Whether or not churches are packed on Easter Sunday or any time soon, people who wish to attend a religious service have a place to go—virtually—right now. Across the country, churches, parishes, synagogues, and mosques are posting live-steam or pre-recorded services, while others are going a bit more low-tech.
It only took a week for streaming services to pop up all over the mid-Shore region, usually via YouTube. As the Rev. Sue Browning, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Easton as well as UU of the Chester River in Chestertown, says, “My job as a minister is to stay in close communication with members of our fellowship, especially in times of stress.” Her two UU fellowships were closed as of March 12 due to the coronavirus crisis. “To close was a decision we made on our own,” she says, though, by order of Gov. Larry Hogan, gatherings of more than ten people were banned soon after.
“We only missed one Sunday,” says Browning, who also serves as chair of the Talbot Association of Clergy and Laity. “We were novices when it came to linking our website to YouTube,” which delayed the posting of that first service until 5:30 p.m. Although writing and delivering sermons is only a part of her job, it’s a focal point of each Sunday service. The March 22 streaming debut of UU Easton and Chestertown consisted largely of a hymn performed by Easton UU musical director Ellen Grunden–“Spirit of Life,” chosen in part because most UUs know it by heart—and Browning’s sermon, directed at calming fears at this time of anxiety and isolation.
Other local congregations have made similarly tentative steps into cyberworld. Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Parish, with churches in Easton, St. Michaels, and Cordova, has posted pre-recorded Sunday masses led by Father James Nash in the Easton cathedral. Plans for future dates, including Palm Sunday and Easter, are still up in the air, according to a parish staff member. “But we’ll definitely be doing services online,” she said. “And we expect to add daily masses soon.”
At Easton’s St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, Rev. Ed Kuhling delivered introductory remarks and a sermon that echo-chambered against a soaring stained-glass backdrop. The organ music, however, came across soothingly. Lyrics to hymns were projected on an overhead screen as well as words to responsive readings. The offertory was replaced by a projection indicating where to send checks covering annual pledges in tithes.
These streamings—bound to improve with practice—all resembled in-church services except you couldn’t be there in person. But to “attend,” you didn’t even have to dress.
Temple B’nai Israel got a jump on churches by presenting its Shabbat live stream on March 21, a Saturday, of course, following the start of Sabbath at sundown Friday. Rabbi Peter Hyman presided over what, as the temple’s Satell Center for Jewish Life on the Eastern Shore subtitle implies, is a wider geographical area.
“We should follow instructions on coronavirus. Trust what the experts tell us—politics notwithstanding,” the rabbi said in an online Talbot County Department of Health discussion.
In a Spy interview after the Saturday, March 28, service, Hyman said, “We had 300 viewings of our stream, ten times the number we usually draw in person,” for a congregation of 140 families scattered from the Ocean City area and Delaware to Kent Island. “We’re now looking at this as an opportunity to create a new normal. We will, at some point, resume regular services, but there’s every reason to continue expanding our outreach through technology.”
According to Pastor Tim Poly, his 60-member Royal Oak Community United Methodist Church expanded its audience exponentially to 1,600 globally, once it started streaming on Facebook in addition to YouTube. The church has long had an online presence, including daily devotions and bedtime Bible stories. Its latest is “Church for Kids,” noon Sundays on Zoom, a site that facilitates group interaction.
“Churches everywhere have been losing membership,” Poly says. “Because of the current necessity, we’re breaking out of our traditional four walls. We can’t not continue to do this, once things are back to what once was normal.”
But streaming isn’t the only way to get religion while churches are closed. African-American tradition lends itself to a richly aural experience. The Bethel AME Church in Chestertown and the Bethel AME in Easton, Rev. Wendell Gary presiding, offer 11 a.m. Sunday services delivered by way of conference call-ins. “We’ve set up three worship services a week,” says the Rev. Robert Brown Jr. of Chestertown. Besides the Sunday ritual, these include Monday prayer sessions and Thursday Bible studies.
A pastor’s prime-time is Sunday mornings. But life goes on all week. And especially at this time, loss of life can be inconsolable to survivors. “We had a death in the congregation,” says Browning. “It had nothing to do with coronavirus, but the disease had everything to do with how loved ones could mourn the passing. It changes everything about what we do as ministers, friends, or family. You can’t even offer hugs.” Besides spoken or written condolences, she says, “The best we can do for now is a memorial service after all this passes.”
As for weddings, she says, “I haven’t had one come up during this time, but I understand most venues and vendors have been very forgiving about postponements.”
In such cases, virtual ceremonies can’t replace the old normal.
See the guide to virtual church services here.
Steve Parks is a retired journalist now living in Easton.