A stained glass window from St. Stephens Catholic Church in Sanford.

By Charles Petty

The 20th verse of the Book of Matthew says “for where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

Now, only two or three are all that are allowed to gather in the sacred spaces of the nation’s churches as COVID-19 continues to wreak a storm of biblical proportions.

Communities of faith are currently balancing how to be there for their members while remaining physically apart. With empty pews, new challenges arise on how to meet the spiritual and physical needs of not only individual members but the wider community.

Like in other places across the country and globe, Lee County residents are continuing to learn how to worship from a safe distance. Margaret Murchison, the news director at WWGP Radio, sees it as a spiritual balancing act.

“While I miss seeing my fellow church members each Sunday, especially members of my Sunday school class, and I really miss the youths in the Youth Academy, the church is in me,” she said. “Going to church every Sunday doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car. However, my whole life has been centered around going to church every Sunday, and that’s what I’ve always done.”

Now, “going to church” means listening to her pastor at First Calvary on the radio or via live stream.

“I really miss worship at First Calvary, however, my faith has not been shaken. I don’t believe God brought us this far to leave us, and I know that the sun will shine again,” she said.

Murchison’s pastor, Dr. Thomas Smith, said he understands physical distancing will in the long run help save lives and prevent First Calvary from becoming a hot spot for the virus. Smith laments, though, that learning the ropes of modern technology for his congregation is taking him and the church membership into new territory. The church is also looking into the possibility of outdoor services beginning in June.

“Before COVID-19 we didn’t have live streaming at our church,” he said. “We’re still adapting to the new technology so we can continue to get the message out to our church community. But we see the need for investing in live streaming since we don’t want a possibility of spreading and contracting the virus, so for the moment our members are fairly content with being at home out of safety concerns.”

First Calvary Church in Sanford has live-streamed their services online during the pandemic, and has begun offering outdoor services as restrictions on crowd size begin the ease up in North Carolina. Image: Facebook Live

Certain Christian denominations such as Catholics, Lutherans and Episcopalians have the mass or the Eucharist every Sunday – the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Since COVID-19, that solemn and sacred ceremony across the denominational divide has been put on hold. Missing the faithful gathered for this sacred meal is lament that Deacon Robert Bridwell of St. Stephen’s Catholic Church in Sanford.

“We are doing a virtual mass on Facebook and YouTube, so we are just not able to provide the Eucharist in person for the time being,” Bridwell said.

For Deacon Bridwell learning to preach and carry out his sacred duties to an empty church is still taking getting used to. This year. St Stephens has not been able to carry out baptisms, confirmations or first communions.

In spite of all that, St. Stephens and other churches are continuing to contribute to the cause of feeding the hungry, helping the poor, and providing personal protective gear, even going so far as to distribute homemade face masks. St Stephens continues to help with providing food and necessities through the Christians United Outreach Center and Meals on Wheels. St. Stephens has also donated to the Boys and Girls Club through their Knights of Columbus chapter.

Several churches in the area provide much more than Sunday school, worship services, and youth activities – they also provide childcare and nursery services. Among the churches still providing these essentials is First Presbyterian. The church’s child development center remains open and for those children of parents still classified as essential workers.

First Presbyterian Pastor Brad Simpson understands this is a difficult time for the teachers at the center.

“These teachers are heroes,” he said. “There is a trust we continue to have with the community to help in any way we can, especially in this time of dire need. The church embracing the community with love and compassion is the best approach during these uncertain times.”

For Jenny Lee, First Presbyterian’s education pastor and director of youth, this time of crisis a time to come together and reaffirm the basic tenets of the faith.

“In the Jewish faith there is a concept known as Pikuach nefesh – which means saving a life,” she said. “It’s a concept that no doubt Jesus himself would had guided by. It derives from Levitical law – the idea is that protecting and saving a life – nefesh means soul – is among the highest religious obligation, right next to loving God and loving neighbor. Protecting and saving a life is a top priority for a person of faith.”

Jenny Lee, First Presbyterian’s education pastor and director of youth, has delivered regular devotionals during the pandemic, and her church has streamed all services online. “If we expect our lives to be easy, then we haven’t thoroughly read our Bibles,” she said. “The church is at its worst when things are simple and easy; it stands at its best in times of need.” Image: Facebook Live

In this context, Lee and Simpson hope that the online services through Facebook have helped to keep their congregation members safe. Both Simpson and Lee miss seeing familiar faces and giving hugs and warm greetings every Sunday, but both say they know it’s for the best. The Facebook services so far for their church have been successful, and the feedback for the online format has been overall positive.

“The church has not ceased during this pandemic,” Simpson said. “It simply has moved to a different format.”

In addition to Sunday worship being moved online, new services have been added to meet the needs of the times. Lee’s husband, who is a psychologist, has been hosting weekly sessions on the church’s Facebook live stream with information on how to maintaining mental stability through the pandemic.

Food drives and outreach ministries are still going strong at First Presbyterian as they continue to partner with CUOC, the Salvation Army, and other local faith-based charities to find out what pressing needs of the community at-large has. Like at St. Stephens, a group of members have been making homemade face masks to be distributed to locations and people in need.

Lee sees the time of uncertainty as an opportunity to tune back into one’s faith.

“If we expect our lives to be easy, then we haven’t thoroughly read our Bibles,” she said. “The church is at its worst when things are simple and easy, it stands at its bests in times of need. We shouldn’t be interested in merely going back to normal, we should be interested in resurrection.”

Letting science and data determine when the faithful can safely return to the physical church while allowing faith to guide how to act in the here and now is a balancing act churches across the board are coming to terms with, each in their own unique ways.

“The command to care for one another as Jesus Christ instructed us to do is among the greatest obligations to carry out,” said Bridwell, the deacon at St. Stephens. “I may be for the time be preaching to an empty building but not an empty church. Spiritually we are still bound together. This virus has highlighted how strong that bond is and will continue to be.”

Charles Petty is a freelance writer from Sanford. He can be reached at pettycharles98@yahoo.com.