RNS

On Palm Sunday, Rev Ted Gabrielli, a bespectacled Jesuit with a bushy beard, stood in the bed of a roving pickup truck that traveled through Boyle Heights, a mostly Latino neighbourhood on Los Angeles’ east side.

Gabrielli, a pastor at Dolores Mission Church, greeted neighbours from the truck and blessed the homes, alleys and streets he passed. He greeted many by name. One neighbour, caught on a Facebook livestream of the procession, stood from her home waving palms, the symbol of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem in the week before he was crucified.

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Rev Ted Gabrielli at Dolores Mission Church, after riding in a truck to bless the Boyle Heights neighborhood in Los Angeles on 5th April. PICTURE: Courtesy of Dolores Mission Church

 

“Everything is kind of on the fly right now."

- Rev Brendan Busse of at Dolores Mission Church in LA.

“We’re at your orders,” he told passersby in Spanish. “May God bless you all this Palm Sunday.”

Gabrielli, one Facebook commenter wrote, was “bringing Jesus to our streets.”

The church called it the Blessing of the Barrio. 

Gabrielli’s colleague at the mission, Rev Brendan Busse, offered the blessing as an example of how Dolores Mission is improvising this Holy Week during a pandemic that has prevented Jews from gathering for Passover and Christians from attending the solemn liturgies that lead up to Easter, the holiest day of the church’s calendar.

“Everything is kind of on the fly right now,” said Busse, who took part in the procession.

On Maundy Thursday, a service that includes a ritual foot washing in imitation of Christ’s gesture of servanthood toward his apostles, the church is asking families to wash each other’s hands at home and to take and send photos to the church so they can be featured at an evening virtual service.

A Via Crucis, or Way of the Cross, procession on Good Friday will no longer take place as county officials urged residents to limit the time they spend outside. Busse said there's a feeling of absence not being able to carry out these traditions. But, he said, that's at the heart of Good Friday.

“To think about Jesus dying and his death on the cross, for us to not be able to do that the way we want to, is actually theologically and spiritually at the heart of what Good Friday is about,” Busse said.

The impact of the pandemic on Christian churches may be felt most deeply on Sunday, however, when converts are typically baptised into the faith, often after weeks or months of education and counselling about their decision.

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Rev Michael Amadeo celebrates Mass during the broadcast and recording of the Palm Sunday Mass at Our Lady's Immaculate Heart Catholic Church for parishioners to watch online on 4th April in Ankeny, Iowa. Sunday Masses are available online in response to the new coronavirus outbreak. PICTURE: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall.

At All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, the 3,000 member congregation traditionally gathers Holy Saturday on the lawn to light the Paschal candle, which will burn during services for the remainder of the Easter season’s 50 days. Congregants then move into the church building for a service of storytelling, baptisms and the first celebration of Easter.

This year, Rev Mike Kinman, rector of All Saints, said the lighting of the fire, storytelling and celebration will happen online, and the baptisms will be postponed until public health officials say it's safe.

Love will prevail nonetheless, Kinman said. “Whether you’re baptised or not, you’re still welcomed.”

The pandemic, he said, is actually an opportunity to find new and more intimate ways to do ministry.

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Rev Mike Kinman of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California. PICTURE: Supplied.

For all the focus on virtual Easter, many Christians are pushing into the real world, whether through charitable acts or home versions of Holy Week liturgies. Rev Elizabeth Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, published a video recently calling on her fellow Lutherans to join with other denominations in small acts of Christian witness in the upcoming days.

“Let us remind each other that while the body of Christ may be dispersed, we remain united in our common witness as the ELCA and with our ecumenical partners,” she said.

In a letter signed by leaders of the National Council of Churches, Christian Churches Together and Churches Uniting in Christ, members of congregations ranging from Orthodox to evangelical were urged to perform home foot washings on Maundy Thursday or blow out a candle on Good Friday to symbolise Jesus’ crucifixion.

They even suggested borrowing from other holidays, offering that the Resurrection can be celebrated by hanging white Christmas lights and illuminating them on Easter morning.

Such lighthearted innovations belie the more radical dislocations the pandemic has caused, especially for liturgical denominations, leading up to a holiday that is at once one of the most mystical and most sensual in world religion. Foot washing, bearing and kissing crosses, and kneeling for long periods give over on Easter morning to bell ringing, baptisms and shouts of “He is Risen!” in celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.

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Bible scholar Paul Franklyn helps lead the Friendship Sunday School class of Belmont United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, by videoconference on 15th March after church leadership encouraged people to worship from home in response to the coronavirus. PICTURE:  Mike DuBose, UM News

Pastors and their staff have been scrambling to reconceive those rituals in light of the pandemic and social distancing restrictions.

The “church universal that changes so slow changed overnight,” said Rev Jes Kast, pastor of Faith United Church of Christ in State College, Pennsylvania.

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Pastor Tom Ascol leads Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Florida. PICTURE: Supplied

 

SHUNNING ONLINE SERVICES, SOME CLERGY PREACH 'ABSTINENCE' FROM GATHERED WORSHIP

For weeks, as Easter approached, churches have been rushing to use the internet in new ways, livestreaming and videoconferencing to keep the faithful together for weekend worship.

But at least a handful of churches across the country - including three Southern Baptist ones - have intentionally decided not to worship online on recent Sundays as some political and health officials said coronavirus-related social distancing applied to religious gatherings.

Liberty Baptist Church in Missouri is one of them.

Even on Easter - and at least weeks beyond it - Pastor Nathan Rose said his congregation’s leaders have decided not to attempt online worship as a replacement for their traditional services at 9 and 10:45 am on Sundays.

“We do not think that live streaming a worship service is inherently wrong or sinful,” he said in an email to Religion News Service. “However, we do not want to unintentionally communicate that an online service is the same as - or even like - worshipping with the gathered body in person. In other words, we don’t believe that a live stream is a real, actual substitute for a church gathering.”

Rose joins pastors in locations from the nation’s capital to the Sunshine State who have made similar decisions.

He said he views “this season of separation as a time of longing and lament,” even as his congregants cautiously avoid devising a substitute.

“During this time of social distancing, we think it is appropriate to mourn and long for worshipping our great God together in the presence of our brothers and sisters,” Rose said.

In Washington, DC, Capitol Hill Baptist Church made a similar decision.

“Let us use any absence of gathering as an exceptional time under the hand of God, to reflect on our life, our church, our community, to pray for the sick and medical professionals, to offer whatever help we can, and to rest,” its pastor, Mark Dever, wrote in a 12th March  letter posted on the church’s Twitter account. The church’s website includes a statement that its public services are cancelled until 26th April.

Dever, who could not be reached for comment, posted a link to a blog post featuring Rose’s reasoning and tweeted on his own account: “A church after my own heart!”

An inquiring pastor asked Dever on Twitter, “why not live-stream messages for the edification of the saints at this trying time?”

He responded: “Because a video of a sermon is not a substitute for a covenanted congregation assembling together and all the various means of God’s grace in that. I think it would be healthier to respect God’s strange providence in a period of abstinence from meeting together.”

Wade Burleson, a blogger and Oklahoma pastor whose church plans to meet on Easter via social media and its website, posited that people favoring Dever’s point of view are exercising an “unbiblical doctrine of pastoral authority.”

“Baptists need to get back to being baptistic,” he wrote in a 29th March blog post. “Every believer is a priest.”

But Tom Ascol, president of Founders Ministries, a neo-Calvinist evangelical group with mostly Southern Baptist members, differs with Burleson.

“I don’t think this has anything to do with pastoral authority; I think this has everything to do with the nature of ecclesia,” he said, referring to the Greek word used in the New Testament. “We don’t get to define what the church is. The Lord Jesus has done that.”

Ascol, whose Cape Coral, Florida, congregation did not meet for two weeks in March, said churches that refrain from online worship services are following the Biblical definition of “ecclesia,” which he said means “the called-out ones” or “gathered in an assembly.”

Adding to the social media debate on the issue, Ascol tweeted: “You can no more go to church online than you can eat dinner at a restaurant online.”

A week later he added: “How long before ‘worship with your church online’ becomes ‘worship with your church on demand’?”

After two weeks of leaders of his Grace Baptist Church suggesting home worship and recommending sermons in the church’s online archive, some members of Ascol’s church met on Palm Sunday in its parking lot, with families staying in their vehicles one space apart.

For Easter, his church is planning another service in the lot but encouraging those who are “in risk categories” defined by the Florida governor to use guides the church provides with “Scripture readings and meditations, songs and specific points for prayer.”

Rose said he has made an exception for Easter that still involves people staying home and not connecting together on the internet.

His church plans to send out an edited video that day featuring a joint reading by some 40 members of the congregation, whose Sunday attendance normally averages about 300. Each reader will recite a portion of a sentence of the 20th chapter of the Gospel of John that tells the story of Jesus’ resurrection.

“Even though we can’t be together,” Rose said, “we hope this act of celebrating Jesus’ resurrection, reading Scripture, and seeing each other’s faces will be a means of encouragement.”

- ADELLE M BANKS, RNS

As with businesses beset by the pandemic, churches have turned en masse to Zoom and other remote meeting apps not only for services but to keep their congregations - digital natives, boomers and the elderly alike - intact and engaged.

Kast has long had an active pastoral presence online, often posting brief meditations online, as well as clips of her morning workouts, with encouragement to care for body and spirit.

In past weeks she’s made phone calls to help walk members through how to use the videoconferencing tool, particularly since it added new security measures and passwords to prevent “Zoombombing". She checks in with the church’s caring team, which has been reaching out to members throughout the week to make sure they feel supported.

“I’ve been really impressed with the adaptability of my congregation,” she said.

On Palm Sunday, she encouraged members to wave whatever branches they had - maybe cedar or forsythia cut from their yards or palms cut from paper. For Maundy Thursday, she will invite members to join her in communion over Zoom, using whatever elements they have at home: toast and coffee, crackers and juice. "Just bring it with you and I will bless it through the screen," she said.

As ad hoc as some online rites are, the anecdotal evidence suggests the livestreamed and streamlined services have been drawing well. On Palm Sunday, the website of Washington National Cathedral showed more than 15,000 people watching, approximately six times its usual audience. Messages that popped up on screen came from viewers around the world.

The Rt Rev Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, whose prerecorded sermon will be included in the cathedral’s Easter service, ventured that “more people are actually going to church” in the current virtual climate than attend on a normal Sunday.

Larger churches with the technical know-how, dedicated YouTube channels and a brand name clearly have an advantage. “The first Sunday we had 6,000, the second Sunday we had 8,000, the third Sunday we had 25,000 people,” said Rev James Howell, pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. The church typically draws 5,000 people on Easter.

Howell acknowledged: “We have the staff, capacity and money to do a better production". He also suggested some people may be “double dipping” - tuning in to their own church services and then visiting more prominent names.

Some churches are so successful in bringing in participants, they have broken them into groups to promote interaction. At C3, a Southern Baptist church about 29 kilometres east of Raleigh, North Carolina, Pastor Matt Fry split up church members into 20 to 30 member “watch parties” that gather on Zoom for 15 minutes before the sermon and 15 minutes after as a way to cultivate community and encourage prayer.

“They get to interact and have a sense of community in a virtual format,” Fry said. “It’s been huge. Each week we get more and more people joining the watch parties. We call it a kind of ‘lobby time.’”

At Urban Village Church, a UMC church in Chicago’s trendy Wicker Park neighborhood, Rev Hannah Kardon said that online services have even drawn a number of former congregants who have moved away from the church.

In the isolation of the pandemic, people are grateful for the contact that online services provide. “They want to see other humans. They want to bond with them,” said Kardon.

Knowing people are looking for those kind of spiritual resources makes figuring out how to connect with people that much more urgent, Kardon said: “Our real task ahead of us is how do we let these people who are desperately looking for a new way to think about God know where we are as an option. How do you do that now, only online?”

Curry said that priests he’s heard from have the same questions about ministering to their congregations without seeing them face-to-face.

“You can’t go visit the sick. You can’t say prayers with the dying,” he said. “I hear anxiety about a lot of ministries: all the food banks and the pantries and soup kitchens and the various emergency relief ministries - those are people-driven, people touching people.”

Curry said there is also concern that empty churches will lead to a lack of giving on Easter, usually one of the biggest days of the year for donations. While larger churches are typically better equipped for online giving, smaller ones may find themselves struggling to quickly or comprehensively adopt the technology.

At The Summit, a North Carolina megachurch, “90 per cent of our giving is online,” said Todd Unzicker, an associate pastor. The Summit’s pastor, JD Greear, is also president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“The strong majority of Summit members are set up for automated [monthly] giving,” Unzicker said.

He said he has heard from churches that still rely on plate offerings, as well as those whose members have lost their jobs as a result of the coronavirus, saying they’ve seen a dip in revenue.

But Kardon said she is optimistic even for those non-digital or low-tech churches - that the personal networks they have built will prove to be their salvation.

“I’m really inspired by some of the people who are doing this in completely not-digital ways,” Kardon said. “People who are printing out their sermons and mailing them to people, people who are doing drive-by hellos to people in their houses. It’s beautiful that we’re doing it our way, and it’s beautiful that they’re doing it their way.” 

Jack Jenkins and Yonat Shimron contributed to this report.