Faith Leaders On Navigating Their Community Through A Pandemic

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La’Kendra Garrison has been at Springhill Missionary Baptist Church in Gainesville for 15 years.

Now a “Connecting Cluster” coordinator there, she recalled when church leaders realized early March last year that its 800-member congregation could no longer gather in-person on Sundays.

“We also won’t be in the building this year for Easter,” Garrison remembered thinking. “It’s still hard to believe.”

The coronavirus pandemic and ensuing stay-at-home orders forced places of worship to quickly determine the best course of action and adapt.

“While we are having online worship, we are still very transparent … in saying we know you’re ready to get back to the building, we’re ready to see you, but not yet,” Garrison said. “The numbers, the science, the cases just doesn’t say this is a safe time for us to reconvene.”

Springhill was the site of a recent COVID vaccination event in which she says 305 shots were administered. Second doses and 200 more vaccinations will happen there again in three weeks. The increased rollout gives Garrison hope that that congregation can gather again.

Sixteen miles southwest of Springhill is Archer Church of the Nazarene, where the Rev. Rich Norman says there had never been a livestreamed service before the pandemic.

“We were not set up to do anything but in-person worshiping,” Norman said.

The church purchased video equipment and learned to stream through Facebook. Norman said they even brought in a fiber optic line to have the needed broadband.

The church reopened for in-person worship early last summer, however, and Norman estimates only 20% of its regular discipleship still opts to attend service virtually. But the church intends to permanently stream services going forward, given that loved ones in different states have been able to virtually return to church for the first time in years.

“They’re all regularly watching the services now on Sundays, which they never could before,” Norman said. “So that’s, for me, that’s a plus.”

Faith leaders often wear many hats for their community members. They’re a guide for spiritual knowledge, an extended member of the family, a person to confide in, and sometimes, the last embrace at a hospital or hospice bedside.

Trying to still fulfill all of these roles, Norman describes this past year as frustrating.

“When someone went into the hospital, when someone was sick, in many different instances, all I could do was call and talk to them,” he said.

“When you’re a pastor, I mean, people – it’s about the people. And not being able to be there for them, not to be able to hold their hand and pray for them and rest my hand on their forehead, it’s just, it hurts. It hurts. So as far as what the pandemic did to me was brought on that pain, but also helped me to recognize that. That to me is what ministry is all about.”

Norman will lead three in-person services Sunday. The day will also include an Easter egg hunt for children. He says masks will be provided, but attendees will not be required to wear one.

St. Patrick Catholic Church in northeast Gainesville will also return to in-person gathering.

“I had 80- and 90-year-olds that as soon as they said we could open the church back up, they were here the first day,” said the Rev. Lawrence Peck, who’s been at the church for four years. “They made the decision to come, and it was their decision, because they would rather come and face the risk than stay at home and be sad and lonely.”

Similar to the Archer Church of the Nazarene, the pandemic pushed St. Patrick to quickly modernize its means of connection and reach.

“We were using someone’s phone as a camera,” Peck recalled in the early stages of the pandemic. “And they kind of were like, ‘I can’t do this forever.’”

The church invested some money in equipment to make the streamed services more “passable,” and now stream regularly to its YouTube channel.

Peck believes congregation members have used the time during the pandemic to better appreciate the things they value, like family and freedoms. He said in-person services are socially distanced and masks are required, but overall, members and families are making their own decisions.

“We have seen more people coming to mass lately,” Peck said.

“I have more parishioners that are vaccinated that have been two weeks after their second shot that are coming to mass,” he said. “We have some that are still very immunocompromised, and we still visit them as much as we can or as much as they want, because some of them just don’t want that. And it’s fine. But we still want them to know they’re not alone, because that’s the most important thing is for people to realize we’re not alone. We were never alone.”

This is not the first plague the Catholic Church has gone through, Peck reminds, and he said there are countless opportunities to improve one’s faith during this time.

“So I look at this pandemic as just another opportunity to try to build virtue,” he said. “We need to see a neighbor in need and just reach out to them. Is that not what Jesus did?”

Gainesville is home to the only Unitarian Universalist congregation in Alachua County.

“Unitarian Universalism is a faith tradition that draws from many sources and many faith traditions,” said the Rev. Christe Lunsford, who’s been there for two years. “So we have a little bit of everything happening. And it’s not that you can just believe anything. We have seven principles that we uphold and that we agree on. And then it’s your faith journey as your faith journey, and how we can support that best.”

Lunsford said at least 12 unique walks of faith are within their church’s membership of 160.

They said the congregation has not gathered since closing in March 2020, it likely won’t gather in person for services for some time – September at the very earliest.

“We will probably be one of the last congregations to come back, because we will follow the science,” Lunsford said.

They also reflected on the isolation that came with not being able to meet with fellow leaders.

“We all have this shared trauma of we had to lead into a pandemic, which they don’t teach you how to do that in any seminary,” Lunsford said. “So you’re in a pandemic. You are dancing in the moment, and you have to balance a congregation who is expecting you to lead, and your own personal anxiety for what’s happening in the world. And you don’t necessarily have your colleagues to meet with like you would normally have them.”

Though the fellowship is not exclusively Christian, Lunsford will draw from the biblical passage of Jesus’s resurrection for the streamed service on Sunday.

“But we’re taking that really to a humanist level,” they said. “What is it that we are called to remember? Who are we called to remember? And what does that really mean to remember a person? And so, I kind of work through that in the sermon about remembrance.”

The Jewish holiday Passover is also this week, which Rabbi David Kaiman of Congregation B’nai Israel considers to be a highlight of the entire year for his faith. His congregation was unable to gather in person for Passover in 2020 and will continue to only meet virtually this year.

Kaiman said it had been livestreaming for several years before the pandemic, and that it incorporated Zoom to foster dialogue during virtual gatherings.

Nonetheless, the synagogue started a phased reopening one month ago, he said.

“And so over the next few months, every, you know, every few weeks we open yet another activity for limited, in-person, safe activities,” Kaiman said. “We started with some limited small services and then we’re, like I said, every month phasing in more and more activities, other services, other events. It’ll be months as we all adjust to coming out of this pandemic.”

Kaiman said the congregation’s reaction to returning has been mixed. Some are anxious to get back together while others are excited. Recent in-person events have had less than a quarter of normal service attendance size, he said.

“In many ways, this has been, to us anyway, a great testament to how religious activities and community activities are so important in people’s lives,” Kaiman added.

About Audrey Mostek

Audrey Mostek is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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