By Matt Townsend
The psalmist reminds us that God can spread snow like wool, an image that has become chillingly familiar to many parts of the eastern United States. In areas affected by extreme weather, many parishes cancelled and moved services. Even Shrove Tuesday was not spared winter’s wrath, with pancake dinners cancelled from Kentucky to Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C. Not to be thwarted, parishioners like Corbin Meek of St. Martin’s in Charlotte, North Carolina, posted tweets tagged with #VirtualShrove — enjoying pancake fellowship on social networks.
Few corners of the country have received as much snow overload as Boston, where 64 inches of snowfall in February surpassed the previous record by more than 20 inches. Boston’s suburbs have struggled mightily with this massive snowfall. There, aging transportation systems and inadequate snow-removal budgets brought normal life to a virtual halt.
In Waltham, west of Boston’s city center, cabin fever built with each passing snow day. The Rev. Sara Irwin, rector of Christ Church in Waltham, said she was watching her own children “bounce off the walls” after one snow day, only to hear school would be cancelled the next. She had the idea to bring the community together at the parish to alleviate some of the stress of enforced time off. She and her husband, the Rev. Noah Evans of Grace Church in Medford, decided to text people and see who might come.
The next day, about 20 showed up at Christ Church to enjoy games, fun, and fellowship. “I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I figured that the amount of payoff could have been so dramatic compared to the amount of effort we put into it,” Irwin said. “A lot of it just came about over social media. I mentioned it on Facebook and several other parishes in the diocese did it, as well.”
The beauty of adapting to weather with a fun, simple event, Irwin said, is that it involves so little planning. “Go ahead and do it. You don’t need to have a big program. You don’t need to have a person in charge of it. You just have to open the door and the Holy Spirit does the rest.”
In Nashville, a number of Episcopal parishes opened their doors amid single-digit temperatures in February as part of the local Room in the Inn program, which converts churches into temporary shelters for homeless people during the winter. Christ Church Cathedral and St. Bartholomew’s (locally known as St. B’s) in Nashville both responded to an emergency call of action from the city during the worst weather.
“St B’s has been offering an evenings accommodation to the homeless through the city-wide Room in the Inn ministry for over 25 years,” said the Rev. Jerry Smith, rector. “With the unusually cold weather this year we opened our facilities on a couple of the exceptionally cold nights because there was an obvious need and we had the available facilities and person-power to meet the need.”
When needs like this emerge, parishioners at St. B’s and the cathedral help provide food, transportation, clothing, and supervision for shelters. “It was an amazing effort by all. It’s very rare that Nashville sees single-digit temperatures,” said the Very Rev. Timothy Kimbrough, dean of the cathedral.
The dean said marginalized people in Nashville often live in areas that are the last to receive assistance when weather turns sour. “Extreme weather disrupts the lives of the impoverished in ways that few appreciate.”
Smith agreed. “There are over 7,000 homeless persons in Nashville and over 2,000 children, and some have pets,” the rector of St. B’s said. “Those without shelter are very vulnerable in the cold, as there are few places for them to actually find respite. It is incumbent on us to do what we can to fulfill the gospel mandate to come alongside the ‘weakest of those among us.’”
Nashville’s not being familiar with extreme cold is what makes this weather so dangerous for the vulnerable; the conditions exceed the city’s capacity to respond. Episcopal Relief & Development, through its U.S. Disaster Program, seeks to help in those situations. The organization has been in touch with several dioceses to assess their needs.
One of the central principles of the U.S. Disaster Program is asset-based community development, which holds that the best resources for helping a community are the assets already at hand. Episcopal Relief and Development has been building a “Ready to Serve” volunteer database to identify clergy, parishioners, and friends who may be able to help in the event of a disaster. Diocesan disaster coordinators help to connect those in need with existing resources, including long-term financing after the disaster ends and the recovery phase begins. All of this means churches sharing resources with each other and in their communities.
Back in greater Boston, members of First Lutheran (ELCA) of Malden discovered the benefits of sharing these resources during difficult times. The Rev. Rachel Manke, First Lutheran’s pastor, was meeting with the Rev. John Clarke of St. Paul’s Church in Malden when the topic of her church’s snow woes arose. Clarke suggested that First Lutheran join St. Paul’s for Ash Wednesday and the first Sunday in Lent.
Manke said that Clarke told her, “You guys should come and do worship any time you want.”
“They never cancelled, and we had to cancel two weeks in a row because of the really bad snow storms and the complete lack of parking,” she said.
The churches are separated by only two miles in the northern Boston suburb, but St. Paul’s is closer to the center of Malden and benefited from parking-garage access. To Manke, starting Lent slightly out of place and away from home served as a growth opportunity for her congregation. More than anything, she said, it opened the door to fellowship that both congregations enjoyed.
“It was like you just met your neighbor who lives down the street and you never got to know them before, and you had a great time and want to get together again,” she said. Lay people of both churches are discussing a combined social dinner.
Manke said the joint worship worked well. She preached while Clarke oversaw the liturgy. “We learned how to kneel again,” Manke joked of her Lutheran congregation. “Our knees still have flexion.”
Image: The Rev. Rachel Manke and the Rev. John Clarke joined forces on Ash Wednesday. • Lisa Porro photo