The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted every aspect of human life when the nation shut down in mid-March.
That meant no large gatherings in churches – places where those of faith normally would seek solace in times of crisis.
When the shutdown was mandated March 16 by Gov. Henry McMaster, first Pete Berntson said he prayed, then scrambled “to focus on virtual connections through live-streaming, daily email newsletters, Zoom sessions, and lots of phone calls and cards.”
Berntson, pastor at Church of the Palms Methodist in Okatie, said his congregation reacted with “sadness and sense of loss, but also understanding. It was thought it would be a lot shorter duration than six-plus months.”
“The initial reaction was very positive. Many of my members are senior citizens and have health concerns,” said Rev. Dr. Jon R. Black, pastor of Campbell Chapel AME Church in Bluffton. “In general, we do not view science and faith as being in opposition. Our members are appreciative of church leaders who follow science during a pandemic.”
The next step was ensuring that worship could continue somehow. A few parishes were ready.
“For several years our worship gatherings have been live-streamed, so we were already in a position to be able to continue,” said Mark DeVaney, pastor at Cornerstone Church in Bluffton. “During the first few weeks, we hosted live services on Sunday, and then when we realized the shut-down would last longer than a few weeks, we started pre-recording our services and had live pastors and volunteers serving as hosts during the service. I guess you could say we didn’t miss a step other than meeting together in person.”
Others found the decision to begin streaming services was made because of the pandemic.
“When everything started shutting down, our session met and we just quickly closed down the church,” said Christine Herrin, pastor at Lowcountry Presbyterian Church in Bluffton. “What this whole pandemic did was kick us into realizing that we need to be doing live streaming in our sanctuary even after this is finished.”
Herrin said the leadership wasn’t quite prepared for such a move, and relied on associate pastor Rev. Stephanie Dion, a young minister, for help. Dion got a new iPhone, did some research and figured out the format. “Without her I don’t know what we would have done,” Herrin said.
Mike Sylvester, director of Youth Ministry and Formation at St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church, said their services and programs were moved online.
“Though the buildings closed in March, the church itself did not cease,” Sylvester said. “We moved many programs to what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI called, the ‘digital continent,’” meaning the internet.
Churches are not only a source of spiritual support but community outreach – a face-to-face assistance for earthly needs. Many of those programs had to be canceled or changed.
“Outreach had to become innovative – a combination of internet interactions and guarded personal visits to the Latino Community,” said Pastor Juan Rivera, Hispanic and Latino Missioner of Church of the Cross in Bluffton. “For many in this community, the church’s assistance was the only thing they could count on.”
Campbell’s congregation found themselves with their hands full.
“Our outreach ministries have greatly expanded since the COVID-19 pandemic. We were one of the initial partners of the Faith 4 Hope restaurant stimulus program,” said Black, who has several 501(c)(3) programs on the church campus. “The Bluffton Community Soup Kitchen numbers have soared. We also brought the Farmers to Family Program to Campbell Chapel.”
Black said more than 1,430 USDA food boxes are distributed weekly through the farmers program.
“A Call to Action has been distributing Covid-19 Essential Boxes filled with hand sanitizers, paper towels, Clorox wipes and items that are necessary to keep families safe,” Black said. “We have become the church without walls.”
Cornerstone had to halt hosting Family Promise (which now places those families in a local hotel) and Lowcountry Youth Wind Symphony, and has asked Boy Scouts and Alcoholics Anonymous not meet inside the building until further notice.
“We knew we couldn’t do hands-on volunteering,” Herrin said, “but we knew that we could encourage members to give more money directly to places like Bluffton Self Help, Agape in Hardeeville – places that respond to people who lost jobs, who were hungry.”
A few churches have slowly returned to a very restrictive form of in-person worship supported with church maintenance teams stringently applying all of the CDC protocols.
“Our maintenance and facilities team has worked tirelessly adding signage, directional arrows for flow, extra hand sanitizing stations and more in an effort to stay vigilant. We have closed every other pew and are limiting the number of parishioners in each row to ensure social distancing,” said Sylvester. “Since the resumption of the celebration of public masses at the end of May, we have seen our families slowly return. About half of our current weekend masses now have overflow seating in our Parish Life Center where the mass is livestreamed.”
At Cornerstone, the return to live worship began June 28.
“We tried to be slow in our return and have worked to keep people connected,” said DeVaney. “We continue our live-stream on Sunday with someone serving as an online host, and we want everyone to know that whether they are in person or online, we are grateful they are connecting with us.”
Streaming church services, regular phone calls, emails and Zoom sessions kept parishes together – mostly. For many there is something missing in distance worship.
“Our members miss the physical fellowship,” said Black. “Our worship tradition is full of physical expressions of living in community such as hugs, kisses on the cheek and robust handshakes. While virtual worship is helpful, it lacks the physicality we are accustomed to.”
The other faith leaders agreed.
“I think the most difficult part for me and many of the people I know is missing the personal connections with people. I missed seeing the expressions on people’s faces,” said DeVaney. “I missed the handshakes and pats on the back. I missed being able to hug someone who is going through a hard time. I missed hearing the church sing and worship and applaud how great our God is.”
There were some positives discerned through the pandemic. On the practical side, Herrin said the situation brought a loss of connection and community, but kicked her church into the 21st century, reaching out to her parish with more than live-streamed church services.
For Rivera, there was one sure observation.
“That there’s still plenty of love to go around and that people are not as ‘lonely’ as they think,” he said.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.