals of the 1919 Annual Conferences of the Arizona Mission and the Southern California Conference.
From the District Superintendents of the Southern California Annual Conference 44th session October 1-6, 1919:
From Harry W. White of the Fresno District “The greatness of the difficulty caused by the influenza epidemic may be realized when you consider that the loss in weeks to the churches in this district alone totals 600 so far reported, or equivalent to about twelve years of enforced idleness for a church of about 125 members.” (p.51)
From the poetic soul of E.J. Inwood of the Long Beach District “This Conference year has seen the church rising in her strength and accepting the challenge of the new day…hundreds of churches have come to feel a new social and evangelistic responsibility for the communities in which they live…’Light and Shadow, Sunshine and cloud’ re strangely mingled in this life.” (p.53)
From the ever optimistic W.L.Y. David of the Pasadena District “Some thought the year began with plague; others thought it began with tremendous opportunity!” (p.59)
Henry I Rasmus of San Diego District writes “Perhaps no year will come again in the life of any one of us quite so memorable. The visitation of an unparalleled scourge when death seemed to lurk on every passing breeze.” (p.62-63)
And though he is speaking of the great war, Merele N. Smith in his State of the Church address from 1919 on page 71 states “This is not a time for pessimism in the church but for Christian optimism and faith. ‘It is daybreak everywhere.’ God is equal to the world’s emergency. Out of the blackness and darkness of the world war, there dawns a new day, there rises a new world.”
And lest the Arizona Mission be forgotten, here are the words A.W. Adkinson District Superintendent, reported at the 38th annual session October 9-12, 1919 – it is interesting to note that due to quarantine there was no annual meeting for the 37th session, it was conducted by the bishop and cabinet in correspondence with their pastors.
“My report today should constitute a brief resume of the past two years. A year ago, after a successful year of service, we were unable to meet in annual session, but rather entered upon a year the opening three months of which were most depressing.” (p.23) “The quarantine against the influenza made it impossible to assemble the Mission for its annual session last year…On account of the influenza the new year opened under a gloom that we could not penetrate. No services could be held. No one wanted pastors to call. Our pastors were helpless. The authorities would not allow them to call on the sick. The well were afraid to have them call lest they should bring the sickness. Only at funerals were they in demand, and these had to be semi-private, and the utmost precaution taken to avoid the spread of the disease.” (p.25)
He closed this report out with the following words “My brethren, I call you to the heartiest and most loyal cooperation along all lines this year to the end that in the work of soul-saving and soul-training this may be the best year we have ever seen. Let us hear the Master saying, “Whatsoever ye shall ask in my name I will do it”; and “If ye abide in me and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will and it shall be done unto you.” These are the promises under which we have a right to go out expecting confidently a year of great and very blessed victory.”
And so, with these words ringing out across 101 years reminding us that there is a future beyond this pandemic, may we turn to the reassurance that our present dwells in the love of God in Christ and hear the echo from vs 38 of Romans Chapter 8 “For I am convinced that nether death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”