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'The church is in your heart:’ Faith communities endure as the pandemic roars on

'The church is in your heart:’ Faith communities endure as the pandemic roars on

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The year of reset.

That was the theme Elon First Baptist Church came up with back in January for 2020. Call it spiritual intuition, a prophecy, or a mere coincidence.

But in the following months the senior pastor, the Rev. James Wilkes Jr., watched his church’s theme become a reality for not only their congregation, but churches everywhere as the nation grappled with a global pandemic and its effect on the longstanding tradition of weekly worship services.

“The fourth Sunday, March 22, we officially shut down, but I remember the week before, church was skimpy,” Wilkes said. “It was like, ‘Hold up, where are all the people at?’ ”

Julie Peeples, senior pastor of Congressional United Church of Christ in Greensboro, says she anticipated a quick return.

“March 8 was the last time I preached in the sanctuary,” Peeples said. “And I kept thinking, ‘OK, two weeks and we’ll be back.’ And then I heard some churches say they were shut down through Easter, and I thought ‘You’ve got to be kidding, we can’t not have Easter.’ And here we are four months later.”

Though some congregations resumed socially distanced, in-person gatherings this summer, many have kept their doors closed on Sundays, opting for weekly online worship. Various platforms like WebEx, Zoom, and Facebook Live have been used to conduct worship services, Bible studies, and the other regular church programming.

Ninety-one percent of churchgoers say their place of worship has been closed during the pandemic and 82% say services have been moved to an online setting, according to a recent Pew Research Study.

When deciding how to proceed with worship online, Peeples said it was most important to find a way to keep the tradition of a live Sunday service, even in a remote form.

“We immediately started doing services on Facebook Live,” Peeples said. “Doing it live on Sunday morning gives us the sense that we are all still worshiping at the same moment. People are commenting live, and we felt we needed to make something like that happen, because that is so much of what we had in the sanctuary.”

Elon First Baptist has also been holding live online worship services hosted on the church’s website every Sunday. They have also had drive-in worship services and encouraged members of the congregation to call into live service.

“Most of our members are very grateful for what we are doing, but they miss church,” Wilkes said. “They are ready to get back here, and I am ready to have them back here when it’s safe.”

It is still unclear exactly when that will be. North Carolina saw its highest one-day increase in new cases, 2,481, a week ago. Daily hospitalizations topped 1,000 for the first time on July 5 and have stayed above that threshold since, reaching a one-day high of 1,228 on Wednesday, according to adjusted figures from N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

With no imminent return to in-person worship, church congregations have been emphasizing engagement with their members. Wilkes has hosted virtual chat-and-chew sessions with some of his church members, along with a weekly Bible study held on Wednesday nights.

Congressional United Church of Christ has some type of Zoom meeting or programming five days a week. This includes a weekly book group discussion around anti-racism work and a prayer hour on Wednesdays.

In a time where many people have been forced to isolate and limit physical interaction, these churches want to ensure none of their members feel alone.

“Especially the older ones who aren’t online,” Peeples said. “That is the thing that breaks my heart, is that we have some older ones who don’t have access and aren’t comfortable with technology, so we have increased direct calls to them and have had people go out and drop food and flowers to them.”

The adjustment to virtual worship is ongoing for pastors and church members alike.

Marilyn Slade, 55, an Elon native, and lifelong member of Elon First Baptist Church, says she misses the sense of community weekly worship services bring.

“I miss the fellowship, the laughs, and just getting to see people you don’t normally see throughout the week,” Slade said.

Both Wilkes and Peeples said the remote setting for worship is just as awkward for them as it is for their members, because there is only so much you can do to replicate in-person preaching in a virtual format.

“With worship, like all preachers, you are used to getting some kind of feedback,” Peeples said. “When you are preaching with a congregation you are drawing energy from them. So as much as we try to navigate and create this as a worship space, that has been a huge adjustment.”

Wilkes says virtual worship has helped him understand the love he has for preaching.

“In our culture there is a call and response, so when you don’t have the people here to respond, but you still love to do it, it showed me that I was really passionate about what I do,” Wilkes said.

Wilkes has found 2020 to be an especially difficult year. In the midst of this pandemic, he has not only lost friends and church members, but he recently suffered the unexpected loss of his father.

In reflecting and trying to make sense of it all, Wilkes says he believes everything that is happening is a real test of faith.

“Sometimes life has a way of clouding what you saw at one time to make you have an illusion of something else,” Wilkes said. “Though life and the pandemic has come, do you still see with the same clarity that you saw in January? And if you can’t see what you saw in January, then you need to remove the distractions out of the way so that you can see it.”

Twenty-four percent of Americans said their faith has grown over the course of the pandemic, while 47% said their faith has remained unchanged, according to the Pew Research study. Only 2% said their faith has weakened.

Although she isn’t the biggest fan of virtual worship, and is excited to return to the sanctuary when it is safe to do so, Slade says the pandemic hasn’t swayed her faith.

“I still have faith that things will get better and at the end of the day, the church is in your heart,” Slade said. “You don’t need a building to worship.”

The NC News Intern Corps is a program of the NC Local News Workshop, funded by the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund and housed at Elon University’s School of Communications.

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