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Churches adjust to coronavirus / March 23, 2020
Empty pews and videocameras set up where worshippers normally gather. Sunday services conducted in parking lots. Pastors and their flocks coming together on YouTube.

Welcome to church in the age of the coronavirus, where maintaining a sense of normalcy and spiritual faith is an ongoing challenge — one that calls for people standing apart rather than together, at least in the physical sense.

With ever-more urgent warnings to avoid large gatherings, churches throughout Halifax County are shifting from in-person services to stay-at-home viewings on platforms such as YouTube and Facebook Live.

“I believe there is more word of God going out today [on social media],” said Michael C. Byrd, senior pastor at Mt. Olive Baptist Church on North Main Street in South Boston. “We are changing the dynamics of church through social media.”

The coronavirus crisis has spurred new ways of bringing people together in faith aside from technology. At South Boston Church of God, the latest response to the health emergency is “Drive-in Church,” which has starts Sunday at 11 a.m. in the parking lot.

“Just drive up and tune into our service from the safety and friendly confines of your own car. We would love for you to join us,” said Dave Webb, pastor.

Prior to cancelling Sunday services, many churches implemented specific steps to protect congregants — no longer passing around collection plates, offering wipes and hand sanitizer at the door, and encouraging social distancing. In recent days, the number of churches that have cancelled in-person services outright has grown, although some congregations continue to gather in close quarters for worship.

Mainline denominations were among the first to call off Sunday services. At St. John’s Episcopal Church in Halifax this Sunday, Rev. Timothy Jones shared a prayer, read the gospel of the day and reflected on the gospel in a YouTube video lasting 26 minutes.

“It doesn’t take much looking around to feel stress, even to feel a bit distressed,” said Jones as he began his sermon, referring to the widespread closures of businesses and schools. “It doesn’t help that we’re dealing with this pandemic at the very time we’re being asked to put distance between ourselves and others.”

Byrd, referring to the challenge of moving church services to technology platforms, noted that Mt. Olive Baptist Church has many seniors in the congregation, and for those not already on social media, the church is offering its help to get them on-board.

Finding churches on social media can be a spotty proposition, since many churches do not have official Facebook pages or up-to-date websites, while some are deterred by the unfamiliarity of modern technology. Social media also can yield information of wildly varying quality — one common way to find church services on-line, by going on Facebook and YouTube and typing “church near me” in the search bar, produces countless links, many having nothing to do with Halifax County and surrounding areas.

Newspaper listings of upcoming services and radio broadcasts of Sunday sermons continue to be mainstays of local church life, but the current crisis is prompting innovations across a range of denominations and areas.

“Since you can’t come get the word, I will do my best to bring the word to you,” said Dwight L. Wilkerson of Dan River Bethel Baptist Church, whose sermons are also broadcast on local radio.

Ben Elliott, pastor of New Vernon Baptist Church, announced the cancellation of church services until further notice, including Sunday school, Sunday morning worship, Bible study and all other special services. “We are taking measures for the safety and health of all our members. We are looking forward to when we can start to worship together again,” wrote Elliott on social media. “Until then please keep looking at our Facebook page and listening to our broadcasts on 1560 WSBV on Fridays to continue to receive announcements and the word of God … Be blessed and safe, family and friends.”

Alfred L. Chandler, pastor of St. Matthew Baptist Church in Clover, informed his worshippers that Sunday services have been cancelled at least until the first of April due to the pandemic “that is sweeping through the nation.” Chandler added, “We have been led by God to pay attention to the advice given by our government officials.”

“Trust in him at all time, oh people; pour out your heart before him, God is a refuge for us,” Psalm 62:8. “Be blessed!” Chandler wrote.

The message was similar at Ash Avenue Baptist Church in South Boston, where Rev. Tim Mull told congregants that “until we can reconvene, let us seek ways in which we can be the hands and feet of Jesus; Jesus who brought comfort to the distraught, peace to the anxious, hope to the fearful, love to the forgotten, healing to the lame, food to the hungry. It is now the church may once again rise up and be the beacon of light it is called to be in a world of uncertainty and darkness.

“May God bless you and keep you now and in the days ahead….. In Christ’s Love, Tim Mull,” he wrote.

“Folks, what we have been doing this week is hard. Jesus reminds us of the care God has for the sparrow and the hairs on our heads, and God is present with us in these moments. Be at peace within yourself. Share that peace with those around you, whether they are close or 6 feet away,” wrote the Rev. Susan Grimm in an email to members of Trinity Episcopal Church in South Boston and St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Clarksville. The email to parishioners included the morning prayer and sermon, along with links to another mainstay of Sunday morning life for the faithful — online links to gospel music for these trying times.

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