For Christians, Palm Sunday, observed Sunday, began the most important week in the liturgical calendar, But as the spread of COVID-19 continues, most churches remain shuttered.
It’s a difficult time for Christians, who’ve spent 40 days preparing to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the centerpiece of their faith.
Heather Olson, a member of Hauge Lutheran Church, is sharing links sent by her pastor, the Rev. Gideon Johnson, while connecting online with the churches of her friends — from California to Czechoslovakia.
“Without my faith, I know that I would be very self-involved and discouraged during this time,” said Olson, a counselor at a Plymouth-based Bible college.
Although she admits feeling isolated at times, Olson said her faith allows her to look beyond herself, to Jesus Christ and how he is working during this time. She believes the pandemic is a good time for the church to reach out to people to show them how God has spoken to them.
“Without that, I would be very discouraged, very feeling alone and in this isolation and not probably willing to reach out to other people doing the same thing,” Olson said.
One of her favorite biblical passages is in Corinthians, in which God is described as saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly in my weakness, so that the power of Christ may rest in me.”
‘We’re living, breathing, we’re working together’
Like so many of faith leaders, Episcopal priest, the Rev. Henry Doyle, is leading services without a congregation; believers view the Mass on Facebook or listen to recorded sermons. Services, now shortened, include a liturgy of the word but not the Eucharist. As many as 200 people stream church services online, and Doyle shares the Mass with his thousands of Facebook friends, who sometimes leave comments thanking him for doing so.
The Chapel of the Good Shepherd on the campus of Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Faribault, where Doyle works in alumni relations and outreach, will remain closed for Easter services. He also serves as a father at Cathedral of Our Merciful Saviour in Faribault.
But that hasn’t discouraged Doyle, who shared a message he recently received explaining that in-person church services are only a small portion of the work of the church.
“The church has always been the people who gather together to do the work of compassion and mercy and love and justice, regardless of where they gather,” he said. “They are living, breathing, animated sanctuaries who house divinity. In these terrifying, draining, disorienting moments, the church is doing what it was always supposed to do.”
To Doyle, examples of the church’s message can be seen in exhausted health care workers on the front lines, courageous first responders caring for others on a daily basis, grocery store employees constantly working to fill ever-emptied shelves, and the efforts of parents, teachers, and nonprofit and charity workers.
“We’re living, breathing, we’re working together,” he said. “The church is being the church outside of that physical space where we come to worship together.”
‘The Lord will bring us through this time’
Johnson, Hauge Lutheran pastor, says he’s received notes thanking him for sharing hope-filled messages. He is planning for congregants to send in Easter greetings stating, “He is risen,” so parishioners tuning in to his online service Easter Sunday can see the messages of hope.
“The Lord will bring us through this time,” he said.
Johnson cannot track the number of people who watch online, but he is aware of the number of views the videos receive. There were approximately 80 views on March 22. That number swelled to around 175 March 29, a larger audience than he typically has for in-person services. The number of views, he believes, shows people are hungry to share a Christian message with others.
“To me, it’s very encouraging to know that the church has a passion for sharing those things,” he said.
To Johnson, Kenyon’s faith community is similar to those around the world in that there is a sense of devotion amongst church-goers. He said although he hasn’t seen a lot of people in-person due to social distancing measures, he’s noticing a stronger pull to churches during the pandemic.
A unique approach
For the first time in his 46 years of ministry, the Rev. Denny Labat of the Church of St. Peter in St. Peter observed Mass privately due to the pandemic. The Diocese of New Ulm recently stipulated there would be no public masses through at least April 13.
This week, Diocese of New Ulm Bishop John M. LeVoir will post a video of him privately celebrating the Mass on the diocese website. The diocese will also post videos of services on Holy Thursday and Good Friday. The bishops of the dioceses of Minneapolis-St. Paul and Winona Rochester have also granted a parishioners a dispensation from their obligation to attend Mass.
To Labat, the church must focus on older parishioners who could already be facing isolation and others who might question God during this difficult time. He said people need to be reassured that they are still spiritually connected and pray for each other, doing what they can by making a phone call, or establishing contact in other ways. Church staff have been using the Zoom app mid-day to pray together.
“In spite of the stay-at-home order of the governor and just our needing to abide by that, we still need to maintain contact with family and friends and our faith community,” Labat said. “And we are encouraging our parishioners to make a point of going out of our way to call people, just to touch base with them.”
Despite the hectic current state of affairs, Labat believes there will be better days.
“We will be stronger, and I think as much as you don’t want to go through difficult times or struggles, it does strengthen a person, it does strengthen a community,” he said.
Parishioners raise more than $28,000 for those in need
Parishioners at The Church of St. Dominic in Northfield have raised more than $28,000 to loan those needing help paying for housing or other necessities during the pandemic. Donors are aware there is no guarantee they’ll get their money back. Borrowers do so with no expectation of repayment.
“If they can, fine,” said the church’s parochial administrator, the Rev. Bob Hart. “If they cannot, we understand.”
The church livestreams daily Mass at 10 a.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and continues recording Saturday evening services. Hart added he has heard a lot of appreciative comments from community members regarding their online services.
To Hart, having faith in Christ is essential in these times.
“It’s kind of what’s going to keep them all sane,” he said. “It would be easy to step away from what’s important, because there’s so many distractions. That’s the one thing that people can be assured of.”
Hart shares that faith deeply.
“As people of faith and a community and country, we’re going to come out stronger,” he said. “We just don’t know what’s going to come out on the other side.”