Local houses of worship reach out to the faithful during the pandemic
“The church continues to be the church, even at a distance.”
— Pastor Andy Nagy-Benson, Congregational Church of Middlebury
ADDISON COUNTY — Chapter 18, verse 20 of the Book of Matthew says of Christ, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
But since the COVID-19 pandemic has made it dangerous to gather in the pews, local church-goers are increasingly getting their spiritual nourishment online, through their computers.
And the response has been so encouraging that “virtual sermons” could become part of the salvation of organized religion, according to some Addison County pastors who for the past few weeks have been preaching into a camera instead of to a group of people in a sanctuary.
The Independent recently reached out to several local spiritual leaders to ask how they’ve been reaching parishioners outside of the four walls of their respective places of worship. The almost universal answer: Enhanced technology, through which the Gospel is transmitted to the masses via Zoom, Facebook Live, YouTube and other social media platforms.
It’s a new experience for many. Though less personal, online sermons are proving a joyful convenience to those for whom a trip to church can be a physical hardship, and for alumni who moved away years ago but are now magically repatriated with their hometown congregations.
North Ferrisburgh United Methodist Church
The message is clear at the North Ferrisburgh United Methodist Church: While in-person worship was temporarily suspended after March 15, that doesn’t mean there’s no church, according to Pastor Kim Hornung-Marcy. Her smiling face can be seen in sermon videos imbedded in the church’s website, nfumchurch.org. Folks can play the sermons (complete with organ music) whenever they want, learn about COVID-19, and make their weekly offerings all through the website.
It’s worked out quite well so far, Hornung-Marcy said during a phone interview. Around 100 households viewed the church’s first online service. And several of those households likely had multiple viewers.
“The irony is that while we can’t gather, we are in some ways a larger congregation now that we’re just doing the online services,” she said. “Our snowbirds, our fellow churches in the state can also worship with us. Parishioners are sending the link to friends and family as well. Of course, we long for the day when we can gather again, because that means it’s safe and people will have gotten through this challenging time.”
In the meantime, Hornung-Marcy is pleased to have her husband’s technical help producing the sermon videos.
“There are a lot of learning curves,” she said.
Sermonizing is but one of a pastor’s tasks. There’s also outreach and one-on-one interaction with individual parishioners seeking solace during a crisis. For that, there’s the phone, email, social media and — in some cases — pastors still willing to meet with a person while keeping the requisite 6 feet of distance.
And like many other pastors, Hornung-Marcy has many helpers among her flock.
“We have organized the congregation such as we have quite a few laypeople who have volunteered to call five to six church members,” she said. “We are having people touch base at least every few weeks, and if there are any needs, they are referred to me.”
The North Ferrisburgh church has a small food shelf and an emergency fund to assist those with dire needs. And Hornung-Marcy marveled at the amount of goodwill and assistance available in the Addison Northwest communities that include Panton, Waltham, Addison, Ferrisburgh and Vergennes.
“I’m very honored and humbled with how beautifully people in this area are looking to help each other through this,” she said.
Bristol Federated Church
Pastor William Elwell began interfacing with parishioners through Zoom the last weekend in March. On that Saturday, he taught other pastors a class on “trauma-informed pastoral care” on Zoom. In addition to preaching in Bristol, Elwell serves as a chaplain for multiple public safety organizations, hospital staff programs, and Vermont State Police Members Assistance Team.
“Some of the stuff that we teach in that (public safety) world is really relevant to crisis response in the community now, and I’ve been able to translate some of that for around 18 pastors who signed up,” Elwell said.
On Sunday, March 29, Elwell remotely preached to around 34 people.
“We’re adjusting, and people are being really patient and understanding with that,” Elwell said of the transition. “We haven’t yet tried to move into the world of really spreading it out to a larger audience, but we’re moving towards that. We’re trying to honor the learning curve in-house — not only of those who are coming in for the first time, but for those of us who are running it.”
Through Zoom, Elwell has the ability to “virtually” gather 100 people at a time. He’s considering ramping up that capacity.
Jennifer Corrigan is the church’s part-time family life coordinator. She and Elwell have matched tech-savvy parishioners with those who aren’t, too ensure everyone learns the substance of emails the church circulates within the community.
“It’s like the old-fashioned phone tree,” Elwell said.
He said preaching to a camera these days is “definitely different.” But he’s pleased he and his parishioners can still see each other’s faces through Zoom, thus making it a little more personal than a video.
“For me, that was helpful,” he said.
Like Hornung-Marcy, Elwell is looking forward to again preaching in-person. But he knows some Bristol Federated Church members may want to maintain an online church option when the COVID-19 pandemic is over.
“If you begin to build a church beyond the walls of the church, what do you do with that when you can go back inside the church?” he said. “It’s not fair to build up a congregation of folks and then say, ‘Either you show up in the church, or you’re gone.’ Being intentional in thinking about the implications of what we do is probably the most important thing right now.”
United Church of Lincoln
The United Church of Lincoln is ahead of the curve; it offered live streaming of sermons for several years prior to COVID-19. It has preserved a spiritual lifeline for snowbirds, military personnel and frail people to connect with their local church.
But since March 22, live streaming has become the only option. Around 70 people tuned in last week, according to Pastor Justin Cox. Many more have replayed the service at a time of their choosing.
“It’s kind of weird preaching to an empty place,” Pastor Justin Cox confessed with a chuckle. “We’re kind of learning as we go.”
The reach of the online sermons has been amazing. A United Church of Lincoln choir member last month mentioned a brother living in Kentucky. She said his church wasn’t able to offer online sermons. So parishioners of that church tuned into the Lincoln Church service last Sunday.
Cox is also reaching out to parishioners by phone, email, video-chat and occasional in-person meetings that observe the six-feet-of-separation rule. Leaders have tried to limit the foot traffic within the church, so the two staff members there can still hold normal hours during the week.
“It’s been harder for some than for others, I think,” Cox said. “The church is a place where the doors are never locked.”
Reaching people over long distances is satisfying for Cox, but he knows mingling with people is critical for a preacher.
“The biggest thing you can do sometimes for people in times of crisis is to just sit and be with them,” Cox said. “When you sit with someone who has been through any form of trauma or crisis… there’s not a magic Bible verse I can say that’s going to make everything go away. It doesn’t work like that. It’s just nice to be a presence in a room and it’s been difficult for me to know I can’t be present with the people I am called to be with right now.”
Every weekday at noon, Cox conducts a Facebook Live devotional. People tune in to connect with the pastor and each other, to hear supportive words. Once the devotional ends at 12:15 p.m., Cox climbs the steps to ring the church bell — a symbolic and reassuring tone to let people know he’s thinking about them and that together, they’ll get through this.
“Even if you’re not within the village — you might be up on the mountain — you know it’s going on,” Cox said of the bells. “I think there’s some comfort and some shared camaraderie.”
Cox is convinced the United Church of Lincoln and its congregants will emerge stronger after the coronavirus crisis.
“I think we’re going to take things out of this that we wouldn’t have come up with, unless we had to go through it,” Cox said.
Congregational Church of Middlebury
Pastor Andy Nagy-Benson has been streaming 10 a.m. Sunday worship services through Facebook Live. The first two broadcasts were from what was essentially an empty sanctuary. The Sunday, March 29, service, which included a Zoom conference call component, was seen by more than 400 people.
Nagy-Benson and Associate Pastor Elizabeth Gleich have divided the congregation into 27 teams, each of which has a “captain” who makes a weekly effort to stay in touch with his or her teammates by phone or email.
The two pastors are using the phone and email a lot more often themselves during the COVID-19 crisis. They’re also occasionally visiting parishioners through Zoom. The goal: Ensure people’s needs are being met, whether those needs are spiritual, nutritional or just giving someone to talk to while in isolation.
“We will get through this,” reads a message on the church’s website, midducc.org. “In the meantime, let’s love one another like never before.”
Like his counterparts, Nagy-Benson felt strange preaching to an empty room.
“Certainly, there’s an awkwardness to it, initially,” Nagy-Benson said. “But at a certain point, you realize why you’re doing it. This is a message for people you know and love, and you’re thinking about them as you’re doing it.
“This is a crash course in adaptability, and we’re doing the best we can,” he added.
Embracing technology to a greater extent will come in handy in the future, Nagy-Benson believes.
“There’s a whole lot of this I can’t wait to leave behind, but I think some of the practices we’re learning on the fly will benefit us,” he said. “One of the most important things about all this is the congregation is finding ways… to connect with one another, sharing photos and stories or an uplifting article. The church continues to be the church, even at a distance.”
All religions have traditions, but COVID-19 is forcing leaders to increasingly think outside the box.
“They don’t teach this class at divinity school,” Nagy-Benson said wryly.
He likes the way people are practicing what’s being preached, in terms of helping others.
“In some ways, church now is as strong as it’s ever been,” Nagy-Benson said.
Havurah, the Addison County Jewish Congregation
Havurah’s Hebrew School has moved from the congregation’s Middlebury headquarters to an online platform until further notice, according to Sarit Katzew, the group’s director of education and program/outreach coordinator.
“We are offering remote worship, adult education courses, women’s chant group etc. over Zoom and social media,” she said through an email exchange. “We are finding ways to connect in a time of physical distancing.”
The Havurah website includes other details.
“The principle of pikuach nefesh (preservation of life), guides us to prioritize the health and lives of everyone in our community, despite the disruption that will occur,” reads a statement on the website.
More information about Havurah and its schedule can be found at havurahaddisoncounty.org.
Area Catholic Churches
Burlington Diocese Bishop Christopher Coyne on March 20 suspended regularly scheduled public celebrations of the Catholic Mass, sacraments and devotions until further notice. All churches, chapels and indoor shrines were closed as of 5 p.m. on March 25, per Gov. Phil Scott’s “stay at home” order.
Holy Week and Easter services will be live-streamed on vermontcatholic.org/tvmass.
Area Catholics can find other online worship services at vermontcatholic.org/covid-19.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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