Just as schools, entertainment venues and community facilities have faced the debilitating results of the coronavirus pandemic, halting activities as normal for the foreseeable future, so too have religious institutions been affected by regulations and suggestions concerning COVID-19 safeguards.
However, as many area churches are demonstrating, it takes more than a dramatic health scare to keep congregants from enacting the measures of their enduring faith.
“Church is not canceled!” announced a statement from the Arizona judicatory leaders of the Disciples of Christ, Evangelical Church in America, the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) and The Episcopal Church.
Although in-person worship has been hindered, as the joint proclamation declares, “church is not a building, and church is not just worship. Church is the gathering of faithful people through prayer, through love, and through caring for the vulnerable.”
The judicatory principals note the financial implications of not gathering in person and that it will grow harder to continue basic outreach ministries caring to the poor, the sick, migrants and the elderly. But these are “faithful decisions,” and at the moment, among other things, “loving our neighbor means not being physically present with our neighbors, to protect them and us from potential infection.”
Pastors John Fairchild, Ross Parrott and Linda DeAtley, with Lakeview United Methodist Church, 10298 W. Thunderbird Blvd., echo these sentiments.
“What a wonderful opportunity we have in this current time of caution and extraordinary circumstances to celebrate the love of God together as the body of Christ,” their church notice stated.
Meetings on Lakeview church property have been canceled, though some are being held in private homes and others are using telephone and computer conference systems.
“Stay in touch with each other,” the Lakeview statement advises. “Reach out by phone and mail. Check in with your neighbor; you may discover opportunities to help and serve each other as we all encourage one another.”
Lakeview’s Sunday sermons and music can be obtained by calling 1-301-715-8592, waiting for instruction, then dialing in the worship ID number: 316-766-026; congregants will then be connected to the 9 a.m. service as it happens live. The 9 a.m. service will also be available at lakeviewumc.net and at the church’s YouTube page.
There is also Dial-A-Prayer (623-974-5839), where individuals can call in daily and learn about updated announcements as they occur before receiving a word of encouragement through scripture and prayer.
“We may be physically separated for a while, but we are one together in spirit as always,” the Lakeview statement reads. “Please do not take a vacation from making your tithe or pledge giving. Our financial needs continue, and we are behind in our budgetary receipts to date. You can make your contribution by Internet with a charge card, or mail in or drop by the church office during the week.”
Don Furrow, pastor of Trinity Bible Church, 14811 W. R.H. Johnson Blvd., also discusses his church’s efforts to protect seniors who are at high risk while still taking action to stay in touch, primarily through the Internet. He also encourages the positive resilience of the committed, even in such uncertain times.
“I think that there is a fear that naturally comes with such challenges,” notes Mr. Furrow. “As pastor I am encouraging our people to take those precautions that are necessary to life and health. I also encourage them, as well as myself, not to let the fear to override the injunctions of faith. Should that happen, we are unable to act in faith and love. We have lost our purpose and meaning as a church.”
All services and activities at American Lutheran Church, 17200 N. Del Webb Blvd., are likewise suspended, until May 11. Only the pastor and essential office personnel are on-site and visitors into the office are screened for entry. Stephen Minister visits, neighborhood groups and other committees who typically meet off campus are also canceled.
YouTube recordings of Pastor Judith Rainforth’s mid-week Lenten messages and Sunday sermons are posted on the church’s webpage, alcsuncity.org, and Facebook. She also sends daily email blasts of encouragement to the membership. For those who don’t have access to computer technology, transcripts of the sermons and newsletters are sent via US Mail.
According to Julian of Norwich, an English anchorite of the Middle Ages, “All will be well, and all manner of things will be well.” Ms. Rainforth reminds her parishioners to believe this and live with faith-filled hearts and souls.
“May we find the peace and serenity that comes with opportunities to explore a quieter pace and reach out via phone calls, cards and emails,” Ms. Rainforth states. “Take more time to pray and meditate on the life God has given us.”
At Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, 19002 N. 128th Ave., all public masses have been suspended until further notice. The three priests in the parish are continuing to offer private masses every day and Pastor Father David Ostler is live-streaming his masses on Facebook Live at noon Sunday through Saturday.
Additionally, all 2,619 parish families are receiving a phone call from the parish checking in on them, seeing if they have any needs and praying with them. Any families that need help with getting groceries or getting rides to doctor’s offices are being referred to Benevilla and families that need financial assistance are being referred to the local Saint Vincent de Paul Conference.
There are no meetings being held on the parish campus and the staff is mostly working from home.
The use of digital technology has thus been vital for churches throughout the West Valley, as tools to maintain engagement while also adhering to the rules and suggestions set in place by health and governmental officials.
“As a community we have tried our best to maintain connection, while adhering to CDC guidelines,” states Associate Pastor Erik Lundin, at Axiom Church in Peoria, 8295 W. Jefferson St. “Community and relationship is extremely important for our church, so we have tried our best to maintain that relational quality even as we transition to digital environments. The hardest thing for us is not having our sanctuary open on Sundays. This is a really important touch-point for our community every week. As are mid-week house gatherings (Axiom communities are what we call those).”
Mr. Lundin says that in order to help mitigate the impact of social distancing, Axiom now also live streams its Sunday services.
“We broadcast full worship and message,” he states, “but, beyond this, we also incorporate live, participatory liturgy. The most helpful item we included was a creating space for live stream viewers to ‘pass the peace.’ Typically, in the brick-and-mortar context, this would involve shaking someone’s hand and saying to them ‘the peace of Christ be with you’; but for our digital service we invited people to send out text messages to folks from the church community with the words ‘the peace of Christ be with you.’ We also encourage live engagement in chat rooms during service. We will have digital ‘greeters’ welcoming people and answering questions in real time.”
As a place for social interaction as well as worship, churches like Axiom are also stressing the value of basic communication, even attempting to lighten the mood during these times of such unease.
“During the week,” Mr. Lundin adds, “we typically have community groups that meet at folks’ homes, but right now we are utilizing Zoom for that purpose. We pray together here and read the Bible. We also tell jokes and, sometimes, we eat together.”
So, while church is taking on new forms in light of COVID-19, and many congregations are worshiping via live-stream or other electronic means, as the judicatory assembly notes, food pantries are distributing food as cars drive by, homeless dinner programs are offering meals to go and the prayers of the faithful “ascend to a loving God whose arms bind us together even when we cannot be face to face.”
“Since we cannot be with one another,” their statement declares, “let us nonetheless be for each other.”