When the coronavirus hit, many folks missed a lot more than visiting family and friends; they missed gathering with their church and synagogue family as well. Island faith communities learned how to pivot to online services and Zoom gatherings. A few of them have taken advantage of the hospitality of the M.V. Campground Association, and have gotten together outdoors at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs. It may not sound like much, but when your only outing in public is grocery shopping, gathering with a faith community is even more important than it was pre-COVID-19.
The spiritual life committee at the MVCA still offered Sunday services with a variety of guest speakers this past summer, but they also added services with Good Shepherd Parish and the United Methodist Church of Martha’s Vineyard, as well as a onetime special service with St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. These Island churches were happy to offer this outdoor worship experience to their congregations.
The Rev. Chip Seadale held his last in-person service at St. Andrew’s on March 23; since then, he said, they’ve relied on weekly YouTube prerecorded worship events. If you’ve ever visited St. Andrew’s, you know how small the gathering space is; this makes it even more difficult to gather there these days.
“At one of our vestry meetings two months ago, one of our leaders thought we might call over to the Methodist Society to see if we might use the Tabernacle for worship, to see how it might work,” Father Chip wrote in an email. “We were met with a most gracious and welcoming response, for which we have been most grateful. We had our outdoor worship at the Tabernacle on Sept. 27, and the weather was delightful, and everyone was just so happy to be together again for worship. And, of course, I was nothing less than jubilant to be able to pray together, and listen to our fine musicians, Griffin McMahon and his brother Sean, play some live music. The corporate spirit was electric!”
This is an affirmation of how important it is to gather socially in person, but Father Chip also wrote that “nothing can separate us from the love of God — and for those of us who carry that light within us, we know that we always hold each other in our hearts, and are there for each other.”
The Rev. Hyuk Seonwoo, pastor of the United Methodist Church on the Island, writes, “I appreciate the UMC-MV family and friends to be diligent in praying to God and stay connected to one another. When we do not worship at the Tabernacle, we do ‘at-home contemplative worship’ at 10:30 am every Sunday. Around 90 people receive an email for this special worship every week.”
Like other clergy, he’s being flexible with the congregation’s options this year. Every Tuesday evening from 7:30 to 8:15, the church offers a Zoom meeting as well.
“We’ve recently finished a seven-week session called ‘Prayer & Bible Talk,’ and have begun a new session, titled ‘Finding Peace in an Anxious World,’” the Rev. Seonwoo wrote. “Through these sessions, we learn to be grateful and mindful of God’s loving and healing presence.”
The pastor added, “While dealing with twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racism, we also believe that, as Quakers teach us, this is a time to be more mindful of what we are doing rather than diffusing our energies too broadly.”
Another option is the Methodist congregation’s Tai Chi for the CROP Hunger Walk, where folks gather at the lawn beside the church every Tuesday from 10 to 11 am, weather permitting. All participants stand six feet apart and are required to wear masks. During this time, any donations will support the CROP Hunger Walk, and you can visit crophungerwalk.org/marthasvineyard for more information.
For Father Mike Nagle, pastor of Good Shepherd Parish, getting the congregation together in person has resulted in some creativity. This past Sunday, he wrote, 155 people were there at 9:30 am Mass at the Tabernacle, the largest number since he first began celebrating Mass there in June. They started with a 4 pm time slot, as the MVCA worshipped there at 9:30 am during the summer; after those summer services stopped, Good Shepherd picked up that 9:30 am spot on Sundays. They plan to keep worshiping at the Tabernacle through Nov. 1.
“We still use St. Augustine and St. Elizabeth’s, but the Tabernacle is the most popular venue people are choosing,” Father Nagle said in an email.
Celebrating Mass during this pandemic is very different, he wrote: “Everyone is wearing masks — there is no communal singing, people are not sitting close to each other, the churches are only one-third capacity due to social distancing, no processions, no sign of peace. The liturgy is truncated — the bishop has asked us to not keep people inside too long, so while I try not to rush, we move it along.”
Numbers of attendees are counted each week in July, Father Nagle explained, and this year the total was 1,694 in-person, but 5,200 attended those services via Facebook or live-streaming.
The parish has come up with another feature to cope with the pandemic: They added a transmitter to the sound system in St. Augustine’s, so people can come to church, stay in their cars, listen to the Mass on their car radio, and Communion will be brought out to them. Attendees can tune into 87.9 FM in the parking lot.
“This might bring some more people. We will see,” Father Nagle wrote. “I think that no one is happy with any of the alternatives, but we have to do what we have to do to stay healthy.”
Visit mvcma.org/spiritual-life.html for more information about services at the Tabernacle.