I was raised Lutheran, yet I start this story with a confession. These are strange times, after all.
I confess, when I was a restless youth, the Lenten and Easter season mostly meant having to go to church a lot more than usual. Not just Sunday mornings, but Wednesday evenings for Lenten dinners, and as many as four or five trips in the weeks surrounding Easter. It could test an adolescent’s patience, but even then, with my limited understanding of the church calendar, I couldn’t help but admire the arc of it all. It still resonated with me as a time of sacrifice, darkness and struggle, all building up to a powerful moment of rebirth.
This Easter season, as coronavirus redefines many contours of our daily lives, the Lenten dinners have been cancelled and many families can’t go to church, even the customary once per week. It’s clear our season of struggle, darkness and sacrifice will continue, for longer and in more ways than we’re used to. But the rebirth has already begun.
Churches across the country, including the one I attended in my youth, will celebrate the season in new ways. Their houses of worship may remain closed to honor social distancing recommendations, but their services will continue, through phone, tablet and computer screens, on local access TV channels, and in the car via AM and FM radio waves.
Going to the People, Opening New Doors
On any given day, my dad’s church friend Bill Bauman could give you an estimate of how many people are passing through the intensive care and emergency room units of my small hometown hospital in northern Minnesota. As the owner of a local funeral home, this kind of knowledge is part of Bill’s daily routine, whatever the times may bring. In the era of coronavirus, we all find ourselves newly concerned with such figures, wondering if our hospitals will be able to keep up with what a pandemic might bring.
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Fortunately, Bill can also tell you about making the adjustment to an online, livestreamed church service. For the past few weeks, he’s been responsible for setting up the livestreamed services at my hometown church, Gethsemane Lutheran in Virginia, Minnesota, which lies about halfway between Duluth and the Canadian border.
“I’ve done livestreaming with Facebook for funerals. We can do a link and help broadcast funeral services,” he tells me. “This isn’t production quality, but I just set up what I’ve used in the past, my cellphone and a tripod.”
Bill acknowledges the challenges of recent weeks but is upbeat about what the change has meant in the grander scheme.
“The nudge we got from the times that we’re in has been really refreshing in a number of ways. It’s frustrating because I can’t go to my church. It kills me. I’m a choir director, can’t direct a choir,” he says. “But Gethsemane and most of the churches have been worried about what we can do to attract people into our sanctuaries. You read the Bible, Jesus didn’t bring people into a building, he went to the people … I’m kind of excited about this, because it opens new avenues, opens new doors.”
Bill says that the videos for each of Gethsemane’s online services have racked up as many as 500 views and 300 comments. Thinking back to my most recent visits, I figure that number might be double, or more, the Sunday attendance during normal times. Despite those successes of recent weeks, leaders and congregation members at the church recognized the need for a larger discussion about what to do for Easter services.
“We struggled with Easter,” Pastor Rebecca LeMenager tells me. “We have a congregation in our area that is doing a drive-in service, so we had the question of whether to do [one]. Get an FM signal booster and try to do it. The concern was, we’d be passing out bulletins, self-contained communion cups … We have so many elderly folks in our congregation, some of whom don’t drive, and who ride together. Would that encourage them that they could come together in that car, when they’re supposed to be social distancing?”
Ultimately, the congregation’s leadership council decided that online-only services would continue, for both Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
“It was not a unanimous decision. It was a hard decision, and there was some contention,” Pastor Rebecca reiterates. “Our love for our neighbor and our need for their safety needed to trump anything that would make it unsafe. Even if [a drive-in service] would have been of more comfort to some.”
Faith Tested, Remaining Hopeful
Across the street from Gethsemane, at Peace United Methodist Church, a small team has been working to record and share their services online as well. Shannon Gunderson, my childhood piano teacher, has sung and played piano at every Easter service in this sanctuary for 37 years running.
“During this pandemic, I am trying to figure out how to do everything I’ve done before, only backwards and in heels,” she explains. “On the Fridays that we tape, I walk into the church wearing gloves and bringing my sanitizing wipes for the keyboard, even though I’ve been the only one playing it for four weeks.”
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Peace United’s services will air throughout the week on local access television, and on the church’s Facebook page. On Easter Sunday, people can drive up to the church to receive communion as well. Shannon tells me Easter has always been a favorite holiday of hers, “especially since the music is so uplifting.”
It’s been harder to find uplift in recent weeks, she admits, but as she prepares for her Good Friday and Easter performances she says, “I will try my best to make it feel, above all, hopeful. Having faith is truly tested during this pandemic.”
Back at Gethsemane, I know my dad feels much the same way. “This time of the church year has always been very important to me,” he says. “These [Easter] events … gave me renewed vigor for the weeks and months to come.”
As a member of Gethsemane’s “Joyful Noise” choir, my dad will be among the handful of people in the sanctuary this weekend. Bill will be there with him, recording on the cellphone, and Pastor Rebecca, leading the service and delivering a sermon. My dad and a couple other members of the choir will sing hymns, while keeping at least six feet apart from one another.
I admit his participation does make me nervous. Like many of our generational peers, my sister and I have been checking on Dad more than usual these days, while encouraging him to stay home as much as possible. But I know how much singing in the choir means to him.
Mayme Barber, another congregant who sings during these online services, tells me how important the choir has been to the church. “The families in Joyful Noise, that’s a good percentage of our congregation. That’s been an important part of keeping our ministry going,” she says. “With an aging congregation, choir members and their families have kept the church strong, through good times and bad.”
Through the good and bad times of my own family’s life, I know the choir has kept my dad strong too. It is the cruel, defining twist of this moment that the things we do to seek fellowship and comfort now threaten us. To sing in the choir that has nourished their spirit and well-being, my dad and his friends now put those very things at risk.
For now, they do it to provide a service to their congregation. Mayme describes to me the ways music goes where spoken words alone can’t, and keeps people connected to one another. They also do it to maintain some sense of normalcy, for themselves and the church community. My dad and Mayme both identify that as a blessing of these online services.
“What It Means to Be Together”
Yet, what is perhaps most hopeful about these times are some of the new normals that have emerged and will continue to do so.
As I talk with Pastor Rebecca, I can hear the emotion in her voice as she describes the challenges facing her congregation. But then, emotional strain makes way for excitement as she describes an opportunity discovered in recent days.
“Because we’ve all found new ways to do church, I’m watching livestreamed services of people I went to seminary with 20 years ago, and I only got to see them when they were first learning how to preach,” she explains. “Twenty years later, I’m getting to watch them and be like ‘Wow!,’ they are amazing. For me, as a pastor, this has been interesting to see the ways I am growing, getting to see my colleagues in different ways, collaborating, trying to problem solve together how to serve our communities.”
Pastor Rebecca also tells me about dividing the congregation into “shepherd groups” who will regularly check on one another over phone and text or through the mail. She describes online Bible study sessions hosted through Zoom. As I talk with Bill, his wife is headed home from work to take part in one of those very sessions. “They love it,” he says. “You can tell they’re doing Bible study. You can hear laughing and eight voices going.”
“When we go back to our regular life later, maybe we’ll continue to do this, for those who can’t make it to church,” Mayme posits. “It’s forced us all to do things we haven’t done before and look at new technologies. There’s a lot of interestingly good things coming out of this bad situation.”
A realization hits me late in these conversations: these new possibilities I’m hearing about apply directly to people like me. As I grew older and moved about the world, I never found a religious home outside of the walls of Gethsemane Lutheran in Virginia, Minnesota. As an adult, the act of going to church has been something I do only when visiting my dad in northern Minnesota, often on weekends like this one.
This Easter Sunday, I get to go to church and hear my dad and his choir sing, from hundreds of miles away. As we cope with new types of distance between us this year, that feels like a gift.
“Beautiful important things are coming out of this,” Pastor Rebecca notes. “We won’t take for granted what it means to be together. I think that’s really important.”
Whatever your religious tradition, to that last sentiment I expect you might respond, Amen.