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“…let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us…” -- Hebrews 12:1

Dear Members and Friends of Atonement,

We all miss church. It has been over two months now since we have been able to gather for worship, sharing handshakes and hugs, singing and praying together, catching up with our neighbors at coffee hour and receiving Holy Communion. Despite the adjustments and the sacrifices this health crisis has demanded, God continues to bless us with the means to reach one another through phone contacts and online worship services. God remains present with us, even while we can not be present with one another.

Though our campus has been closed, Atonement has not. We have continued working to provide online worship, ministry to members and service to the community. Office Administrator Marybeth Gandiosi continues to receive phone and email messages from home. Many groups such as the Women’s Bible Study, Stephen Ministry, Worship “stream team” and Christian education have been meeting online through “Zoom.” It is true that the food pantry was closed through the month of April, but contributions of food and funds and grants from the ELCA and local Rotary helped us return to making weekly “drive-through” distributions of food in May.

Atonement’s COVID response team has been meeting weekly since mid-March to assess the latest information about coronavirus and the risks to our congregation. That team includes myself, council president Laurie Chiaramonte, Synod Parish Deacons Rebecca Parker, Detlev Aeppel, and Intern Esthel Kane, Carla Haberland and Su Lindner from the Helping Hands Food Pantry, Charles Westbrook from our Safety and Security team, Mike Kane from Property and Scott Giesking from Technology. In addition to the many issues this group oversees, we are discussing when and how to return to physical gatherings at church.

Last week, President Trump encouraged governors to allow the re-opening of churches throughout the country. Many businesses have opened under the new social distancing guidelines and are serving customers in a limited capacity. However, health officials and CDC guidelines continue to urge people who are 65 and older or otherwise in the “high risk” category for COVID-19 to shelter at home. Our campus is still closed to worship and group meetings. Only people there for the food pantry, people doing repairs, cleaning and maintenance, and people making recordings for worship are permitted to enter the building at this time.

As we continue taking precautions against the spread of the virus, we are trying to keep the church building as clean and safe as possible. Portions of the building are marked “do not enter” to minimize potential risk of infection. For those who must enter the building, new signs have been placed at the entrance doors detailing the procedures to be followed by anyone entering. These include the following: use of hand sanitizer, wearing a mask, keeping six feet of distance from others, and signing-in so that any possible spread of infection can be traced.

As we consider when the best time to reopen for physical gatherings, a number of factors are important to keep in mind:

1.) Recommendations for the reopening of businesses do not necessarily apply to churches. The state is encouraging businesses to reopen with a view to improving the economy. While this is an important goal, it also increases the risk of infection.

2.) The basic reality that the coronavirus is still a threat has not changed. Though we are continuing to learn more about how the virus works and are seeing some of its limitations, we still do not have a treatment or vaccine that can reliably protect people. Lower numbers of infections are an encouraging sign, but this could change dramatically as human contact increases and more businesses reopen.

3.) The ELCA and our Florida-Bahamas Synod Bishop have been listening to health care experts and developing resources for congregations that are contemplating reopening. We have been reviewing these at our weekly meetings and are sharing two of them with you. One is this document from the ELCA (click here) listing considerations for reopening. This document will give you a good overview of some issues that need to be worked out before bringing people back into the church. The other is a message from our Synod Bishop Pedro Suarez (click here) from last Friday, May 23. This makes clear that our Synod Office is not recommending that congregations resume in-person gatherings at this time.

4.) When we do “re-open,” things will be different for a while. Social distancing precautions will be in place, so seating will be limited. Participants, including worshipers will be masked. Familiar elements of worship will be missing at first as we phase in some of the riskier aspects of the service, like singing and communion. We intend to produce and share a video which will show what precautions will be required when it becomes possible to return to church.

We expect deliberations about re-opening our facility to continue through the month of June, with July being the earliest possibility for resuming limited in-person gatherings. We have cancelled on-site VBS for the summer but are planning to have an on-line version available in mid-July. We will continue to take into account recommendations from health officials and the CDC as well as our Florida-Bahamas Synod, with special attention to how the virus is spreading in our community.

As we grieve the death of our beloved brother in Christ and Atonement Church family member Richard Miller, Jr., it pains us that we are unable to offer a full-scale worship gathering. In accordance with current practices, we are planning to hold a service for the immediate family members only. When we can hold a suitably larger gathering safely at our facility, we plan to do so. However, the family wishes the whole congregation to know that they regret not being able to invite you all to the upcoming memorial service.

There is no doubt that these are difficult times for our world, our country, and our church. We thank you all for your faithfulness and support, your patience and flexibility, and your continued prayers and encouragement as we find new ways to safely share the love of Jesus. The apostle Paul tells us that perseverance produces character, and character produces hope (Romans 5:4). As we weather the hardships of our time, we do so with a special hope that Jesus plants in our hearts…the hope that physical distance cannot separate us spiritually, and does not keep us from being of one heart and mind in Christ Jesus.

Peace and health,

Pastor Scott Lindner and Council president Laurie Chiaramonte

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