Does one person a procession make?

In this season of Covid-19 pandemic-induced distancing and church closures, it must.

Today is a Rogation Day, one of the three days before Ascension Thursday.  For Episcopalians, Rogation Days are when we say prayers for agriculture, industry, and commerce, asking God’s blessings that our endeavors will yield fruitful harvests. There’s also a special liturgy called a Rogation Day Procession with special scriptures and prayers appointed for the feast that we’re invited to follow.

Rogation Processions usually include the priest and people taking a bit of a walk (hence “procession”), either around the church grounds, or to a nearby garden, or to a factory or a farm, depending on the parish setting.

It’s also common for the priest on his or her own to process about the geographical boundaries of the parish — “beating the bounds” it’s called — saying prayers, reading selected scripture, and asking God’s blessings. Since we’re in the season of #coronatide and priest and people are not permitted to walk together, I chose the latter, solo processional option (or did it choose me?). Alone or in a group, this is the appointed prayer (from our Book of Occasional Services) that’s said at every stop:

“Almighty and everlasting God, Creator of all things and giver of all life, let your blessing be upon this (seed, livestock, plough, forest, ___________) and grant that it may serve to your glory and the welfare of your people; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

I walked just over a mile from my home to the parish church of St. Paul’s in downtown Flint, put on my black cassock, cincture, and zuchetto (skullcap), and did a short Facebook live introduction from the front steps of the church. From there, Holy Bible and Book of Common Prayer (BCP) in hand and sturdy, every-day work boots on my feet, I walked a short couple of blocks to the Flint Farmers Market, where agriculture meets commerce. The market is closed to normal use, due to the pandemic shut-down. Customers can order online and have their goods brought to their cars. I can only imagine the ding this puts in the market vendors’ business. I know it’s affected my shopping there. I miss the food. I miss the people more.

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Then I walked to St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Flint’s blighted and desperately poor east side. St. Andrew’s has an important soup kitchen ministry, an end-use of agriculture, if you will — and the rector and many volunteers there are industrious in feeding so many people three days a week. Like St. Paul’s own feeding ministry these days, because of the pandemic St. Andrew’s is handing out bagged lunches and not serving cooked meals inside their parish hall.

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Just a few blocks north of St. Andrew’s is Asbury Farms, an urban gardening enterprise that takes up the better part of two city blocks where people’s homes once stood. I’ve often walked by it, but this is the first time I’ve seen farm workers. I asked one of the workers if I could say a prayer of blessing and take a few pictures. He gave permission and said what a nice thing that was for me to do.

Then I went to what had been Buick City, the factory complex where those vehicles were made. The buildings are gone; now it’s mostly umpteen acres of overgrown concrete wasteland. There is one new auto components plant there, Lear Corporation. I know that auto workers and workers in supplying industries are heading back to the plants as factories open back up after the pandemic shut down. Many workers are fearful for their safety, however, as the risk of contagion is still high. They wonder, and I wonder, if they’re not opening too soon and at what cost and for whose benefit.

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I made my way from Lear to Hurley Medical Center, Flint’s municipal hospital and one of the city’s larger employers, with a staff of over 2,700 people. I also happen to serve on the  Hurley Board of Managers. Health care is an industry and one that’s struggling right now from the over-work stress of the pandemic on the one hand, and on the other from layoffs and other staffing reductions as the volume of non-Covid medical procedures leads to under-work in much of the rest of the hospital. The workers at Hurley are no exception to this national trend of work imbalance, and as a board member of the hospital, responsible for the bottom line, I feel sick that we’ve had to put some people out of work, even if it’s only temporary.

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Not far from the hospital is Shelton Automotive, where I get my vehicle serviced. I thought they could use a prayer, too, as so many small, locally-owned shops are struggling. I’ve put so few miles on my car these past two months that I’ve not needed even an oil change. I hope so many vehicles in their lot is a good sign that business is holding on.

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I crossed the Flint River in what once was Chevy in the Hole, where those vehicles were made. Those factory buildings are gone, too. Looking east from the Stevenson Street bridge you see the downtown Flint skyline, with St. Paul’s steeple on the far right of the photo. The Mott Foundation building is dead-center and dominates the downtown landscape and our community.

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Nearby is the General Motors Metal Fabricating plant, still operational and remarkably close to downtown. This shop is a reminder of what Flint once was: an auto manufacturing powerhouse that employed multiple tens of thousands of workers and had, at one time, the highest median household income in the country. Now GM employs well south of ten thousand workers here, and Flint’s median household income is at the bottom.

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I stopped by Totem Books, a delightful “third space” cafe, used bookstore, and record shop. Totem, a regular haunt of mine, is closed for now, too. It’s owner greeted me in the parking lot. I can’t wait to get back inside for a darned good lunch, darned good company, and darned good books. I’m sure he can’t wait either.

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Flint’s Municipal Streets and Sanitation garage is on 12th Street between Fenton and Grand Traverse. I used to see some of these workers most every day at the counter of Tom’s Coney Cafe on Dort Highway. I would eat my breakfast in, while they took theirs to go. Once in awhile I’ll wave at one or another of them when I’m out walking or standing in front of church as they drive by in their red city trucks. I added a favorite Bible verse of mine to their prayer and blessing — “Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in” (Isaiah 58:12, emphasis mine).

Heading back downtown, I walked by the Genesee County Jail. Jails and prisons have long been industries, too, even if we don’t want to think of them in that way. I added the prayer “For Prisons and Correctional Institutions” (BCP 826) when I paused to give their blessing.

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I walked past St. Paul’s because I needed to get a close-up of the Mott Foundation Building and to say an extra prayer there. This occupants of this building hold the real center of wealth and power in our city; this is where most of the fruits of generations of Flint workers’ labor has ended up. In the rest of our city, blight, un- and under-employment, poverty, racism, environmental injustice, and the mischief that led to the Flint Water Crisis are our enduring plagues.

Nearly three hours and over eight miles later, I walked back to St. Paul’s to kneel on the front steps of church and recite “The Great Litany” (BCP 148-54) live-streamed on parish Facebook page, adding the three extra petitions appointed for Rogation Day from the Book of Occasional Services. Terrence, our sexton, was kind enough to take a break from mowing the front lawn while I prayed.

Industrial farmers plow under crops in the fields, kill their unsellable livestock, and dump tankers of milk into the ground while food pantry lines lengthen and grocery store shelves empty. Millions of the working-poor fill the unemployment rolls and lose health insurance while they worry about their health and their bills pile up. Small business owners wonder if they’ll reopen while they fret about their own welfare and that of their furloughed employees.

This year, more than ever, Rogation Days are important.

These are the three prayers for Rogation Days in our Book of Common Prayer (258-59):

For fruitful seasons — Almighty God, Lord of heaven and earth: We humbly pray that your gracious providence may give and preserve to our use the harvests of the land and of the seas, and may prosper all who labor to gather them, that we, who are constantly receiving good things from your hand, may always give you thanks; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

For commerce and industry — Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ in his earthly life shared our toil and hallowed our labor: Be present with your people where they work; make those who carry on the industries and commerce of this land responsive to your will; and give to us all a pride in what we do, and a just return for our labor; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

For stewardship of creation — O merciful Creator, your hand is open wide to satisfy the needs of every living creature: Make us always thankful for your loving providence; and grant that we, remembering the account that we must one day give, may be faithful stewards of your good gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.