How the small Highland Avenue Church in Elgin has thrived during the pandemic

Caroll Ann Bailey looks forward to Sundays more than any day of the week. She puts on her church clothes, grooms her purple-streaked hair and thinks about the coffee and "intentional family" she'll get to hug and talk to.

Services at the Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren in Elgin typically feature only about 100 people. But Bailey likes having a smaller congregation where you can really get to know people.

"I like to get there early and sit in the sanctuary and just soak up the sunshine," she said. "And one day I got all dressed up, and I drove to the church, and it was locked. I just sat in the parking lot and cried. I was like, 'Oh my God. COVID's got us.'"

That was in March. Infections and death spurred shutdowns throughout Illinois and the country. The Highland Avenue Church found itself facing the same questions as other faith communities - how do you remain a community when all the traditions you've put in place, all based on gathering in large groups, now pose a health risk that forces you to be apart?

Megachurches like Willow Creek Community Church and Harvest Bible Chapel had long ago figured out they could reach people who couldn't come to their physical spaces through the internet and video production akin to that of a TV show. When the pandemic hit, those churches amplified what they had in place with YouTube programming and Facebook watch parties to keep the flock together.

But the most Highland Avenue Church had ever done was reproduce the Sunday service message in the weekly bulletin. Closing its doors for any prolonged time meant a barren collection plate, the possible death of the church and the loss of a spiritual anchor for members.

Thy kingdom come

The Church of the Brethren is an outgrowth of the Lutheran reformation and initially shared many beliefs with mainline Protestants. The faith community dates to the early 1700s, and members rely mainly on the New Testament and a close examination of the words and actions of Jesus to guide their lifestyles.

For people like Bailey, a single mom in her 70s with a hippie outlook, the Elgin church offers a welcoming environment. During social hour after Sunday services, there is a special blue cup among the coffee and doughnuts that people are invited to take if they are new or just want people to talk to them.

"When I first got there, they looked at my bright purple hair and said, 'Cool. How are you doing?' That acceptance and knowing they are there is a real special thing," she said. "I still sometimes pick up the blue cup because I love getting to know people. I usually leave that social hour and just go, 'Wooo! I'm having a wonderful day.'"

When she'd leave church, Bailey would see the rainbow-colored bench out front and a stone lintel over the front entrance etched with a message that further instilled the welcoming vibe. It reads, "For the glory of God and our neighbors' good."

"We're trying to figure out what that means right now," Pastor Katie Shaw Thompson said during a September interview. "We're really big on community. Not being able to gather is a real strain on a lot of us. We are trying to ask ourselves, in a strange time, 'What are we really about?'"

As Thompson took on the load of examining the what, Nevin Dulabaum became the church's chairman of the board. He tackled the how.

Dulabaum is the sixth generation of his family to be members of the church. He's also a staff member of the church's national business operations. What he did in his own church would be practicing what he preached.

Thy will be done

It started with creating an emergency management team dubbed "The Highland Huddle." There were daily meetings to discuss how to handle the pandemic and subsequent lockdown.

"When the state mandates that you can't meet, you don't meet," Dulabaum said. "We believe in the science. We believe the threat is real. We believe it is our responsibility to not put people at risk."

They considered modifying the in-person service: Restricting the number of people attending and spacing them out so families could sit together while having at least one open pew separating groups. But there were other factors: masks, not allowing people to shake hands or give a friend a welcoming hug, and stifling singing to prevent the spread of a virus in a confined space.

"At what point do you say, 'What is the purpose of this kind of worship service?'" Dulabaum said. "How fulfilling would it be?"

In warmer months, the congregation experimented with a couple of outside services.

"I wanted to run around and hug everybody," Thompson said. "But I couldn't. That was the worst."

Weather and the logistics of an outside service, including just being able to hear each other, made it less than ideal. And the cold months coming meant it couldn't last. Going online was the only move that made sense.

"I'm pretty connected to the other pastors in the area, and we are all trying to make these hard decisions," Thompson said. "We just thought one person put at risk because of our physical gathering was one person too many. That was a really hard decision because the social, emotional, spiritual needs - those are real, too. And those are difficult to address when you're not in person."

At least that's what they thought.

  Pastor Katie Shaw Thompson leads a Sunday service at Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren that is broadcast via Zoom and YouTube. Rick West/

Dulabaum worked to bring the congregation toward "a sense of normalcy," at least virtually. The church service moved to YouTube, with Thompson sitting at her dining room table. As it became clear the pandemic wasn't abating anytime soon, like so many people who work from home, Thompson set up an office area for her sermons. A transformation began.

"Worship online is fascinating," she said. "We got immediately more authentic than I think we ever had the courage to be in person. It was like, we really are all in this together.

"The sort of pretentiousness that creeps into my sermons from standing behind a pulpit is utterly dashed. It just becomes about, this is what's saving my soul today. All of a sudden, our conversations are intimate and honest in a new way."

Lead us not into temptation

In those sermons throughout the summer, when the urges to gather grew stronger and some churches pushed the boundaries of restrictions on public gatherings, Thompson, a former English teacher, pulled from a mix of current events and pop culture to remind the congregation that faith is part of everyday life. A church is not just a building.

Her May 3 sermon grew from her binge-watching of the Netflix documentary "Tiger King." The miniseries shows how a zookeeper who initially seemed to be driven by a love of protecting tigers transformed into a criminal known as "Joe Exotic."

"It challenged me to remember we are all capable of profound change for both good and ill," Thompson said in her sermon. "We might like to believe we are different or that there is something good in us that keeps us from completely losing our way.

"It showed how capable we all are of falling victim to our own most troubling tendencies. We are dependent on our connection to the good, the healthy and the holy for our salvation on every level."

Part of Highland Avenue Church's good, healthy and holy mission has been participating in Elgin's efforts to ensure the ability of underprivileged residents to eat with a soup kitchen that rotated among several places of worship in the city.

For decades, there has been a place in the community, every night of the week, to get a meal. The COVID-19 lockdown threatened that, and Dulabaum thought it was important to keep the soup kitchen running and document it with a video. Some churches dropped out. It now operates as a drive-up/to-go operation at Church of the Brethren.

In his 30 years of active membership at the church, Dulabaum never attended the soup kitchen. Now he's a more regular volunteer.

"I find myself in this time of COVID being called in a way I was resistant to in the past," he said. "I never sought out a leadership role before. But people show their character when times are tough. And it's a tough time."

As fall approached, spiking COVID-19 numbers indicated times were about to get tougher. For the same reasons they closed the church's doors in March, church leadership decided in August to close the doors through the end of 2020.

On Aug. 27, the heartbreak of that decision was a fresh wound for Bailey. It had been six months since she'd seen or heard from congregation members who didn't follow the transition online. Now, there would be no Christmas hugs to exchange or "Silent Night" songs together.

"Sitting here crying this morning because Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren will not reopen this year," she wrote on Facebook. "I hate Covid."

Give us this day our daily bread

Dulabaum knew the added stress of keeping the church closed through the community's most important holiday season meant stepping up his efforts to foster a sense of normalcy. Thompson began conducting the church service from the sanctuary to rows of empty pews.

  Only a handful of people are inside the worship hall during a Sunday service at Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren that is broadcast via Zoom and YouTube. Nevin Dulabaum, center, and Jim Lehman handle all the technical aspects to broadcast the service, using three cameras operated by remote. Rick West/

The congregation, which has actually seen an uptick in donations in the hard times, invested in equipment that allows for a multicamera live broadcast of the service on YouTube. It now includes cut-ins of members of the congregation singing songs, delivering the scripture readings and even playing piano duets from their living rooms.

Those changes have brought the church new followers, and the return of former members who had moved away. But perhaps the most impactful change has come in the Zoom-based social hour after the weekly service.

"I think it's better than the social hour we had when we were together in the church," Dulabaum said. "Before, you might get to chat with a few people before they headed out the door. Now you get to hear from everybody."

Christmas always seemed like the true test of a new and, in some ways, improved church community. Thompson knew that no matter what level of production she put on for Christmas Eve, it wouldn't be the same.

There was added pressure. Normally, people sit in the pews on Christmas Eve anxious to get home and carry on their own family traditions. This year, no one would be itching to get home. They'd already be there. And cherished family traditions had also been sidelined by COVID. No big meals with extended family. No door-to-door caroling. No unexpected gifts under the tree.

The inspiration for her message drew yet again from pop culture. This time, a classic tale that seemed more fitting than ever before.

If God was with them even more in difficult times, Christmas would be no exception. What better message to convey that than something that could make even a Grinch's heart grow three sizes?

"COVID can't stop Christmas from coming," Thompson said. "It will come just the same. It doesn't come from a store. Maybe, this year especially, it means a little bit more."

Now and forever, Amen

In the new year, Thompson said, there is no sense the setup isn't sustainable. Opening the church doors means there's a vaccine people are taking and driving down infections and deaths with. But the online branch of the church is here to stay.

She shuns the image of a televangelist, but there's no denying the reach and convenience of the internet they were forced to discover.

"All along, it's been about what is really important to us," Thompson said. "The answer, for me, has stayed the same. It's about continuing to give glory to God and serve our neighbors' good. That includes trying to keep our community safe.

"It is central to my belief that God is with us, maybe even especially, in hard times. Some people believe you know you're blessed if things are easy and good for you. I don't ascribe to that. Changing the way we worship was a challenge. It was hard and heartbreaking, but we've learned so much about each other."

On the worst day, when Bailey misses hugs the most, she walks the two blocks to the church and ties flowers she makes of paper and buttons to the multicolored bench out front. Her closest group of friends calls them Bailey's "bench blossoms."

"That's my way of saying I'm going to decorate the church, because I know I'm going to be back here again someday soon," Bailey said. "People can get very lonely, very disconnected if they don't have some kind of spiritual anchor. Right now it feels like the chain on the anchor has gotten longer, but the anchor is still there. But, heck yeah, when the doors reopen, I'll be back. I'll be there early. With bells on."

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