Coronavirus sparks creativity

From drive-through prayer to sheltering the homeless to caroling, congregations find ways to minister under restrictions

Mar 30, 2020 by and

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The people who came on Sunday, March 22, to Mellinger Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pa., never got out of their cars.

Pastors Roger Weaver and Dan Cloyd offered drive-through prayer in the carport throughout the morning for anyone interested.

The project is one of many ways pastors and congregations are finding creative new ways to minister among themselves and their neighbors during a virus pandemic that limits physical interactions.

Weaver said the idea began as a last-minute thought the previous Sunday, but picked up more interest a week later.

“In a national calamity people often look to the church as a source of hope or a sense of, ‘Hey, things aren’t totally out of control,’ ” he said. “I remember in 9/11 the response of the church was excellent, people turned to the church. But now the doors to the church are locked.”

As vehicles sat in the carport, Weaver and Cloyd gave words of encouragement, read Scripture or simply prayed. On March 22, most people were connected to the congregation, but some were also new to the church.

“There are very anxious people,” Weaver said. “One lady just started weeping about her children and grandchildren. . . .

“I think it’s just the uncertainty of everything. Every day, every couple hours, our phones are pinging and giving us new updates on the spread of the disease. The death toll rising. It almost seems things are out of control. I know so many people who suffer anxiety on a normal day, and this just compounds it.”

The pastors planned to keep offering Sunday prayer time unless their county received a mandate to stay at home, which Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf issued on March 27.

“The only thing we want to spread right now is hope,” Weaver said.

Springtime carols

Households from Faith Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind., also spread hope, but instead of people coming to the church, the church is coming to them.

Wanda Reinford Martin, Emilia Reinford Martin and Terry Reinford Martin sing near Karen Davidson’s window at Courtyard Healthcare in Goshen, Ind., while Bruce Miller, right, holds a phone for Davidson to be able to hear. — Teresa Dutchersmith

Wanda Reinford Martin, Emilia Reinford Martin and Terry Reinford Martin sing near Karen Davidson’s window at Courtyard Healthcare in Goshen, Ind., while Bruce Miller, right, holds a phone for Davidson to be able to hear. — Teresa Dutchersmith

Teresa Dutchersmith began organizing Saturday “caroling” for homebound individuals March 14.

“We have one church member who’s in a nursing home currently,” she said. “She had already been in isolation for a week and a half before coronavirus with the flu, which meant she had to stay in her one room and couldn’t go out.”

Four households gathered outside Karen Davidson’s window at Courtyard Healthcare and sang a variety of songs — “Come Walk With Us,” “Amazing Grace,” “When Peace Like a River” and, of course, “When You’re Happy and You Know It.”

“We have to keep our distance. I think I called it social-distance serenading,” Dutchersmith said. “We have to plan our choreography ahead of time so she can hear and see all of us.”

The project grew to include another person who is homebound with health issues.

“I just realized we are reaching out in ways we could be doing anytime, but we’re thinking more creatively in this space when we aren’t meeting on Sundays,” Dutchersmith said.

The carolers included a woman in her 90s in independent living at Greencroft Communities.

“We were singing to her, and she was singing along,” Dutchersmith said. “Some of her neighbors heard and came out to look and sat in their walkers and in doorways. So it created a little community there.”

Elkhart County increased its level of travel advisory March 28, limiting physical serenading gatherings. Dutchersmith has begun experimenting with singing on three-way calls and other options to continue.

Fasting and prayer

U.S. infections are most concentrated in New York City, where congregations are supporting families with multiple people testing positive.

“Earlier this morning we only had two known cases,” wrote Moises Angustia, a pastor at United Revival Mennonite Church, on March 31. “. . . But this afternoon we learned of two separate families with relatives not doing so well.”

The church embarked on 40 days of fasting and prayer on March 30 and connects daily online.

Offering shelter

Although signs of spring and warming temperatures are showing up everywhere, weather can still be a challenge for many people experiencing homelessness. After Springdale Mennonite Church in Waynesboro, Va., canceled worship March 15, the congregation realized its empty building could do more to help a local homeless ministry.

Waynesboro Area Refuge Ministry is a coalition of churches that take turns opening their buildings overnight for a week during cold-weather months. Springdale congregational WARM coordinator Alan Shenk said his church’s turn was only supposed to run March 16-23. But the three churches scheduled to follow Springdale could not host due to virus concerns and space limitations for proper social distancing, extending the hosting to four weeks. Churches that couldn’t host are helping with volunteers and meals.

“If we had continued to want to do our normal programming it probably wouldn’t have worked, but since we canceled services, there was no point in having our small groups and ladies’ Bible study and Sunday school going on,” he said. “So if we’re not going to be using the building, it’s just going to sit empty.”

While everyone would normally sleep in the church’s basement, personal areas needed to be spread further apart, so main-floor Sunday school rooms were opened up as well.

“These people probably don’t have a lot of places to go, and so they’re just hanging out there wandering around,” Shenk said. “And, like everybody else, the more you’re out there, the more risk to yourself and passing that on to everyone else.”

Springdale’s typical volunteers are mostly over 60 years old, putting them at higher risk of complications should they be infected. Shenk was relieved when six younger people from the congregation came forward to fill those roles.

“There was a certain degree of fear about what we were getting into,” he said, noting no confirmed cases had been found in the county as of March 26. “. . . When stuff like this happens, we don’t know how it will turn out, but we trust God is at work here.”

Kids activities

While emails, phone calls and online videoconference coffee times can meet adult needs, kids can get overlooked. Forest Hills Mennonite Church in Leola, Pa., has been intentional about making sure children’s ministry continues. Activity kits were developed for parents to pick up at the church, and pre-addressed envelopes were mailed to families for children to send letters to seniors quarantined in nursing homes.

Becky Degan, associate pastor of worship and Christian education, said her son had participated in online schooling for the past three and a half years, so it was only natural to do something similar for church.

“I had watched his teachers in Zoom classrooms for years and knew what could be done,” she said. “So I played around and managed to put together something.”

The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, because the kids get so much fun out of seeing themselves and their friends on screen. The Zoom chats take place four times a week, in the morning on Sunday, Monday and Friday, and then on Wednesday evening.

Activities include watching short videos on Bible stories, reading stories, playing online Bible trivia games, doing crossword puzzles with Zoom’s annotate tool and scavenger hunts.

“Families have greatly appreciated it,” said Degan, “as most kids went from being overscheduled to having nothing on their schedules.

“Having something to look forward to, something to put on the calendar, a break for parents and getting to interact with other kids has been so important for them.”

Degan recommends being intentional about Zoom settings to disable personal chats and limit who can share the screen, and — like in real life — always have structure prepared to limit lulls in activity.

Newsletter devotions

Like many congregations, Landisville (Pa.) Mennonite Church is evaluating congregational communications. A weekly email was already in place, and now it is expanding.

Pastor Ron Adams said members are being asked to write brief devotions.

“We think it’s important for folks to not only hear from pastoral staff but from each other,” he wrote by email, noting he wouldn’t be surprised if the practice continues even when Landisville Mennonite returns to worshiping together.


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