Written by Peter Wall, CFO
Ecclesiastes might be my favorite book of the Bible. I love the way it pierces earnest pieties and forces the reader back to the messiness of life on earth. It is the kind of thing that I can imagine Jesus reading, and pondering inwardly, and kneading into his cryptic parables. The book opens with a poem that includes these lines:
What has been is what will be,
And what has been done is what will be done;
There is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has already been,
In the ages before us.
This time of pandemic might feel unprecedented. But there is precedent. The people who came before us walked this path before we were born. Over the past few weeks, historian Ethan J. Kytle, who is Associate Professor of History at California State University, Fresno, has been writing about the pandemic a century ago, in 1918 and 1919, and how the City of Fresno responded. (You can find his dispatches at https://tropicsofmeta.com/category/dispatches-from-fresno/.) A lot of it sounds eerily familiar, including widespread closures, people wearing masks, and business owners clamoring to reopen.
The First Congregational Church of Fresno was founded in 1883, which means our congregation was around in those days, and I wondered how we handled the influenza pandemic. Fortunately, we have a chronicle of our first hundred years, written down in a book. When Mary and I first joined the church, we borrowed a copy of that book from Ruth Gadebusch. We read it together. And before we gave it back to Ruth, I digitized it to keep as a reference.
What was happening with our congregation a century ago, when the influenza pandemic swept through Fresno? The pastor of the First Congregational Church of Fresno then was Thomas T. Giffen. But he was out of town when the influenza pandemic arrived, having taken “a year’s leave of absence to work with soldiers in San Diego under the direction of the Young Men’s Christian Association.” While he was gone, “[m]uch of the business of the church was handled by the moderator, E.J. Crawford, who for several years was one of the most prominent laymen in the church.” And “Mr. Crawford had to call upon the congregation to keep up their subscriptions so that the budget would stay balanced even though the Health Department did not allow the church to hold services because of the influenza epidemic.” If you have read my columns in the past couple months, you might be wondering whether one of us is a time-traveler.
Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has already been, in the ages before us.
Do you know what else has already been, and will be again? A hundred years ago, the influenza pandemic closed the doors of our church. And back then they didn’t have Zoom or Facebook or YouTube or Givelify to keep them connected. But the moderator Mr. Crawford called on the congregation “to keep up their subscriptions so that the budget would stay balanced.” They must have heard that call because—spoiler alert—the congregation did not fold and we are still here today, a century later.
We are doing it again. Would you believe that, through the end of April, our pledged giving for this year has actually been better than the expectations we budgeted, by about $2,100? In fact, our giving overall through the end of April was $4,225 more than the expectations we budgeted. We are keeping our covenant in giving, and we will continue. We are a strong and generous people, giving faithfully to sustain our open and affirming community, even in the midst of challenges—just as our predecessors did a century ago. They were faithful to their times, and to us, and we are faithful to our times, and those who come after.
We have our problems. Plenty of them. But we are going to come out of this pandemic stronger than we were before. It has taken a little while to get our bearings, and to open our eyes and ears and minds to the possibilities of serving in this terrible age. There is still a lot of work to do. There are relationships to maintain, and people to feed, and faces to cover, and plans to make. I am trying to figure out what I can do.
How will they tell our story a hundred years from now? Well, whatever they encounter, and however they overcome it, I hope they, too, will be able to say, “It has already been, in the ages before us.”