The Rev. Canon Anne Tumilty, rector of St. James’ Episcopal Church in South Pasadena, may have sounded the perfect note when discussing how prayer is being conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“While the doors have been closed, the church has remained active,” she wrote in a recent note.
But active isn’t always what it used to be, and many church- and synagogue-goers in South Pasadena and the surrounding area can hardly wait to return to the “old days” and the “old ways.”
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors announced that churches in the county could begin holding services, under specific guidelines, beginning this past Sunday.
Grace Brethren Church was among the first of the churches along South Pasadena’s Fremont Avenue to take advantage of the ruling. Most other churches in town, and Temple Beth Israel in Highland Park, have delayed starting dates while they consider how to safely reopen and comply with county guidelines.
Grace Brethren, at 920 Fremont Ave., had what its senior pastor, the Rev. Terry Daniels, called a “learning experience” in its first attempt at reopening. Most people did not show up at the scheduled time, so the church proceeded with an online service, and will try again next week.
“We’re kind of making this all up as we go along,” said Daniels, who said miscommunications, a fear of returning because of the pandemic, and the curfew decreed because of rioting contributed to a lack of congregants this past Sunday.
The big news for many ministers and congregants while the church doors were shut was the often increased role played by the internet.
Many ministers found that congregants were avid consumers, especially in the early weeks of the shutdown, of individual church websites — both in a barebones fashion in some churches and a much more sophisticated version in others, such as Holy Family Catholic Church.
“The internet has shaped the way we communicate,” said the Rev. Lincoln Skinner, senior minister of the Oneonta Congregational Church at 1515 Garfield Ave., adding that churches in general have to look at the internet as a way to better spread God’s word.
“The pandemic has forced us to remake our strategy,” he said.
Sam Kil, pastor at ReNew United Methodist Church at 699 Monterey Road, said that early on he discovered that the church website was getting five to six times the number of views that it normally got each week. The number has fallen off — as it has at other churches whose representatives I talked to — but it is still higher than before.
Kil thinks one reason is that people can listen to the service anytime and anywhere they want.
Stender Sweeney, a parishioner at Holy Family, said he was aware of his church’s website, but still would prefer to be among his fellow worshipers.
What he has discovered, however, is that the online version enables him to replay the homily. “It gives you a deeper appreciation of what you are listening to,” he said.
Sweeney, despite appreciating what the website can provide, wants to be among the first in the door when regular services begin in the near future.
“I would rather be at the service where I can participate and take Communion,” Sweeney said. “The website is fabulous for people who are homebound.
“For those of us who are out and about, like me, fellowship is what I want. I want human interaction with the priest.”
Ministering during the pandemic has been a challenge for church and synagogue leadership.
The Rev. Dr. Darrell Haley, of the South Pasadena Christian Church, at 1316 Lyndon St., said doing his sermons online has taught him to give more thought to saying things more succinctly.
Haley also said that he struggled with having less face-to-face contact with members when he did services without a congregation immediately present. So he urged members of the flock to do 30-second readings in videos that became part of the livestream service.
Skinner admitted that as a clergyman, he “didn’t want to wait. I want things to happen today. I want to rush in and help start a food bank or do something.
“This has been a big struggle for me,” he continued. “I’ve had an internal struggle that God will keep us together and that I will slow down and care for myself and my family. I think my congregation wants me to keep calm and be a presence.
“I’ve grown in my prayer life. I’ve slowed down and deepened my relationship with my prayer.”
Rabbi Jason Rosner of Temple Beth Israel in Highland Park. He said his challenge has also not being able to personally have face-to-face contact with his congregants both in synagogue and in times of comforting. “It’s been stressful,” he said.
The synagogue has been doing services online with fairly good attendance, but he noted that this is really a neighborhood congregation that thrives on praying and eating together.
“We are a religious community, not a podcast,” he said.
Rosner noted that another problem has been saying Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, online because it requires a minimum of 10 people in person. The temple has settled on a communal recitation of Psalm 23 until services resume in the temple.
The Rev. Millicent Dailey of Calvary Presbyterian Church at 1050 Fremont Ave. has had what I thought was the cleverest use of the internet. She presented her congregation each week with what she called “Sermon and a Supper.” The week I watched as she made Southern comfort food, including macaroni and cheese. Afterward, she sat on her couch and talked about the Book of Acts.
“I was filming ‘fireside chats’ in my office at Calvary, but then people told me that they missed my fuller-length sermons. Can you imagine that?” Dailey said. “They also said they were enjoying all the Zoom meetings that they had been taking part in during the pandemic because they got to look inside people’s homes. So I tried to marry these two things together, and then I remembered a series on TBS called ‘Dinner and a Movie.’ I really like to cook, so I decided to do my own riff on it, and that’s how ‘Sermon and a Supper’ was born.
“I know of people from literally around the world who have watched the series. … It has been a really unusual form of outreach.”
Skinner said one of the joys of ministering during the pandemic has been seeing one of his parishioners organize a group that sends greeting cards to every parishioner. Another group is reaching out to every congregant by telephone.
Daniels said what brings a smile to his face is the way his congregation is living his teaching that every person is a minister of God and that they should do things on their own, like dropping off food for shut-ins or food pantries.
“I’ve been trying to teach Christianity in this way for 40 years, and once they started [doing these kinds of acts], the congregation took things off on their own,” Daniels said. “That why I’ve been whistling around town.”
Rosner said his temple will proceed cautiously in reopening. Jewish law, he noted, states that preservation of human life overrides all ritual statutes. This law can be found in Leviticus 18:5: “Ye shall therefore keep my statutes and Mine ordinances, which if a man do, he shall live by them.”
Online offerings are going to have to suffice for many churches as they proceed cautiously and try to figure out how to adhere to the many guidelines presented by the county for reopening churches.
“It will definitely feel different when we come back, but the most important thing to remember is that the church is not a building,” Dailey concluded. “It never has been, and Calvary is very much continuing to be church.”