BY NANCY GAGNET | MIRROR REPORTER — As Christians celebrate Holy Week and Easter, one of the most spiritual times in the calendar year, the local church community has found new ways to connect to members amid a COVID-19 pandemic that stipulates social distancing and an end to large gatherings.
Many houses of worship have turned to the virtual world, holding services in an empty church while streaming live on social media. Special online messages and interactive sessions have also been added to reach members who are holed up at home.
Rev. Paul Board, paster of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, is unsure when services will resume. In the meantime, sermons are posted online, and music, daily prayers and daily meditation will be posted online during Holy Week.
“This is the biggest crisis in the church and in the country in my lifetime and if we don’t think we need God for it, then we are being very arrogant,” Board said.
He added that when he hears politicians say, ‘We will get through it,’ he knows that if someone’s mother, father, sister or brother has died as a result of being sick from the virus, then they did not “get through it.”
“It’s deeply personal for each person when they experience loss,” he said.
Local Scouts recently organized a food drive for Under One Roof, the food pantry housed at the church, which Board believes will become more important to local families in need during the crisis.
“The food drive was absolutely amazing. In addition to collecting food, the Scouts also raised $2,300,” Board said. “Client use has increased and will probably go up even more. I don’t believe the use has spiked.”
Rev. Russ Tichenor, paster of Maumee United Methodist Church, has also turned to social media to reach members with weekly messages and daily devotions that average 300 views. In addition, meetings and Bible studies are conducted on Skype and Zoom. The changes have prompted his church to re-examine how previous communication took place with church members, he said.
“The big blessing in this is that we will do church differently at Maumee United Methodist Church. We will be able to reach out and touch people in the community and really the whole world differently simply because we have really started to embrace these virtual spaces, where someone might click on a link from their apartment or home, but they might not come through the front door of our church, so that’s our first connection to them,” he said.
He also said that the crisis has motivated members to serve the community more than usual by doubling the number of meals donated weekly to Mosaic Ministry, an organization the church supports, which serves families living in the Old South End. Members are also calling 120 seniors each week to check on their health and well-being and several have volunteered to sew surgical masks for emergency workers. The church also hosted a blood drive for the American Red Cross.
Like Board, Tichenor believes that this experience will bring people closer to God.
“We’re a people who often forget and we have to be reminded. At Communion, Jesus says, ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ We need to be reminded. God doesn’t cause the virus, but he does use those things that come upon us in ways that draw us closer to him. Through that experience, we become more loving and more giving and more able to watch over our brothers and sisters. I think that’s the way God uses these types of situations in the world,” he said.
As the crisis began, Fr. Eric Schild, of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Maumee, also began streaming church services every day. In addition, he continues to hear confession and has kept the church open for prayer, while disinfecting doorknobs and pews daily.
“This is a real awesome time for priests and staff to think of creative ways to be with our people because what I am finding is that people genuinely desire connection with their priest and with their church community,” he said.
In the spirit of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Schild has also implemented fireside chats, which are virtual, interactive Q-and-A sessions.
“I try to make it a little lighter because there is so much gloom and doom these days. Especially if people are only watching the news and press conferences, then it is a very sad and depressing time,” he said. “As we get ready to celebrate Easter, we are mindful that from the cross comes the resurrection and that will be the case. We will make it through this pandemic, but it’s going to be a tough process. It already is.”
Echoing the same sentiment as other church leaders, Schild is hopeful that in times like this, people turn to the Lord.
“I really think that this is a wakeup call for so many us who have been living our lives in a frantic, busy way – myself included – and don’t take time to pray, don’t take time to strengthen our faith, don’t take time to be with our families. So my hope is that whenever we get back to what the new normal is, that we will have a better appreciation for the gifts that God has given to us because I don’t think that we as Americans do that well, and I think that’s a real problem,” he said.
The church leaders at First Presbyterian are calling members, especially seniors, and finding new ways to care for each other. Rev. Clint Tolbert, pastor, conducts daily devotionals along with conference calls that include reading scripture and prayers. The church will also distribute free bags for Holy Week that contain palm branches, Communion, a bell and literature with liturgy.
Tolbert believes that as the crisis will become more widespread, people will either be personally affected or have loved ones who are, and that is when the church must be more innovative to care for and engage not only its members, but everyone in the community.
“At a time like this, people are looking out for one another, they are looking beyond themselves and are seeing what they can do. They are really motivated,” he said. “I encourage us to consider preparing for a situation in which things won’t go back to normal. Instead, there’s got to be a transition time where some people may be able to gather for worship, but not everybody. There will still be a risk group, so we are putting our worship online even when things go back. We will keep an online presence.”
Pastor Chad Gilligan, of Calvary Church, has also included an interactive Q-and-A session along with weekly online services. One of the largest churches in the area with an average of 2,000 attending each week, Calvary is finding ways to bring not only hope to members, but also a sense of normalcy in a very unprecedented time.
“I keep hearing how much our members miss one another and miss the opportunity to connect with and encourage one another, and yet at the same time, I’ve been so proud to see all of the different ways that Calvary’s people have been reaching out to one another,” Gilligan said.
Church staff members make regular calls to seniors or those most vulnerable and members have stepped up and gotten involved where they can, he said.
“I have to wonder if part of this whole experience is that we question some of the ‘normal.’ I think the cultural and spiritual benefit of a crisis is that it causes us to re-evaluate our lives and think a little more deeply about who we are and how we live and what our place is in our community,” Gilligan said.
“Social distancing has caused us to be relationally closer and recognize our need for one another,” he added. “My hope is that when this is all over, even though there are rhythms in life that get back to normal, that our relationships with one another and with God have grown to a place where there is a new normal, where life is a little deeper and richer than maybe it was several months ago.”