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Churches as “First Responders for Souls”

Churches as “First Responders for Souls”

Our friends at ENS report on efforts by several large parishes in different parts of the country to respond to COVID-19 outbreak.

The West Coast was an early flashpoint in the spread of COVID-19 in the United States. “It sort of came on fast here in Seattle,” said the Rev. Doyt Conn Jr., rector of Epiphany Episcopal Church. As of March 17, at least 56 people had died in Seattle and King County, Washington, more than a third of all U.S. coronavirus deaths.

On the other side of the country, the Diocese of Virginia on March 11 canceled in-person worship services at all 179 of its congregations in response to the coronavirus outbreak. The Rev. Noelle York-Simmons, rector of Christ Church in Alexandria, said clergy and lay leaders everywhere have been forced to rethink what it means to be church, without any sense for how long this upheaval will last.

“It’s no longer a sprint. It’s no longer, how do we hold on for a couple weeks?” York-Simmons said, but rather, “how are we going to be doing this for the long haul?”

And at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, the largest congregation in The Episcopal Church with more than 9,000 baptized members, Episcopalians are dealing with the sudden shock to normal parish life but also thinking about the crucial role of the church in times of crisis. “It’s a tremendous opportunity to point people to the promises of our faith,” said the Rev. Russell Levenson Jr., the rector at St. Martin’s.

… Like many congregations, Christ Church in Alexandria started streaming its Sunday worship services online this month when it no longer was possible for parishioners to attend in person. Producing a live video has required the rapid development of new skills at the church. “I didn’t go to seminary for this,” York-Simmons said with a chuckle.

There is a sense of sadness and loss in her congregation at the disruption of liturgical norms, she said. “When we are pressed, when things are pretty dark, so many of us lean into church. We lean into liturgy, and we don’t have that to lean into,” she said.

But she also sees reasons for hope. Churches are supporting churches in Alexandria. Members of her congregation are finding ways to maintain a food pantry and other ministries serving the working poor. And Christ Church is trying to keep its employees on staff – from sextons to a singer – as long as possible.

She describes parish life in a time of pandemic as “building this airplane out of a Radio Flyer wagon.” 

How is your parish adjusting to the “new normal”? Are you worshiping using online resources like Zoom, YouTube, and Facebook Live? How are you maintaining contact with those who aren’t online? How are clergy and lay staff working, and how are they being supported? Please let us know in the comments below.


Photo: Christ Church, Alexandria, VA


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Eric Bonetti

Ironically, this is something that should have happened long ago. If you want to connect with people, you have to meet them where they are. Millenials and gen-z types are not hanging out in churches in Sunday; that is the simple reality. So instead of bemoaning the changes, embrace them. Change is coming to The Episcopal Church, like it or not, and the only question is whether the wave capsizes your boat or causes it to float higher.

B. D. Howes

We’re streaming one Sunday service on Facebook and our small groups will begin using Zoom this Sunday. Everything is still so fluid that our strategy is very much a work in process.

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