The Pandemic meets the church
By Dorothy Nickel Friesen
My last public worship was in March 2020. It was a funeral for my cousin. The country church was full, the service filled with hearty singing, and of course, we ate a satisfying meal of potato salad, ham sandwiches, homemade cookies with scoops of ice cream. We laughed, told each other stories of his life, and cried that his life was gone from us. We stood near the grave and hugged his wife as she wept. Our good-byes were forever cemented to that site.
All those rituals of worship-singing, preaching, eating, telling stories, hugging, handshaking–are only memories. Church rituals have been assaulted.
Then, just one week later, my congregation catapulted to virtual worship. The pastors creatively and effectively use Zoom and YouTube to lead worship, offer prayers, and include masked singing by an ensemble accompanied by organ and piano. It worked! I was drawn to worship on each Sunday just as the past but, it wasn’t the same. Advantages? We continued to worship as a scattered community. People who lived far away, close by, or in nursing homes did not have to travel. My coffee cup plus recliner was a great place to worship. None of our virtual services ever mentioned offerings yet the budget for 2020 was generously over-subscribed. A ritual of worship buoyed our souls and kept me from slipping into cynicism, depression, and isolation. Losses? Singing! Pew neighbors and conversation! Sunday School discussions! I missed the children and youth. I simply lost the informal seeing, greeting, chatting with my pastors. Church now was impersonal, even distant, and easy to forget.
Pandemic 2020 shifted everything for me. My mother, age 95 in a nursing home 500-plus miles away, died in May 2020. No visits allowed. We traveled for a short graveside service. I felt alone and lonely. Death from “natural” causes was a great relief as Mother did not die from COVID-19 but, due to dementia, was forever confused about staff wearing masks, the lack of Bingo, and asked many times if we still lived in Kansas. Neighbors could listen to the cemetery service on their car radios and then slowly drove away. No stories, no congregational singing, no celebrating her life. No hugging, no fellowship nor satisfying meals. It was not enough. It still is a deep loss. It felt like the church disappeared.
We continued our plan to move to a retirement community, so we sold our house and moved in June 2020. We started a new life, masked and forbidden from gathering with other neighbors. This tepid welcome was the right thing, but it also kept us quiet, removed, and trying to develop new rhythms. Of course, we did not go to the church sanctuary. The congregation kept its rhythm of virtual services, twice-weekly emails, and I kept reading the weekly lectionary biblical readings, writing cards to the ill and grieving. I sometimes wrote short sermons on Monday as if I were still preaching regularly. Church was in pieces and I tried to make them connect.
Now vaccinated, I expect to re-engage worship when safe and allowed. I will love the congregational singing—now with a new hymnbook! Change happened even while isolated. In retirement, I will continue to create online multi-generational faith formation curricula because I want people of all generations to grow in their love of Jesus and the ministry of justice. It all won’t be the same as it was before the pandemic but that may be its own surprise. We may find that church is always on the move, happening in places that we didn’t expect, and empowering women and men to respond to the world’s cries because we are listening more and not as consumed with activity. We will create some new forms of ministry and we, I hope, will stop perpetuating traditions that need to be laid down. I’m guessing our pastors will relax into people-friendly practices, improve their technology skills, and preach prophetically. “Prepare ye the way” and “Follow me” will take on new meanings. Our church buildings will be used more by the community and we will listen carefully to those who suffer because of their skin color. Our rhetoric will, hopefully, be less divisive nor tricked by social media. We will need thoughtful and deeply spiritual leadership in all our institutions. And we will share our resources more freely.
The pandemic shocked us, and the church will never be the same. That’s good news.
Dorothy Nickel Friesen, retired pastor and denominational minister, is a member of Bethel College Mennonite Church (North Newton, KS) and Board President of SPRINGS FORTH! FAITH FORMATION, INC.