Local churches make a spiritual connection through cyberspace

In Portsmouth and elsewhere, online services are now the new normal

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PORTSMOUTH — It’s Holy Week, which normally means local churches are packed with parishioners from Palm Sunday through Easter.

But inside the historic chapel at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on Sunday, it’s just Jennifer Pedrick, the rector, leading the service. The only other people in the chapel are her two daughters: Lydia DeAngelo, who assists with Mass, and Bella DeAngelo, who films everything with her smartphone.

Although COVID-19 is keeping parishioners away from church physically, they can never be disconnected from God’s word, says church leaders, who are recording their services and posting them online, or using videoconferencing apps for live streaming.

“This is a Holy Week unlike any we have ever had,” Rev. Pedrick said into the camera, which recorded the service for the Zoom application. 

“But the most important thing for us is to remember is that however we keep this week and engage in God’s word and remember the rituals, it is all in in effort to connect us to the one who loves us and who was willing to give Himself for us and who was raised from death to life, teaching us there is nothing stronger than God’s love.”

Although the service began in the chapel, the trio was there for only a few minutes. “We will be processing from the historic church to my home, where our worship will continue through Holy Week and perhaps beyond. Our bishop has asked us not to gather in our churches with anyone except family members, so I will be in solidarity with you, leading worship from the rectory at St. Mary’s,” Rev. Pedrick said.

And they did just that, with Bella filming her sister holding a cross while their mother walked slowly to her home, gently placing palms on the ground beneath her. 

Later, she explained why it was important to begin things in the church.

“As you know we’ve been working on our church for a long time,” she said. “Our roof was finally finished in the winter and I said we’d go back on Palm Sunday, even though the inside is not done. So I thought it would be nice for people to be able to see the inside of the church and take some comfort in seeing that familiar place. People really responded to that.”

The videos the church is posting for parishioners are pieced together by Bella — “Her senior project in high school had to do with a lot of video editing,” Rev. Pedrick said — and feature many different church members recording messages from the safety of their own homes.

“We had 18 different people reading the Passion Gospel, and we recorded it on Zoom. And it works. One woman was recording from Charlestown,” she said, adding that keyboardist Mike Templeton even provided music from his Cranston home. “It’s working well. We’ve learned a lot of new skills in the last month. We’ve done worship online now for four weeks.”

‘Little more connected’

They’re doing the same at Portsmouth United Methodist Church, led by The Rev. Michael Pike.

“We’re using the Zoom video conference software and the main reason for that, besides the fact you can see people’s faces, is that people who have a regular telephone can call in and listen to the whole service,” said Pastor Pike, noting the app is a good fit for people who aren’t great with technology. “They can still listen to the music and the prayers and the voices that they’ll recognize.”

The church is still working out some glitches, however. “The only downside is having that many people connecting at the same time. We have to ask them to mute each other so there aren’t overlapping voices,” he said. Also, streaming music live doesn’t seem to work as well as using recorded songs, he’s learned.

Still, he tries to make sure each streaming service is the next best thing to being there.

“We ask people to light a candle in their homes when we’re lighting the candles here — just little things so that people feel a little more connected to what we’re doing at the service,” Pastor Pike said. He also invited parishioners to “come early” to the service or stay later, so they can engage in informal group discussions through the app.

‘It’s tough sometimes’

At St. Barnabas Church’s Palm Sunday service that was streamed live, The Rev. Peter Andrews and four others were the only ones in the sanctuary.

“We’re not over five and are adhering to the strict regiment. It’s tough sometimes,” Father Peter said, noting the new setup serves as a reminder of how the special service has “been taken for granted” because it’s always been there, year after year.

“It truly is strange to begin our celebration here at the altar and not at a table with the blessing of palms, with the traditional procession around the church and singing the hosannahs of the little children as they welcome Jesus into their hometown,” he told parishioners.

In an earlier interview, Father Peter was asked how difficult it is to connect with parishioners who, in the middle of a pandemic, may need more spiritual guidance than ever.

“The challenge I personally find is how do I, as a priest, meet those spiritual needs in ways that are certainly not normal,” he said. “So many of the things that we just normally put in place are helpful, but it’s also forcing us to plan for different ideas — thinking out of the box — because people are hurting, people are scared and people are nervous.

“Most of the work we do is hands on, and we just can’t do that right now. How do we reach them digitally, how do we reach them through other means of communications, what kinds of resources do we need to develop to get our message out there?”

The upside, he said, is that the church is reexamining the needs of its congregation and the wider community.

“We’ve never streamed Masses before,” Father Peter said. “I’m sure members of the parish are chuckling at times because there are always glitches. This morning my remote control disconnected. But people are saying, ‘Why don’t you do this after this is all over?’ So we have to think about that. I’m looking at doing some online classes, or short presentations; I’m trying to come up with some ideas there.”

‘Interesting times’

Although they’re sad to see so many empty pews and worry about the health of their parishioners, there may be a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic, some religious leaders dare say.

“I hope it helps people examine the quality of what they’re allowing into their lives through media and other things,” said Pastor Pike. There’s nothing wrong with a media presence, he said, as long as it helps connect people to one another.

“I’m actually hoping that through all of this, we eliminate some of the fluff in our lives — some of the stuff that uses up a lot of resources but doesn’t lift us up that much,” he said.

Rev. Pedrick believes the pandemic has actually united people, not divided them.

“I would never wish this on our planet, but I think this has brought our church closer together,” she said. “We have a pastoral care team that has reached out to every member in our directory. We have teenagers and families that are younger and they are willing to go on errands for others. Every day I send out a different e-mail blast. Today I read an Easter story. People reach me back. I definitely have a sense of how members are doing.

“We’ve living in interesting times. The world is going through so much, but we’re also seeing a lot of angels out there. I think we are all going to end up being more grateful.”

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