By Jessica Brodie
The coronavirus pandemic is upending life as we know it, as the death toll rises and state and local officials respond with curfews, government shutdowns, school and restaurant closures, and emergency aid. In South Carolina, police are dispersing groups of people for the good of public health, and as of press time, United Methodist churches have been asked to suspend worship services and other gatherings until the end of April, possibly longer.
But ask any faith leader if that’s stopping church, and the answer is a resounding “no.”
Across the state, churches are getting creative in how they gather. While in-person gatherings are nixed for now, phone trees, Facebook live worship services, video conference devotionals and even church radio stations are helping God’s people stay connected.
“The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted our routines, and now we are all learning together about new ways to share in ministry and live in community for the sake of Christ,” Bishop L. Jonathan Holston told South Carolina United Methodists in a pastoral word released by video March 21. “It is important for us to stay focused on who we are and whose we are as followers of Jesus Christ. As United Methodists, we know that we are connected to our brothers and sisters through the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ regardless of our physical proximity.”
The Rev. Tyler Strange, pastor of the Hampton-Varnville Charge in the Walterboro District, said church isn’t confined by walls but is the people.
“While our buildings will remain closed, the church is not canceled, and we will have several opportunities to live out our calling as the church Jesus promised to build,” Strange reassured his congregation in a pastoral letter detailing the alternative ways they continue to gather as a church during the COVID-19 crisis.
The Rev. Elizabeth Sullivan, pastor of Point Hope UMC, Mount Pleasant, said these alternative ways of doing church can make a big difference.
“Our people need God right now,” Sullivan said. “They need their faith. We can have a positive impact on our faith communities right now if we can leverage technology in our favor and stay connected in nontraditional ways.”
Here is a compilation from churches across the state about what they are doing to overcome social distancing while remaining the church in action:
The Rev. Minnie Anderson, pastor of Franklin UMC, Denmark, said the majority of her members are older than 60 and some do not have the internet, so they are getting creative in how they stay in touch. They are checking on members who are 80 and older with a weekly phone call and a weekly mailed greeting card, and she is also sending a daily inspirational word via text.
Washington Street UMC, Columbia, is livestreaming its 11 a.m. service and its weekly Wednesday Lenten Service via their website (www.wsmethodist.org) and YouTube. While its soup cellar is closed for the food-insecure who wish to dine-in, they are offering sandwiches, snacks, drinks and other prepackaged items as take-out options each weekday from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. All meals are free to anyone in need.
The Rev. Jamie McDowell said Hopewell UMC, Westminster, installed a half-watt FM transmitter and placed an AM/FM receiver in the fellowship hall about eight years ago so they could have services heard in the fellowship hall. It was also eventually used to broadcast music around the church property during car shows that have now become an annual event.
Now, they are using this same equipment to help broadcast worship despite COVID-19. They are hosting a “drive-in service” at the church. People drive up, stay in their cars and tune their radios to the church’s FM frequency.
“Hymns were sung from the cars and trucks. The Apostles’ Creed was recited and a sermon was given. The message was ‘The World Is Changing,’ based on John 9. The service came to a close with a multitude of horns blaring,” McDowell said.
The Rev. Matt Turner of Ann Hope UMC, Seneca, said they are serving their surrounding community, the Utica mill village, by offering a to-go version of the regular Wednesday night community meal at the church.
“We served over 168 meals March 18, while practicing safe distancing utilizing outdoor distribution,” Turner said. “While the building is closed, we are still the church serving the Kingdom of God as we are able.”
The Rev. Cynthia Muncie of Bethany UMC, James Island, currently has the sanctuary open Sunday through Thursday 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. for solitary prayer and reflection, and they have also put their sermon and music online.
In Summerville, the Rev. Bryan Pigford said Stallsville UMC launched a YouTube channel the week of March 16 so people can stream the worship service on Sundays, and they are also compiling a list of volunteers who are able to help run basic errands for those in self-quarantine.
Strange of Hampton-Varnville said his charge is offering an online worship service at 10:30 a.m. on Facebook Live through their Facebook page (@ForHamptonSC) every Sunday morning while in-person gatherings are suspended, as well as an interactive prayer and devotion on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7 a.m. and a Bible study Wednesdays at 7 p.m. Members are also staying in touch via a community tree (similar to phone tree) and also through U.S. mail, and they are currently exploring other alternatives for those who do not have the internet.
Sullivan, of Point Hope UMC, Mount Pleasant, said her church has used email and SMS text to drum up awareness about their worship services on Facebook Live, plus livestreamed their service into a nearby assisted care facility on lockdown. She is using Facetime to connect with staff during the week for worship planning and are communicating daily with the congregation via email. Small groups are meeting through video conference, and the children’s ministry director is sharing downloadable Bible crafts and videos with parents. The church’s Congregational Care team is sending handwritten notes and making phone calls to the elderly, and younger members have offered to go grocery shopping or pick up medicine for older members.
Sullivan said going the extra step to be intentional about engagement has been extremely effective for them. She said their director of communications, Megan Stevens, engages with everyone as they log onto Facebook Live.
“It made them feel special and like someone knew they were there,” Sullivan said. “It made them feel seen and known. I think this is so important during this time.”
Dr. Anthony Hodge, pastor of Cumberland UMC, Florence, said his church is being intentional about having each member make five to 10 phone calls to fellow members each day to pray for and encourage each other.
“Church family, we are encountering unchartered territory,” Hodge wrote in a letter to his church. “In all of my years as a pastoral leader, I have never encountered anything close to what I am encountering with any group of parishioners. Yet, I am still confident that we will be able to get through this current crisis as a people of faith if we do our part in adhering to the directives given by our state, national and church leaders.”
The Rev. Lou Perez of Ebenezer UMC, Hemingway, is using social media and other modes of communication to keep everyone connected. Sermons are posted on Facebook, and he is personally going to the church every Sunday to meet with anyone who needs time with the pastor or wants to pray in God’s house. Perez noted “special sanitary considerations” are in place for everyone’s protection.
Dr. Fred W. Andrea III, pastor of Clinton UMC, Salley, said his church is staying in touch by phone and through postings on Facebook, and they are collaborating with the Wagener Senior Center to distribute bags of necessities and treats to those at most risk in their community.
The Rev. Wendy Hudson-Jacoby, pastor of Two Rivers Church, a United Methodist community in Charleston, said their congregation has shifted most everything to a digital platform. All worship is online using YouTube, Facebook and other platforms. All their small groups are meeting via Zoom, there are individual check-ins with every member once a week, and their solidarity work is being done nearly all online. For hyperlocal solidarity work, such as ensuring children are being fed, they are gathering food donations and dropping off the food on people’s porches.
“We realized a radical change was going to be necessary,” Hudson-Jacoby said.
The Rev. Susan Pennock of St. Paul UMC, New Ellenton, said her church is livestreaming their worship service and Wednesday prayer meeting, emailing their weekly bulletin, holding weekly conference calls with a local nonprofit to keep up with community needs and how their church can help, and keeping their community “blessing box” stocked with food. They have also added online giving to their website and are making phone calls to every member in the church.
The Rev. Amiri Hooker of Wesley Chapel UMC, Lake City, said his church has ramped up online services that are usually just an extension of Wesley’s worship on Sunday.
“What was once only 20 percent of our ministry has become 100 percent of our ministry,” Hooker said.
The church is also partnering even more with first responders and city and county officials to make sure advocacy for the poor is not overlooked doing this time of crisis.
The Rev. Narcie Jeter said her church, Bethany UMC, Summerville, is posting encouraging graphics, Bible verses, messages and devotions on Facebook and Instagram. They are also videoing their weekly worship service and encouraging people to fill up their blessing box for the food insecure. Their children’s department is posting interactive Sunday school lessons and is ready with several children’s sermons, and their youth department is also putting out devotions and doing Zoom (video conference) calls several times a week.
Carteret Street UMC, Beaufort, is staying in touch through phone and email, and they are also doing what they can to offer members needed supplies that are difficult to find during the pandemic, such as paper towels and toilet paper.
The Rev. Terry A. Roof said his church building is closed until at least Easter Sunday, April 12.
They do not have live-streaming capabilities, he said, but they are posting daily devotionals to the church website (bethelparkumc.org) and attempting to place a video of a devotional, as well.
The Rev. Josh McClendon of Pisgah UMC, Florence, said that in addition to the standard online and social media engagement other churches are doing right now, they are also offering a daily devotional on the Psalms for every day of the lockdown. The devotional is called “Cave Dwelling: Praying the Psalms in Pandemic” and is found on the church Facebook page (@PisgahFlorence).
The Rev. Victoria Richardson of Enoch Chapel UMC, North Charleston, is livestreaming worship on the church Facebook page, plus she is doing one-on-one visitation with members.
The Rev. Carol Cannon of St. Andrews UMC, Orangeburg, said in addition to livestreaming Sunday worship and Wednesday evening Bible study, they are including small musical ensemble in the choir loft to help the virtual congregation sing along. Worship is also taped and archived so people can watch it at a later time. They are posting a weekly children’s message each Wednesday on Facebook, and they are using phone calls and text chains to check on each other. So far their food box ministry has continued, though drivers now drop off the meals at the door rather than directly to the recipient, but they might have to suspend the food box ministry as grocery items are more scarce.
Bethel UMC, Charleston, said they continue to offer canned goods and hygiene kits through their food pantry, though items are now distributed in an open-air setting one at a time. They are mailing letters and bulletins to people, plus they sent an up-to-date Bethel phone directory to members who do not have digital access. (The directory includes names, phone numbers, addresses, birthdays, photos and a letter from the pastor.)
Children’s sermons are digitally distributed weekly for home viewing, and links to curriculum videos are being emailed to church families designed to be coupled with home activities for children that have been previously mailed, such as puzzles, coloring sheets, story sheets and cut outs.
They are also livestreaming their worship and offering frequent Facebook and Instagram updates.
The Rev. Jon Hoin said he and others in the Elloree, St. Matthews and Holly Hill area got together to do a short radio conversation on 96.5 FM WLRE (https://www.ejumc.org/news/ontheradio3/22/2020). Hoin said they are also doing the more standard posting, livestreaming and so on.
The Rev. John Jordan said Trinity UMC, West Columbia, developed an order of worship with prayers, the creeds and readings, plus the sermon manuscript, which were sent to each family prior to Sunday. People were then asked to stop at 11 a.m. Sunday and go through the service, reading aloud the prayers, creeds and readings with a point of meditation after each reading.
“In this way we were all doing the same thing at the same time, worshipping in spirit even though we were not in body,” Jordan said.
A video of the service was also shown on the church Facebook page.
The Rev. Tony Rowell of Beulah UMC, Gilbert, said his church is also using social media to reach people for God. They livestreamed their contemporary service on Facebook, plus shared an invitation to the community with their Facebook page on their church sign.
“Instead of the normal 240 on Sunday morning, we had about 500 views this past Sunday,” Rowell said, noting they are also sharing encouraging Facebook posts and emails. “The Lord is still at work.”
Beulah members also have been asked to take their church directories and call the person to the right and left of their photo at least once a week.
The Rev. Larry Scott King, pastor of Tabernacle UMC, Lancaster, is offering worship and other encouragement on Facebook and other social media, plus they are praying for other churches throughout the connection.
The Rev. Kitty Holtzclaw of St. John’s UMC, Anderson, said her church is getting some phenomenal help thanks to one of their fellow church members, who she recently learned is a retired Navy officer that now works as a consultant with companies across the United States on their crisis response plans. After heavy rains in the area but before the COVID-19 crisis, she asked him to help prepare the church disaster response team for service.
With his expertise, the church immediately began asking what-if questions that soon became all-too-real: what would we do if our church were shut down for 30 days? Sixty days? How would we still be the church and be able to help?
Because of God’s timing and this visioning, Holtzclaw said she believes her church is better equipped for times such as these than any other congregation she knows. One example is their children’s ministry, called Kid City—they are now doing “Kid City Church Drop,” where the children’s minister drops bags of church materials on parents’ doorsteps. Also, their preteens are doing Google meetings on Sundays and Wednesdays.
These are just some of the ways South Carolina United Methodist churches are getting creative during the coronavirus crisis. The Advocate welcomes more responses; email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 803-786-9486, ext. 338.
For more on what the UMCSC is doing the coronavirus crisis, including prayers from the bishop and COVID-19 resources, visit https://www.umcsc.org/coronavirus/.
By Jessica Brodie