Worship services look very different these days. Pastors are recording services and daily messages to view on YouTube or Facebook or Zoom, and during the coronavirus pandemic they reach out to parishioners more often by phone or FaceTime. For me, one of the most significant aspects of belonging to a faith community is just that — community. Singing together, praying together, and even having coffee together and greeting one another after a service is a major part of the experience. And right now, that’s missing. We reached out to Island clergy to find out how they’re faring during this time of isolation, and how they’re planning to move forward.
The Rev. Dr. Leo Christian, pastor of First Baptist Church in Vineyard Haven and Community Baptist Church in Aquinnah:
“As to how it worked out during the shutdown, let me say it was wonderful and terrible. We held our services via Zoom, and the attendance was particularly good. The finances, not so good. People were very attentive and gracious during this time. It was a whole new learning curve for me, in that I am not a techie. This old dog learned some new tricks.
“As to moving forward, we have been following all the guidelines from our denomination and the state. We have for a month been talking about our return to face-to-face worship. We are moving cautiously but deliberately.
“We are writing out our formal plan for reopening, for both us and our Brazilian partners. We plan as of the first Sunday of June to hold services both live and on Zoom, following all the safe practices recommended by the state and the denomination. We are encouraging vulnerable populations to continue on Zoom. We had our sanctuary professionally sanitized. There will be masks and gloves provided, sinks available for washing, and hand sanitizers conveniently located. The pews will be marked off with caution tape. We will have social distancing markers as people enter. For Communion, we will be using prepackaged Communion cups and bread. There will be no gathering in the buildings after services. What people do outside, I can’t control, but trust them as adults to be responsible.
“The congregation in Aquinnah are looking at having a drive-in service, with everyone staying in their vehicles, for the first few weeks, or they can join the Vineyard Haven congregation on Zoom. Again, social distancing will be practiced.
“As to the mental health issues relating to isolation, we have been proactive, in that I and the board of deacons have been in regular phone conversations with most of our congregation. Both our men’s Bible study and ladies’ Bible study (all by Zoom) have worked on these issues. I’m sure that there are those who have fallen through the cracks, but we have tried in light of the situation to cover all the bases.
“The good news is although our buildings have been closed, the church is alive and well both here in Vineyard Haven and in Aquinnah.
“Our goal is to continue to worship our God by whatever platform is best, and to keep God’s people safe during this time of adjustment.”
The Rev. Susan Waldrop, minister at large:
“I have not heard of any churches being reopened at the moment. I have heard that outdoor services are being considered by some. I like the Zoom services, personally. Pastor Richard at the Federated Church has had terrific sermons. The Zoom format seems to open some doors for participation by isolated individuals, even as it doesn’t work for some. I think this form of teaching and sharing will continue, even when church services in buildings open. It has forced us all into a new format of communication. My own Fruit of the Spirit services at the hospital chapel have been canceled during the COVID-19 crisis, and I may start a Zoom meeting in the fall.
“Things are changing also with people’s need for support. I’ve been talking more about spiritual concerns at work when questions are raised. And I have been working throughout the crisis for the VNA clients. My experience is that most of the elderly in their own homes have been safe and continue to be safe: I have not had anyone I see develop COVID-19. The VNA employees visiting clients are required to wear masks, of course, and to avoid work if any personal or client COVID-19 symptoms develop.
“I don’t have a congregation, but I have encouraged people that God loves them: This crisis is not punishment or judgement. It will pass — there is a mystery about suffering, but I have never had a hard time which didn’t bring me to my knees and connect me to God even more deeply through new awarenesses. This experience is no exception. Joy deepens as well when faith grows.”
The Rev. Stephen Harding, rector at Grace Church:
“It may be awhile before we gather in person for worship at Grace Church. Our bishop, the Right Rev. Alan M. Gates, has been clear that we are not to reopen before July 1. He has, together with the Right Rev. Douglas J. Fisher, bishop of Western Massachusetts, put forth guidelines for all Episcopal parishes in the commonwealth. Called ‘A Journey by Stages” (bit.ly/2X41oqk), these guidelines outline a four-stage process for regathering as an Episcopal congregation.
“We also have the moral imperative to love our neighbor. Our congregation is faithful, and every one of them is wonderful. We have visitors throughout the year who join us for worship. In addition to the guidance from our bishops and our town, we believe that loving our neighbor requires prudence and caution, and not putting anyone’s health or safety at risk by opening too soon.
“Our Sunday services are available online at our website (graceepiscopalmv.org), beginning at around 6 am, and we gather as our congregation to worship together online at 10 am, with Sunday school at 9:30 and virtual coffee hour after the service. Even though it’s not the same as being together in church, we’ve been worshipping online together for 10 weeks. It’s working, and we’re learning each week how to do it better.
“I can’t give you a date when Grace Church’s building will be open for worship again, but I can tell you that our church is open and going strong.”
From Rabbi Caryn Broitman, at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center:
“The Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center has grown stronger as a community through this crisis, as we gather virtually through online services, life cycle events, and study sessions. We will continue our online program, and have also moved our Summer Institute Lecture and Film Series online for the summer. We are exploring possibilities for socially distanced outdoor services in the future, and continue to gather information. We miss seeing everyone in person, and hope the day will come soon, God willing, when we can gather together in our worship space without fear of risk to anyone’s health. Until then, we are grateful for bonds we are creating as we support each other by means of virtual prayer spaces and acts of kindness.”
The whole point is to have faith, isn’t it?