Have Faith: Sundays at the Tabernacle

Coronavirus makes for a different sort of Sabbath.

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This year marks the 185th anniversary of religious services held at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs, and the Spiritual Life committee of the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association (MVCMA) wasn’t about to let the coronavirus cancel this year’s services. They’ve never been canceled in the past. Ever.

I talked with one of the co-chairs of the committee, Ken Lowe, and he explained how things are a little different this year, but there is still an ecumenical service every Sunday at 9:30 am at the Tabernacle, through the end of August.

“It was a little bit trickier this year,” Lowe said. “We had a roster of preachers set up in the fall and winter, and we were set to go, but this spring, when things were starting to firm up, I went back to each one and told them the situation, telling them we’re going to have services but we want to make sure you’re comfortable. Three of them chose not to come this year, but they all had valid reasons, and we were able to replace them with other people.”

Despite what some are calling the “new normal,” people have been showing up for Sunday services, which are held practicing social distancing.

“We’ve had a good number of people coming, just shy of 100 the past few services,” Lowe said. “We’ve put precautions in place, and we sanitize everything in the morning before the service, and again before Good Shepherd Parish comes for their 4 o’clock service. We have markings on all the benches so people know where to sit, everyone needs to wear a mask, and we keep track of who’s coming in.”

Lowe admitted that some aspects of the services have changed; there’s no music, and they didn’t get the piano out of storage this summer. The Vineyard Brass Band hasn’t played, either. They do livestream services on the MVMCA website, mvcma.org/sunday-services.html, so that those who may be wary of gathering in public spaces can still enjoy the service.

The MVMCA usually has a packed schedule at the Campground — music, events for kids, art shows, and other programs, that were all canceled this year. Not to mention Grand Illumination. There are many Campground residents who decided not to come at all this summer, Lowe said. “There are some people in here who go back seven generations, back to when the Campground began.”

A stroll around the Campground to look at the gingerbread cottages requires a mask this year, he said. In a typical summer, it’s not uncommon to have visitors come right up onto the porches to ask if there might be a room available, or if they could have their photo taken on the porch. Sometimes they think that staff live in the cottages, as if it were a living history museum like Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. This year isn’t typical, though, and some of the homes put a rope across the porch to discourage a close-up visit.

The spiritual life that the Campground was built upon is still vibrant, though, and there are guest preachers coming up — some familiar, like the Rev. Dr. Ray Hammond from Boston and the Passionist priest Father Edward Beck. Next Sunday, July 26, the Rev. William Turpie, retired pastor from the New North Church in Hingham, will preach, followed by the Rev. Dr. Preston Williams from Harvard Divinity School on August 2.

To find out more about the Campground and the MVMCA’s spiritual life, visit mvcma.org.

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My lovely friend Nancy Wood invited me to join the Unitarian Universalist church’s service last Sunday, with special guest Jim Thomas (founder and president of the U.S. Slave Song Project and director of the U.S. Slave Songs Spiritual Choir), who led an “Erasing Racism” service via Zoom. I have to say, the whole remote thing actually had an intimate feel to it. Everyone greeted each other, and Ewell Hopkins opened the service. A couple of things he said stuck with me — one was that the U.U. Society of M.V. welcomes “your whole self, your hopes, your worries,” and the other was his description of the congregation as “diverse in faith and background but aligned in belief of the dignity of every person.”

Thomas then spoke, saying that racism got its start in 1619, when we first had the idea that one human being could own another. He talked about the power and control that come with slavery, and how it was sanctioned by law. Thomas gave an analogy about racism being like an onion, where there are green sprouts above ground that can be mowed over or chopped off with a sickle, but most of it lies buried underground, and with proper soil and nurturing, it will continue to grow. “You can’t see it, but it’s there,” he said.

We all walked away with some actions we could take ourselves to remove racism. I’ll share them with you here: 1) Stop listening to or telling race-based jokes. 2) When you are requested to make a recommendation for a position at work or on a board or committee, or whatever, recommend somebody from a different race and then support them. 3) Don’t teach your children to hate. 4) Listen to people from different minority groups with new ears, don’t listen to confirm what you think to be true. 5) Contact your state and local officials and ask them if they are willing to support a community where all policemen are recertified on a regular basis in order to check on their mental stability. They see horrendous things in the line of duty, and it affects them; this recertification wouldn’t be only to help combat racism but also to help with their own mental health.

I think those are good words to leave you with.