One year ago, Sunday, March 8 to be exact, the faithful throng gathered for corporate worship at Community Mennonite Church (CMC) in Harrisonburg. The sanctuary was packed for a celebrative Lenten service on the theme “Show Us.” No one expected at the time that it would end so abruptly.
The following Sunday, the church building was empty, like other congregations falling prey to a mysterious foreign body, COVID-19, sweeping across the country, affecting and upsetting everything and everybody, figuratively and literally.
But with little pause, many areas of “body life” at CMC quickly resumed, taking on new forms, chief among them the Sunday morning worship service moving on-line to YouTube. Every week, office administrator Ben Bailey works his digital magic, drawing from members’ gifts in crafting a spiritual feast for eyes and ears, incorporating art, music — hymns and instrumental and vocal groups — a mediation by pastoral team members, children’s time and greetings from members.
A Sunday evening contemplative worship service moved from an in-person gathering to online, continuing to the present. Church members lead adult Christian education classes — Bible and book studies — also online, at 11 a.m. every Sunday.
CMC’s roughly 25 small groups, scarcely missing a beat, meet regularly, many of them — like the “Harbor” small group to which Anna and I belong — holding regular Zoom videoconferences. Pastoral team members host “conversation circle” video gatherings for educators, health care persons, parents with children at home, seniors/retirees and other configurations.
Joyce Peachey Lind jumped into the “joyful fray” last September as a new associate pastor on the church’s leadership team, dubbing herself a “pandemic pastor” as the coronavirus rages on. Her primary focus is on pastoral care and children’s faith formation as well as providing support to the church’s many small groups along with other pastoral team members.
For Joyce, several “surprising things” have emerged, one being a weekly preschool story time using Zoom, where pastors and others from the congregation read and tell stories and interact with children and parents. She also started a practice of having “porch visits” with church members, meeting people outdoors in all sorts of weather.
Throughout the pandemic, associate pastor Jason Gerlach has worked to develop and give leadership to new initiatives, mostly utilizing Zoom videoconferencing — including a men’s Bible study, children’s Sunday school video lessons, Fellowship Time using Zoom Breakout Rooms, and Conversation Circles that provide connection for CMC’ers around vocation, hobbies/interest and age demographics.
Jason continues to meet weekly with the senior high youth group (twice in November in-person outdoors). He also works closely with the outreach and youth chairs to imagine new possibilities and relates to CMC small groups in intentional ways.
The ecumenical Patchwork Pantry food ministry based at CMC adjusted its protocols last March in order to continue its weekly operations. According to program director Jennifer Ulrich, “We’ve asked our neighbors who need food to stay in their vehicles as we gather information and then deliver their food to them. Volunteers pack food earlier in the day, wearing masks and practicing social distancing, as client numbers continue to rise.”
CMC’s lead pastor, Jennifer Davis Sensenig, summarizes the situation well: “One year later, on the one-year anniversary of gathering virtually, we’re still church — and finding ‘signs of life!’”
Not coincidentally, “signs of life” happens to be this year’s Lenten worship theme, with Isaiah 42:5-9 serving as a theme scripture with verse 6 as the church’s theme verse for 2021: “I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations” (RSV)
“Our staff and congregational leaders are making more decisions in new territory and sometimes need more support,” Jennifer said. “CMC members are having radically different experiences amid the pandemic — some have gained solitude and a welcome slower pace, while others are juggling multiple demanding responsibilities at home and work.”
A year has passed, the congregation has yet to return to what many would call a “normal” state. In fact, on March 1, church council chair Jeremy Nafziger sent word to the congregation that Sunday morning services remain suspended, officially through Easter — with an inference that it may be even longer before the total group can reconvene.
Jeremy states that most likely services won’t be held in the sanctuary until video streaming capabilities — which are currently being installed — are in place. That way, he notes, “No one needs to feel left out if they’re not comfortable attending in person.
“Church council and pastoral team members, along with our wise and thoughtful COVID Advisory Team, are working at plans for some outdoor gatherings where we can all be together,” Jeremy said, adding: “There are some ‘signs of life’ this Lenten season – that the possibility of pandemic illness will continue to recede, and we will know once again that we’re all connected, that God’s church is of a time and place yet timeless and everywhere, and that we miss each other when we’re away.”
Jim Bishop lives in Harrisonburg. He welcomes your comments at email@example.com