We Gather, Not Quite Together: Navigating Lent During the COVID-19 Crisis: Area Churches Speak on Ministering Remotely Through Holy Week and Beyond

 

BY SHELBY NIEHAUS

If not for the COVID-19 pandemic and the rolling shutdowns designed to combat it, every church in the region would be packed as the end of Lent, and Easter with it, closed in. But viruses know no calendar, and many faithful were sad to see their places of worship closed by state orders just before the end of their celebrations.

In the week leading up to Easter, the Altamont News and St. Elmo Banner spoke to five area clergy about their Easter plans and how they’re keeping their churches connected. For the purposes of this story, we could not talk to every church in the area. Instead, we tried to secure a broad range of church experiences—across denominations, demographics served, locations in and around city centers, locations across our readership’s area, and previous engagement with online, virtual, or remote ministry. If your church is not featured in this article and has engaged in novel or notable ministry in the last few weeks, please feel free to contact us at news@altnewsban.com.

A Distanced Procession: Altamont First United Methodist Church

Many in the Altamont FUMC Palm Sunday processional brought signs and banners along on their trip through Altamont (submitted photo from Dale Heinkel).

Blessed palm fronds were handed out to worshippers waiting in their cars outside the Altamont First United Methodist Church on Palm Sunday, April 5. A parade of around 30 cars travelled through Altamont’s streets, waving the fronds and honking (submitted photo from Dale Heinkel).

On Palm Sunday, late sleepers in Altamont woke up to beeping car horns and a slow parade of vehicles outside their windows, decorated with signs and streamers with passengers hanging out the windows, all waving palm fronds in a socially distanced take on the traditional Palm Sunday processional.

Altamont First United Methodist Church’s Rev. Paige Campbell says that the vehicular processional’s “inspiration [came] from God,” and that it mixed “making a statement” with guidelines of social distancing. She received some pushback on the event as it wasn’t sheltered-in-place, but she found interest in the event all the same. Participants hailed from Altamont FUMC and beyond, she said, and viewers of the processional lined up on the streets before the cars even began to move.

Altamont FUMC’s Palm Sunday processional isn’t the only out-of-the-ordinary plan that the church had for the 2020 Lenten season. On top of regular Sunday worship services streamed on Facebook Live, Rev. Campbell prepared a tenebrae, or “service of darkness,” for Good Friday. The tenebrae, Campbell’s favorite service of the year, is a historic service in which lit candles are extinguished over time until the service is plunged into darkness, symbolizing the betrayals of Jesus—this service, too, will be livestreamed for viewers at home, and will then be uploaded to Altamont FUMC’s YouTube page.

As for regular services, Altamont FUMC is livestreaming each worship service on YouTube (AltamontFirstUMC), with services recorded for later viewing and linked to the church’s Facebook page (@altamontFUMC ). “People can watch them at 9 a.m.” when the service is first streamed, Campbell says, “or at 10 a.m. if they want to.” Services often include public domain music, or pre-recorded songs supplied through the United Methodist Publishing House, which has supplied churches with short-term rights to its recordings until the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We were sort of lucky enough to have music available,” says Campbell.

Other church happenings have been either cancelled or moved online. Bible studies and an eighth grade confirmation class now meet through Google Meets, and there’s talk of online Sunday school meetings. Regular choir practices, as well as a planned post-Easter cantata, have been called off. Only one in-person happening, the weekly opening of Altamont’s food pantry in the Altamont FUMC’s basement level, is still running, and that only occurs from 1-3 p.m. on Tuesdays. “That was very important that we keep it open, even if it’s a limited time—that was strongly encouraged by our bishop,” says Campbell.

Congregants are informed of these online services and meetings through word of mouth, through Facebook posts, and through the church’s streetside sign. “Those are the best that I have… knowing my congregation, the folks that show up have some kind of connection to other people.”

That connection her congregants have has brought in worshippers that don’t normally hear Altamont FUMC’s services. At the same time, other congregants are missing out. “There’s people who live out in the country who don’t have a good internet connection,” she comments. “There’s a have and have-not to technology that many people don’t realize.” Nevertheless, Campbell plans to continue offering some form of virtual church services after the COVID-19 shutdown lifts.

One thing Campbell draws a line with, however, is communion—in a time when some churches are asking congregants to secure bread and wine for an at-home communion, Campbell’s congregation is without communion until the shutdown lifts. “Theologically, I believe we can’t have communion together unless we’re together, so no virtual or drive-through communion for us,” she comments.

“When we have our first Sunday back together,” though, “that’ll be our big Easter celebration. …We’ll just go all out with joy,” Campbell says.

Veteran Streaming: St. Elmo Christian Church and The Table

The Table, located along Main Street in St. Elmo, has offered its streaming setup to other area churches throughout the COVID-19 shutdown. Its setup, shown here, includes a small camera on a tripod; a projector aimed at the back wall’s screen; and an internet-connected laptop, which serves as the all-in-one control for sound, video, and distribution.

While some local churches are still learning how to stream services, others are now veterans at the practice, and are even offering their expertise and facilities to other congregations. The St. Elmo Christian Church and The Table, two sister nondenominational entities ministered by Tim Fontaine, are leading that charge in St. Elmo.

When Fontaine started The Table, a hybrid church, gathering space, and charity café in downtown St. Elmo, he already had a background in digital church practice, and bolstered The Table’s ministry with streaming “almost since day one.” Now, he streams The Table’s Saturday night service and uploads it to St. Elmo Christian Church’s Facebook page and The Table’s website (TheTableSaintElmo.com) for Sunday morning viewing.

Since calling off in-person services at both The Table and SECC on March 19, Fontaine himself hasn’t been ministering on Sunday mornings. Lately, he’s been busy helping out another congregation on Sunday mornings, offering his streaming setup in The Table’s building to Rev. Dan Laack of the St. Elmo First United Methodist Church, whose worship services are also posted to The Table’s website and to St. Elmo FUMC’s Facebook page. Fontaine also offers his setup to the St. Elmo Ministerial Alliance, which began broadcasting community prayers on Wednesday evenings. “We’ve turned into a TV studio,” he jokingly told the News and Banner on April 6.

Despite this, Fontaine’s other happenings—small groups, Bible studies, and special programs—are largely on hold. “We’re just trying to keep our Facebook feed full,” he says, with some asynchronous worship and study information distributed to The Table’s and SECC’s Facebook pages. “I’ve heard of other churches doing Facebook groups to try and stay in touch.”

Though The Table and SECC thrive, perhaps uniquely, in digital spaces, the churches are struggling in other ways. Both capitalized on community and interpersonal connection heavily, frequently offering casual gatherings for the explicit purpose of being physically close with other believers; “our [routine] business [at The Table] is kind of keeping people together, and when you can’t do that, how do you thrive?” Fontaine says. “Inversely, our streams are going crazy. Some of our streams get 700-plus views.”

Before Easter, Fontaine planned to ask his congregations to invite friends and neighbors to view the weekly service in an effort to bring in folks who may only attend services on major holidays, and who might not know where to turn now that churches are closed. “In some ways,” he said, “[outreach] is so simple now; where somebody might be intimidated to invite someone to church in person, [inviting them online] is so simple.”

Beyond that, he’s keeping up with his congregations as best he can, supplementing face time with phone time, even building new relationships with those who can’t attend in-person services. “We’re just trying to keep in touch with membership through phone calls and emails, and I think that’s healthy,” he comments. “I think some of these things that we’re learning now we need to keep going when things get back to normal.”

Rosaries at Home: St. Mary, St. Clare, and the Diocese of Springfield

Father Christudasan Kurisadima, who ministers at both St. Mary Catholic Church in St. Elmo and St. Clare Catholic Church in Altamont, didn’t have much to say to the News and Banner on Monday, April 6. With neither of his churches producing livestreamed services during the shutdown, his congregants now view Masses streamed from other churches in the Diocese of Springfield, while Kurisadima observes Mass alone.

In a way, the Diocese of Springfield, which oversees Catholic churches in a 28-county area surrounding the capitol city, beat the Governor to the punch to close churches; a statement issued by Bishop Thomas John Paprocki on March 14 said that “effective today… all Catholics within the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois are dispensed from their obligation to attend Sunday Mass until further notice.” This guidance predated the Stay at Home order by nearly a week, and came only a day after the Illinois State Board of Education’s notice that schools would be closed effective March 17.

This notice did not actually close Catholic churches in the area—it went on to read that “Catholic faithful who are well are encouraged, but not obligated, during this time to continue to attend Mass.” It did, however, offer Catholics approved religious activities that would supplement their Mass attendances, if they felt the need to stay home.

In the end, this suggestion was only active for a few days; on March 18, Bishop Paprocki issued another announcement, which noted that “beginning today, all Masses will be held by priests with no congregation present,” transitioning the Diocese into sine populo (Latin for “without the people”) Masses. This means that, back in Altamont and St. Elmo, Father Kurisadima is still holding Masses alone. “Fr. Chris [Kurisadima]… still says Mass even though we aren’t there,” reads a post on St. Mary’s Facebook page just before Palm Sunday.

Though Masses are still observed locally, the public can’t view them; they need to fill the gap in their Holy Week with other religious offerings. Thankfully, the Diocese of Springfield maintains a robust social media presence, which predates the COVID-19 pandemic but which has been redoubled since. Its Facebook page (@diospringfield) has issued at least daily posts for the past few weeks; a notification for a text alert system, a link to an online Holy Week retreat, livestreamed Masses and Stations of the Cross devotions with Bishop Paprocki, podcasts, and even blooper reels from priests recording their Masses number among these posts.

The Diocese also lists a roster of livestreamed services on the front page of its website, dio.org, with links to each. Local Catholics can choose a number of services supplied by parishes in Springfield, Quincy, Decatur, and elsewhere, though many opt for the services supplies by Effingham parishes Sacred Heart or St. Anthony of Padua, the latter of which’s services are posted to St. Mary’s Facebook page weekly. A Mass is also aired on EWTN each day.

St. Mary’s Facebook page also periodically posts Lenten writings and reading orders for local devotees. St. Clare, meanwhile, doesn’t maintain much of an independent Facebook presence.

Word and Sacrament: Bethlehem Evangelical and Zion Lutheran Churches

Bethlehem Evangelical and Zion Lutheran Churches, both in rural Altamont, are steeped in history and tradition. Bethlehem’s own sesquicentennial history book is peppered with black-and-white and sepia photos, which outnumber modern full-color images 23 to 16: the past and its traditions are not a footnote, but a keystone, to this congregation, and Zion is no different.

It’s no wonder, then, that Rev. Marcus Manley, who ministers over both congregations, is less than thrilled to minister at a distance.

“Christ’s description of the Church in Matthew 18:20 is ‘where two or three are gathered in his name,’” Manley explains, speaking to the News and Banner on Tuesday, April 7 (the verse he quotes reads, in full, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them,” in the King James Version). Rev. Manley feels that the church’s “essence… is not just spiritual; it’s also physical, just like Christ’s resurrection was a physical reality.” This view was reiterated in a letter from the Bethlehem and Zion Board of Elders, stating “we are not called to be a ‘virtual’ church; instead, we are called to be a church incarnate. We pray, therefore, that the time is soon when we will be able to gather for corporate worship once again.”

Since Sunday, March 22, both congregations have been observing social distancing guidelines and the governor’s Stay at Home order, save for a few meetings of Bible study groups and meetings of church Elders, all numbering fewer than ten persons, and a Facebook Live-streamed adult bible study on Sundays. Instead, services have been moved online in much the same fashion as other churches. The two churches share one sermon on a regular week, which is broadcast live on Bethlehem’s Facebook page and is then shared to Zion’s page; during Lent, both congregations observe midweek services, which are broadcast in the same fashion.

Like Altamont FUMC, Bethlehem and Zion are keeping the needs of their communities in mind during the shutdown. “Elders contacted every household of our two congregations encouraging then to consider the needs (e.g. food, medicine, supplies, errands) of their neighbors and those most vulnerable to the pestilence,” Rev. Manley shared in an email to the News and Banner. “If there were needs of the community that members could not support on their own, the church collective is called to meet those needs and love one another as Jesus loves us.”

The act of producing and distributing digital services isn’t without its hitches, exceptional times and theological objections notwithstanding. Longtime Bethlehem member Kurt Becker shared with the News and Banner an anecdote about a recorded service in which Rev. Manley played a favorite contemporary Christian piece, Open the Eyes of My Heart by Paul Baloche, for those watching. “Immediately, as one of the administrators, I get a notification that says [Universal Music Group] has muted your broadcast for copyright violations,” Becker notes. The copyright violation notice came “literally within five seconds” of the song starting up.

(How did that happen so quickly? Back in April of 2016, Facebook launched a tool called Rights Manager, which operates similarly to YouTube’s Content ID copyright monitoring system. Through Rights Manager, copyright holders “upload and maintain a reference library of video content to monitor and protect, including live video streams.” Rights Manager allows copyright holders to automatically scan video content on Facebook for infringements of copyright. Infringing videos—anything that matches Facebook’s library of copyrighted reference material—are flagged and then can then be reported for muting or takedown.

Rights Manager’s publically-accessible language is almost exclusively aimed at controlling video copyright; however, Rights Manager’s help articles, found on the less-easily-accessible Facebook Business Help Center, do cover Rights Manager use for music copyright holders. In short: one of Facebook’s internal tools “listens,” as well as a non-human can, to user-created content for instances of copyright violation.)

Rev. Manley is producing services for distribution in the Altamont circuit, as well as supplemental worship material for his own flocks. “[Rev.] Manley has been busily preparing orders of worship for his special services,” which included Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday services in the final week of Lent, plus Facebook Live services on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. On Easter proper, the churches will see a prerecorded sunrise service, to be released at 6 a.m., plus a live Easter service at 9:30 a.m.

Additionally, Bethlehem and Zion both have shared a number of outside prerecorded sermons to their Facebook pages in the run-up to Easter. Becker reports that these outside sermons were secured from the 11 member churches of the Altamont circuit of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and are shared freely between those churches.

“Perhaps one of the most positive outcomes of this: it has increased communication between the 11 churches of the Altamont circuit… and has forced us to learn more about media,” Becker says.

In the meantime, Rev. Manley is performing home visits for his parishioners as needed, bringing “God’s word and sacrament to members’ homes.” “You’ve got this desire to hear the word and be with other Christians despite this command from the government not to do so… it weighs on the Christian conscious,” he says.

A Greater Interest: Brownstown First Baptist Church

The First Baptist Church of Brownstown uses Zoom for weekly worship services, with the last ten minutes of each service left for the congregation to visit with each other digitally. Zoom’s simple interface and conversation capabilities have made it wildly popular as an alternative to in-person meetings.

Only one church that the News and Banner spoke with is performing services through anything other than Facebook Live. Over in Brownstown, Rev. Olen Evans at the First Baptist Church is using video conferencing tool Zoom to bring his congregation together.

Zoom, an application for smartphones, tablets, and desktops, has grown wildly popular in the last few months, often cited as ballooning from 10 million daily users in December to 200 million daily users in March, as noted in an April 8 CNET article. It’s easy to use—almost foolproof—but has a litany of security problems, including Zoombombing (an attack in which uninvited persons assault the meeting with pornography, hate speech, or disturbing imagery), compromised accounts, and instances of unsecured meeting recordings, again as noted by CNET on April 8.

(This is not to say that the News and Banner faults any local group for using Zoom as an alternative to physical meetings. When it comes to the digital world, users frequently have to pick between security and user-friendliness; many applications can’t, or won’t, deliver both. In any event, Zoom COE Eric Yuan recently commented to NPR that he’d changed his tune on the security vs. usability front: “We’re going to transform our business to a privacy-and-security-first mentality,” he said.)

While Zoom may, arguably, be a less secure platform than Facebook Live, it certainly has its upshots. Unlike Facebook Live, Zoom allows for participants to communicate with each other—Evans says he’s been leaving the last ten minutes of every service for the congregation “just so they can visit with one another.” With Facebook Live, the best most groups can do is a live text chat.

Zoom, Evans says, is also easy to use. “It’s a bit limited because it’s hard to get your [meeting] ID out there,” he notes, but after congregants have a link to that ID number, “all they have to do is touch the link.” It works on internet-connected devices and cellular data, too, so it reaches a broad group of people with modern devices, even in rural areas. “Most of the people don’t have a problem” connecting to services through Zoom, Evans says.

Another key selling point for Zoom is that it’s free and immediate. Evans commented to the News and Banner that he had once considered purchasing equipment for a drive-in service on Easter, but had to give up that plan when the church realized that the necessary equipment wouldn’t arrive on time from Amazon. He now plans to broadcast his Easter service as usual on Zoom, and will “try to make it extra special in the message.”

Because the Zoom meeting ID has to be distributed ahead of time through Facebook and through the church’s prayer chain, Evans says that first-time visitors have been sparse. He also notes, though, that church Zoom meetings have been well-attended, even drawing in those who don’t normally attend services.

Outreach to those previously-unreached worshippers is worth it for Evans. “I’ve found there’s a greater interest in attending church than I had realized,” he commented to the News and Banner midweek. “There are several that join us… who have tuned into this, and I would like to, in some way, continue something for them.”

Even so, he’s eager as anyone to get back in front of the pulpit and in the same room as his congregants. “I do look forward to getting back where we have a better fellowship,” Evans says.

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