United Methodist Churches find ways to connect to their faith communities during COVID-19 crisis
Church buildings closed. Sanctuaries silent. Pews and Sunday school classrooms empty. It's a surreal scene in churches around the country since the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic turned our world upside down and disrupted our everyday routines, such as going to church on Sunday.
On March 16, Bishop Sally Dyck, episcopal leader of the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church, called all churches to suspend in-person worship, including Holy Week and Easter, following federal and state government guidelines limiting social gatherings of more than 10 people to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
Then on March 20, Bishop Dyck urged all church leaders and staff to abide by Governor J.B. Pritzker's "stay-at-home" order and practice the six feet apart social distancing guidelines.
"Sheltering in place is for our own health and safety as well as for the health and safety of others," said Bishop Dyck. "But remember we have another shelter: the shelter that comes from God."
Despite these restrictions, clergy and laity stepped up to the challenge and found creative ways to take church outside the building walls and to the internet, reaching hundreds of virtual visitors.
Many pastors and church leaders quickly learned how to livestream and use Facebook Live. Others placed prerecorded videos on their websites or posted on video-sharing platforms, such as YouTube or Vimeo. Others sent out printed copies of the sermon and order of worship, while others placed phone calls to their members.
"I have no doubt that many in our congregations (as well as others who 'tuned in') were blessed by these forms of 'virtual worship'," said Bishop Dyck. "I'm proud of our NIC clergy and laity for finding new ways of reaching out and sharing spiritual strength and emotional support, as well as ways to serve those during this difficult time."
The Rev. Char Hoffman, senior pastor at Antioch UMC, said they experimented with Zoom, a web-based video conferencing tool, and then uploaded the recording on YouTube. "Our keyboard player sent music to our choir director, who sang the hymns, then our church school superintendent read a Bible story to the children and we put a link on the website for a craft activity," Hoffman said. "We were all new to this 'techy' stuff, but it worked. We had so many comments on how touched people were."
The Rev. Satya Sudhakar, who pastors Franklin Grove UMC and Ashton UMC, said she was surprised by how many congregants wanted to join the online service and also invited their friends and families to join in, too -- unlike in-person services. "I learned that we the church are more connected in spirit no matter what separates us physically," Sudhakar said.
Local Pastor Lori Bee at Mount Hope UMC in Johnsburg said her first Facebook Live service reached more than 250 viewers and had more than 300 engagements. "During the service, we felt truly connected. People gave feedback that they felt like the congregation was together in worship," she said. "The surprise was that we worshipped without music but found other ways to make it interactive."
Our Redeemer's UMC children's Sunday school and youth group are gathering online via Zoom. "I created a Google Drive shared folder with the lesson materials for families to print handouts at home," said Rev. Nancy Grim, Our Redeemer's Christian Education, Youth, and Discipleship Minister. "We are improvising crafts if a family does not have something. As the host account, I shared my screen for certain scriptures or other handouts while the teachers taught the lesson in stages."
Exploring nondigital ways to connect
For those who are unable to connect online, the Rev. Jacqueline Pamela Ford, pastor at Ingleside-Whitfield in Chicago, reaches her members by phone through a conference call, something she started during the blizzard of 2015 when it was difficult to get out and drive to the church. "Many of my members are elderly and livestreaming isn't an option," Ford said. "I send out a bulletin through email and we worship via conference call, while musicians provide music from home." Ford also sends out a text message and/or robocalls with a brief word of encouragement daily.
Brooke Road UMC in Rockford, Ill., is bringing back the old-fashioned idea of pen pals, asking members to pick a name or two from the church directory and correspond by mail. The Rev. Violet Johnicker, Brooke Road's pastor, is sending out worship resource packets via email and postal mail, including Scripture passages, sermons, prayers, and coloring pages and activities for children. "With schools closing indefinitely, there is a great need to minister to homebound children and help parents keep them occupied," said Johnicker.
Church leaders are creating phone trees so members can check regularly on one another. Others are sending cards and letters weekly, especially to members who live alone or live in senior facilities. Church staff are also organizing lists of volunteers who can help deliver a meal, go grocery shopping, or pick up medications for those who are sheltered at home.
Faith UMC in Orland Park's "grocery gophers" will to run errands for people stuck at home. The church also started up a "micro-pantry" by placing a large bin outside the building to encourage people to donate nonperishable food items for those who need it and for people to drop by to take food if they need it. The one collection bin has multiplied to five!
Kingwood UMC in Buffalo Grove is keeping its Thursday emergency food pantry open by offering curbside pickup and using extra precautions. "We have been in communication with the community police officer in Buffalo Grove and they are supporting our food pantry being open -- saying it is essential," said Kingswood's senior pastor Rev. James Preston. "They were glad to hear that and we are practicing many layers of care and protection for both our volunteers and clients."
Kingswood has also stepped up to help the homeless, who are among the most vulnerable during the coronavirus pandemic. On March 23, Journeys/The Road Home, a nonprofit agency that provides shelter, social services and housing to the homeless in Cook County's north and northwest suburbs, shut down its sites at churches like Kingswood to protect their volunteers and clients. Kingswood, along with First UMC in Arlington Heights and other faith groups, provided grant money to Journeys to help transition homeless clients to area hotels.
The Rev. Doc Newcomb of Marengo UMC wrote in an email to his congregation to "be the church where you are" and encouraged members to call on their neighbors -- especially those who are elderly or alone. "We cannot come to the building right now, but we CAN be the church," he said. "Reach out to friends or family and be in touch. Connect with your church family and pray for one another."
Feeling the impact as coronavirus cases multiply
As of March 30, the Illinois Department of Public Health reported a total of 5,057 cases of coronavirus, including 73 deaths, in more than 50 counties in Illinois. The sick range in age from younger than one to 99 years old. Quarantine restrictions and bans on hospital visits are agonizing for pastors as they try to continue to offer pastoral care for members who are homebound or hospitalized.
It's been especially difficult for the Rev. Chris Winkler of Barrington UMC, where five members tested positive for COVID-19. "Four members are from one family who returned from a trip to Egypt just as the coronavirus was really getting traction," said Winkler. "While three of those people had mild cases or are recovering, one is really fighting for his life."
Winkler said now more than ever it's important to intentionally stay connected to one another. "When it came time to pass the peace during our first livestream worship, I asked people to close their eyes and think about who is often in their row, who they will miss seeing at church, and to picture a newcomer or visitor, then offer a prayer for them during that time," Winkler said.
"That time of virtual community (which may be an oxymoron), inspired one woman to send an email to a whole list of people she was missing to tell them she cared for them and looked forward to being together with them again. Those notes were really important to the people and it's something all of us can do."
Signs of joy
With so much uncertainty and anxiety in our communities, many church leaders are sharing positive uplifting messages in unique ways. The Rev. Cheri Stewart of First UMC in Ottawa received a surprise text from a couple who drove by the parsonage on the Sunday night after the governor's stay-at-home order. Stewart received a text from them saying "look out your front window!" Stewart went to the window and saw the couple waving a sign that said: "I love you!"
"It had been a hard week of frantically trying to make all the changes necessary to worship from home," Stewart said. "Their one simple gesture gave me so much joy!" Stewart and her husband Jon decided to pay it forward to all the members of the church. They started making signs and called themselves the "God Squad." So far, they've made it to more than 20 houses and have reached 38 people.
"From the car to the door or window, we've shouted at each other things like: 'I miss you!', 'You're not alone!', 'Are you ok?', 'Do you need anything?'," said Stewart. "To see their smiles is just a great joy. It really is the joy of the Lord that is our strength in this very difficult time. It's the strength of our faith and our relationships as siblings in Christ that transcend social distance and keep us connected."
Other church leaders and laity are writing words of hope in chalk on sidewalks for walkers who pass by and some are decorating windows with hearts inspired by a Facebook group to spread a little love and compassion. So in this Easter season amid this challenging time, rejoice in all the ways NIC churches are connecting with members and search for signs of hope, joy, and life!
We are reminded God is still with us and we are in this together.
For more resources, COVID-19 updates, and a list of online church services, visit umcnic.org/coronavirusresources.