Love And Faith In The Time Of Covid
Sunday, March 22, was an important day — and not only because it was the 90th birthday of legendary Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim, whose moving ballad “No One Is Alone” carries extra weight nowadays.
In this crazy, continually changing time of Covid-19, this past Sunday was the first I can remember our church ever canceling its worship service.
I have been piano accompanist at Davenport’s Zion Lutheran Church since 1999; performing each week and becoming close to many of its members have been highlights of my life.
Among religious congregations nationwide that closed their doors, Zion sent out e-mail and paper mail devotional material to members for the March 22 service – including prayers, readings, a brief reflection and prayer petition ideas. Pastor Karen Ullestad was at the church chapel and read everything aloud, though that first one was not streamed online as many churches did.
“I’ve heard a couple folks mention they lit a candle, read the devotional and then had coffee hour (at home),” Ullestad said. “This will be a changing process depending on the needs and interests of the congregation. Members are texting a lot with each other. And praying that all who are affected in any way by Covid-19 will find relief, comfort and strength.”
Member Beth Meyer said she and her husband Mark lit a candle, said the readings, and discussed them. “I liked the one-on-one intimacy of that,” she said. “Coffee and homemade sweetbread after made it feel similar to Zion.
“But I missed seeing the wonderful friends, and missed being a part of the wonderful music at worship,” Beth added.
Being out of work during this time of Covid, and being separated from the people and places I love, have created huge holes in my heart. But hearing from other faith-filled friends about how they spent that fateful Sunday reminded me of a contemporary Christian song we have often done, Jay Beech’s “The Church Song.”
With a refrain that proclaims, “We are the church, the body of our Lord,” it says: “The church is not a building where people to go to pray,” and “You can’t find a building that’s alive no matter how you search.”
Gene Boyd, a Davenport Catholic, told me: “The church is but a building – you, part of the body of Christ, you are the church.”
“It’s a special blessing to know our congregation is connected in this challenge and in our faith as our current situation with COVID-19 unfolds,” said Sharon Andresen, a member of Our Savior Lutheran in Bettendorf, who saw her worship live-streamed. “We are all finding ways to use our unique gifts to reach out and support others in the community. Our building is not the church. God’s servant people are the church.”
If God is everywhere and the people are pilgrims working to do good deeds for each other, then the church is everywhere, and we don’t need a specific place in which to worship and learn how to become better.
Bill Campbell was part of recording a simplified, shortened form of worship at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport, available here.
Especially pertinent among his church’s prayers was this plea for tolerance, togetherness and cooperation among us all worldwide:
“A crisis like this one in our country, and so many other countries, reminds us that we are a global community. Despite all borders and oceans that separate us, we breathe the same air. Unite our spirit as a nation, with those in other places who long for the same things in life we do — who suffer similar worries to our own, and who are working passionately to care for the most vulnerable.”
Another prayer said: “You are teaching us new significance to the places we call home, Lord, since we’re spending all kinds of time in our own dwelling places. As the days of hibernation, isolation and self-quarantine begin to wear on us, help us discover new things about ourselves and our world, and those we love.”
In times of crisis and hardship, it’s natural to seek guidance, compassion and comfort not only through a divine, higher power, but the more tangible, personal power of community and family. But do we need to be physically in the same place to feel that presence and impact? Isn’t it a spirit we internalize?
Maureen Holmes said during the live-streamed service at First Congregational UCC, Moline, people who joined online interacted in the comments section on Facebook. “Live-streaming does come with technical difficulties, but they’re outweighed by the great sense of connection in this distancing period,” she said.
Joy Boruff of Moline worshipped last Sunday live on Facebook with her 90-year-old mother’s church in Bentonville, Ark. “It was the first time our dog Louie ‘went to church,’” she said. “I loved connecting with my housebound Mom with beautiful and especially meaningful worship. God was there.”
Michelle Chavez said her 82-year-old mom attended church every day before Covid. She grew up during World War II, attending church in a box car in Silvis on Hero Street, and later attended beautiful Catholic services at Sacred Heart in Moline.
“It is heartbreaking that churches have been ordered to close,” Chavez said. “Since she doesn’t have access to a live-streamed church, she has been listening daily to a Catholic radio station holding daily church services. Worshiping and spirituality can’t be canceled.”
With declining church attendance nationwide, livestreaming may be a way to reach more people on a regular basis. Jay Wolin, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Quad Cities, said his online worship through Zoom attracted a much higher attendance then usual.
Pope Francis’ daily Mass from Casa Santa Marta (next to St. Peter’s in Vatican City) has been livestreamed since March 9. Pope Francis made this decision to be closer to those who are ill, in quarantine or, for whatever reason, unable to leave their homes, according to Vatican News.
Part of the magic, majesty and necessity of the church service is its ritual as a community of the faithful, worshipping side by side. While you can listen to music, watch movies, theater or dance alone, from the privacy of your room, it’s always a special thrill to do so live, in the collective midst of strangers.
Many years ago, I wrote a musical setting of the contemporary church service (including the “Glory to God,” “Apostle’s Creed,” and “Holy, Holy”) called “River Praise,” and I always get a kick to see and hear it performed with the Zion congregation, while I play and sing at the keyboard with the ensemble. It’s also been done at two other churches in Iowa and Wisconsin.
One of the literal bright lights of the Zion annual Christmas Eve service is at the end, where the electric lights are put out and we all light candles as we sing “Silent Night.” It’s spine-tingling, awe-inspiring.
At church (I was raised Catholic and went to a Jesuit high school), you always get the feeling you belong – you’re welcomed, you’re cared for, you matter, and while there, we’re all in this together, and no matter what life throws at us (a job loss, a global pandemic), we’ll find a way out, together. We can make a bigger difference in society when we band together.
A virtual service, of course, can’t replace those moments, especially the distribution of Communion. Pam Wohlers Dau, a former Zion member now in Texas, said that in San Antonio, Shepherd of the Hills Church actually did a drive-through communion.
The church videotaped the service, so you could watch it at home but if you felt like communion, there was a time set aside and you could pull up to the church driveway and receive it, she said.
Now we’re approaching the holiest time of the church calendar – Palm Sunday (April 5), Holy Week, and Easter Sunday (April 12). According to the Vatican, the worshipping of Easter can’t be postponed like so many other events. Even though it’s not a fixed date, like Christmas, it’s apparently immovable.
“Easter will be a struggle for us all in the faith community,” said Bill Peiffer, a member of Sacred Heart in Moline.
Amy Klutho – who did Facebook livestreaming from St. John’s United Methodist in Davenport – said Easter will be the same if the virus is still an issue.
I can’t imagine not having an Easter service – it’s such a jubilant, exciting day to gather and celebrate new beginnings. But God only knows when we’ll see our new life after coronavirus. Let’s hope we treat each other better when we’re not forced to keep a distance.