Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Worship in the time of COVID: FM Radio, e-Newsletters, Snail Mail, Zoom & House Calls

Evergreen United Methodist Church with a sign describing its closure “until further notice”

As we work our way through the continued challenges of staying safe and sane in the COVID-era, places of worship have been forced to adapt. Church leaders and parishioners of the Mendocino County Coast have met the moment and learned how to offer spiritual guidance in the midst of a world-wide pandemic.

Traditionally, churches minister to their congregation during great strife and challenge- buoying hope and faith. Since the primary transmission mechanism of COVID-19  is gatherings, public health entities have curtailed in-person congregations until a vaccine or a treatment could be found. 

So, in light of no gatherings for participants’ safety, houses of worship have been forced to adapt to a new reality. MendoFever reached out to houses of worship on Mendocino County’s rugged coastline and their parishioners about how they are keeping their faith in these trying times.  

FM radio, the Internet, and the Land Line.  

Pastor Ken Word at Fort Bragg’s Bethel Baptist said that the church has been streaming online services. He said the majority of his parishioners “are trying to be flexible and adapt,” but there are a few members “who have no access to online at this time, so we are only able to visit with them over the phone.”

Calvary Baptist’s Pastor Josh Margerison now “preaches from the front porch facing the parking lot, where people listen from their vehicles.” Pastor Margerison explained Calvary Baptist has streamed their services online since the beginning of the pandemic and also offer FM radio as well. Pastor Margerison said his church’s quick pivot to providing remote services required creative solutions to infrastructural issues. He described using a “cheese cracker box supporting a spotlight and duct tape fastening a dashboard-style mobile phone holder to a tripod” for quick fixes to technology issues.

Reverend Tanya Wildflower of the Mendocino Center for Spiritual Living explains that she was new to Zoom herself. With the help of her parishioners who were techie, they could get on Zoom and offer their gatherings online. Wildflower described distributing a daily inspirational share e-mail and calling members to make personal contact with those who were isolated. 

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While most spiritual leaders did not encounter any challenges to using technology, it has not been smooth sailing for them all. Fort Bragg’s First Baptist has been unable to overcome some of the difficulty ministering to those relying on AM/FM radio. Pastor Aycock described purchasing “a $180 radio transmitting device that would help us send out a radio signal 1-2 blocks so that people could listen in on their car radio. Unfortunately, it broke after a month. I couldn’t afford the $1,500 transmitter.”

While some members of Mendocino Center for Spiritual Living have adapted by finally taking the plunge and becoming digital immigrants in 2020 – purchasing computers, internet subscriptions such as DSL, and learning how to use the technology – many have not been able to overcome the digital divide. For those, an in-person social distant visit or a telephone call or mail are the resources being offered. 

Snail Mail & House Calls

Before COVID, First Baptist streamed live on Facebook, already having that in place as a familiar routine. But, as Pastor Aycock explains, “Our demographic is older, with many older senior citizens. Some do not even have email, and most do not have Facebook. To continue to minister to the spiritual needs of our members who lacked the needed technology, I began using snail mail to send out transcripts of my Sunday sermons and began a monthly newsletter.”

Anna Rathbun says she has been impressed with her mother’s church supporting their parishioners with worship opportunities amid a pandemic. Rathbun characterized her mother as a born-again Mormon and said that the church shut down right away, out of concern for their members’ safety. Since Rathbun’s mother does not have internet or computer, she and many of the congregation’s older members were completely isolated from their faith and social circle. Rathbun said the bishop goes to the home of “each of the elderly single ladies going to the doorway and giving them communion, and visits them in a safe space.” 

New Techniques allow for Deeper Practice.

For those with access and fluency in technology, Zoom and the like have offered an expansion to their spiritual practice. 

Mendocino Coast resident Ms. Mud said she was pleased with the worship opportunities she has had since COVID. Using Zoom, she attended her first-ever Rosh Hashanah and mass in both Rome and New York. She can deepen her practice in her faiths by attending more classes than opportunity or expense previously allowed. Mud celebrated the fact that Zoom bypasses travel restrictions as well the advantage of being more relaxed and able to “focus on what’s important.” 

Christina Vandusen. also likes the change. “At first [Zoom] was intimidating,” said Vandusen, “but now I like it. You have the option of being seen or not. I like that, you know if you have a bad hair day!” 

Funding and the Future

Overall, local church leaders were all positive in their ability to weather the storm financially. All spoke of continued support from parishioners. Pastor Aycock said, “I have amazing people. And I have made phone calls to check on people, sent out sermon transcripts and newsletters. This has helped encourage people. As a result, our monthly revenue actually increased a little, perhaps due to the weekly sermon in their mailbox.”

MCSL had the foresight to put away savings for a rainy day, though they did not need to dip into that reserve yet. Rev. Wildflower tells us; “our expenses went down in half, because we’re not spending money, just like everybody else, we’re not buying stuff. We’re not putting on events. I cut my staff and I cut [my own] salary.”

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Ultimately, all of the houses of worship recognized that their parishioners have continued to be supportive during this time. In the face of COVID-19, religious and spiritual centers have gotten creative, techie and determined in return.

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Keri Ann Bourne
Keri Ann Bournehttp://bourne707.wordpress.com
Mendocino Coast resident since 1986. Areas which appeal to me: woman owned, green or renewable resource, traditional crafts, small business, social/environmental/animal/community benefits and non profits.

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