Churches offer worship amidst pandemic
by Erik Alsgaard
It was a Sunday like no other.
March 15, 2020, will be long remembered throughout the Baltimore-Washington Conference as a day worship services were held almost totally online. Because of the spread of the novel coronavirus, Bishop LaTrelle Easterling directed churches throughout the conference to suspend meetings in person. Churches from Frostburg to California, Fallston to Mt. Vernon Place held virtual worship, using technologies as complex as ZOOM and as simple as turning on a smartphone and connecting to Facebook live.
At Emmanuel UMC in Laurel, the Rev. Stephanie Vader held a children’s sermon on the steps of the altar. No children came forward from the empty sanctuary. Instead, Vader spoke to another adult sitting with her, but several feet away.
“Instead of learning about washing feet,” she said, “we’re going to learn about washing hands.”
Using the biblical example of how Jesus washed the disciple's feet, and explaining how feet got dirty in Jesus’ day and why it was an act of love to wash them, the pastor spoke to the children about the importance of good hygiene and how to wash your hands.
With in-person church services canceled, Dumbarton UMC held its first Zoom video conference service on March 15 with only a few leaders present at the church building.
A highlight was the baptism of Owen Miller Quinn, son of Daniel and Alexa Miller Quinn, which was held at the Washington D.C., church while dozens of people participated online. One could even be seen watching from the beach.
The Rev. Joey Heath-Mason preached, comparing the travails of the late Rev. Oscar Romero with the covid-19 troubles taking place now.
“Solidarity requires us to rise above our fears and remember others,” he said. Joys and concerns were texted to be read by Jeehye Kim Pak.
Afterward, member Debbie Woodcock said, " I have never felt so much in communion with my community of faith as I did this morning while sitting alone in my house!
Bishop LaTrelle Easterling sent a note Sunday morning, saying that she was praying for all United Methodists and giving thanks for the creative ways they were reaching their communities.
“As you gather in unique ways this morning to respect the State of Emergency in our nation, Washington, D.C., and your respective states, I am praying for you,” the bishop wrote. “I am also deeply grateful for your creativity and collaborative spirits in sharing ideas, offering one another assistance, and overcoming difficulties. The saints of The Baltimore-Washington Conference always rise to the challenge.”
The bishop noted that by respecting the requests of federal, state, and local governments to not meet in large groups and help stop the spread of the virus, it was a sign that “we are actually caring for one another and our communities by keeping one another safe.”
“As we lament our physical absence,” she added, “may we use that yearning to draw closer to God. We can turn this unfortunate and painful time of social distancing into our Lenten lament and prayer. In that way, even this valley of the shadow of absence can deepen our discipleship and strengthen our resolve.”
At Foundry UMC in Washington, D.C., a skeleton crew assisted lead pastor, the Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, in producing a livestream of their worship service.
Preaching on John 4:5-52, Gaines-Cirelli noted that the woman at the well who received “living water” from Jesus didn’t keep it to herself but offered it to others. And at times like these, she said, it is a good model to follow.
“Draw from the wellspring of your kindness and generosity and get groceries and pick up prescriptions for folks who can’t get out,” Gaines-Cirelli said. “Reach out to folks who may be feeling anxious or overwhelmed as they try to telework and/or care for kids who aren’t in school. Organize an online small group or prayer group. Be intentional about calling those in your pew neighborhood who may not have online technology to be connected in this way. Stay close to your sponsor or sponsee. If you have the means, give alms to the service agencies who will be even more stretched than usual. Say thank you. Be mindful of the many ways that this wilderness moment is making vulnerable people even more vulnerable.”
At the North Carroll County Cooperative Parish, the Rev. Melissa Rudolph sat by herself in a church pew to do her sermon. The church’s website – which included a printable, 32-page booklet – offered a place for people to register their attendance. A prize was being offered, Rudolph said, for doing so.
In the south, the Rev. Chris Owens gathered with a few members of the praise team and the tech team to livestream his services from First Saints Community UMC in Leonardtown. After worship, Owens posted on Facebook that the first service was a complete disaster.
“Lesson learned: your streaming is only as good as your internet connection!” he wrote. “But, thanks to our amazing tech team, our second attempt was much, much better. Next Sunday, God willing, with some extra rehearsal and tests, we’ll be in excellent shape. So stay tuned!”
Sunday evening, Bishop Easterling sent another note via e-mail to the BWC, commenting on how churches rose to the occasion and "had church." The bishop even addressed the technical side of worship today.
"Now, please don't fall into the trap of comparison or whether it was 'perfect' or 'flawless' or 'high tech' enough," she wrote. "Perfection is never the marker or requirement. We are not called to be a perfect people; rather, we are called to be a faithful people."
The Rev. Kyle Durbin preached to an empty sanctuary at Frostburg UMC Sunday morning. Using Vimeo to broadcast his service, the pastor continued a sermon series on Jeremiah. The pastor included a corny pastor-type joke in his sermon, referencing an ancient text about the prophet: “Jeremiah was a bullfrog. And a good friend of mine.”
Michael Doan contributed to this story.