The Patton family moved to Westport eight years ago from Simsbury. Rev. Alison J. Buttrick Patton is the Pastor of Saugatuck Congregational Church, UCC. Founded in 1832 by former members of Green’s Farms Congregational Church to service those living in “Saugatuck Village” (today’s downtown Westport) the church is an important historical site. It has been closed since early March with worship services and other gatherings moved on line. Craig D. B. Patton is a freelance social media consultant and trainer focused on LinkedIn. He is part of the team at Post Road Consulting, which is owned by Westport resident Sandra Long. Son Tobey is a 2020 graduate of Staples High School and son Ian a rising sophomore at the school.
“Being a pastor is all about people. Walking with them. Sharing with them. Supporting them. Teaching them. Learning from them. Worshiping with them. Praying with them. Identifying and executing mission work to do together. On and on. So, on the one hand, it’s challenging not to be able to gather in-person to worship, learn, grow, and work together. On the other hand, the building is not the church and never has been. The early Christian church gathered in homes and also public spaces when it was safe to do so. We find echoes of that all around us today. It’s also worth noting that Saugatuck Church has recent experience with being a displaced faith community. The fire in November 2011 forced us to improvise and live differently for several years.
There is also a creative streak in this congregation that serves us well in times like this. New and different ways of doing things are embraced or acknowledged as worthy experiments. Living through the pandemic compelled us to be creative, learn new skill sets, and reengage with how we live out our mission as the church. But Zoom meetings and inventive video productions only get you so far. It’s still hard. It’s hard not to see each other. It’s hard not to sing together. It’s hard not to pray in the same space. We miss our friends. We miss watching the children growing up. We spend too much time apart. One interesting upside is that moving so much of the church’s life online has allowed people with physical and health limitations to participate more frequently. It has also allowed people in other parts of the state and country to reconnect with or discover us. Online Bible Study draws more people than the in-person version did. The weekly Online Worship services reach more people.
For Craig, the primary impact has been the cancellation of in-person seminars and trade show events. A major event in Philadelphia was an early casualty. However, because we work online in the world of social media, much of our business has not been severely disrupted. Most of Craig’s work over the phone or the Internet, pre-pandemic and now. I’m grateful to be working in an area that has an easier time continuing than so many other industries.
We continue to feel very grateful to be at low risk in many ways. None of us have underlying health issues or are in other risk categories. Alison’s job is not at risk. Craig’s is in a sector that has reduced impact. We live in a parsonage, so we don’t have mortgage payments or rental fees. We often remind ourselves that we have advantages that others do not. We feel more settled, more balanced now. Looking back, we can see the waves of energy, fatigue, positivity, and grief that were hard to understand while they were tossing us. We’re much more adept at using Zoom and video editing tools we’ve had to learn. We feel apprehensive about the reopening efforts, both locally and nationally. Alison also feels energized by the new possibilities for ministry and the creative conversations that we’re having.
Professionally, Alison has had to learn to run a virtual church. Ministry is all about the people, and she’s never with the people, so using other methods to reach out, nurture community, and even expand community has been a significant change. She quickly became the Zoom expert in the house. Tech support is now part of her pastoral care ministry to congregation members as she equips them to use various online platforms. In some ways, she feels like she has more regular contact with many members than before the pandemic. She’s also pastoring a community in grief over the separation from one another, canceled events, altered lives, lost opportunities, lost jobs, and more.
Meanwhile, Craig has poured much of his time and energy into helping the church create its weekly Online Worship services, which is basically like creating a short film every week. In our daily lives, the most significant change is that our teenagers have been home every day since mid-March with no break for any of us. Thankfully, we get along very well. We play a lot of board games, and all-family basketball games in the driveway have recently started.
We both come from grounded, humble families. None of our parents are ostentatious, extravagant, wasteful, etc. Alison’s parents are clergy and engaged with social justice issues nationally and globally all their lives. Craig’s parents, while comfortably middle class, have always been frugal and carefully plan for every eventuality they can imagine. So we both grew up in households where we understood that we have more than many others and that we shouldn’t take anything for granted. We have some perspective. That helps. Our family also values adaptability, flexibility, and a sense of humor. That helps.
We’re all campers, and campers don’t mind a little adversity, and they don’t worry if they look a little unkempt. That helps. The fact that both of us, but particularly Craig, have a great deal of life experience with information technology and video production has helped us quickly adapt and make a positive contribution to our community. We are both comfortable talking about our feelings and are intuitive by nature, so we have generally been able to process with each other how we’re doing. It was harder early in this period when we went from what we thought would be a 2-week shutdown to a process that would take many months and alter the complexion of our lives for a long time. Depression and grief impacted us more then.
Generally, we feel that the community has coped quite positively with the pandemic. I Early in the shutdown, Alison wrote an article reflecting on all the positive energy, acts of kindness, and creative thinking taking place here. Communication from the schools and the town officials has been excellent. Grocery stores have adapted as our understanding of what was needed to evolve. People embraced social distancing and the sacrifices involved for weeks on end. We have a lot of creative, hard-working neighbors who have worked hard to move much of our lives online.
We do think this next part is harder for our community. Fatigue has settled in with this whole social distancing lifestyle. The direst predictions of what might happen haven’t come to pass, so there’s a temptation to think the risk was overblown or has ended. Craig has observed much more cavalier behavior by people in stores and elsewhere than a week ago. Some people are ignoring instructions. Doing what they want, when they want, and waving off corrections. Others are genuinely fearful, convinced the virus is lurking in every inch of the town, waiting for a chance to infect them, their family, or their neighbors. So, like the rest of the country, Westport appears torn about what the appropriate balance is between public health concerns and economic or personal liberty concerns. Every layer of our society seems to be in confusion, overruling what other parts have said is the “right” thing to be doing.
We hope that people have learned from the pandemic that changes in human behavior can have a measurable, positive impact on the environment. Skies cleared worldwide as businesses figured out how to drive their companies without driving to an office. The pandemic also highlighted structural inequities that continue to plague this country. The United States has suffered a disproportionate number of casualties from the Coronavirus compared to other countries, and a disproportionate percentage of our dead are people of color. It’s not their fault. It’s our society’s fault.
We hope this experience will inspire our country to confront and change racist policies and recommit to caring for the environment. We also hope that we will carry this community-building creativity forward. We hope there will be more appreciation for service workers, many of whom we never see, who work for little pay but were designated “essential” because they are and have been at risk while the rest of us hung out at home baking and streaming Netflix. Our greatest fear is that there will be a severe relapse, or second wave of infection and hospitalizations before treatment or a vaccine is available, sending us back into shutdown for months. But another fear is that the pandemic will continue as a slow burn. Life may look “normal,” while tens of thousands of additional people die over the coming months, tacitly written off as expendable because we couldn’t accept any other path forward.
We hope this experience will inspire our country to confront and change racist policies and recommit to caring for the environment
We want everyone who has been working on the front lines during this time to know we sincerely appreciate their work on our behalf. Their stress level far exceeds ours. So, thank you to the service workers, delivery people, sanitation workers, hospital staff, and anyone else who has endured weeks of heightened exposure, often for low wages. Thanks also to educators of all kinds and the administrative teams who support them as they have worked so hard to keep school going online for our sons. And we’d like all of you to know we’re glad to be here with you in Westport. We’re fine, and we’re looking forward to seeing everyone in person once it’s safe to do so.