Pandemic Times in a Small Church: Using Our Gifts to Celebrate Our Gifts

Eleven years ago, I left the parish where I had been a staff member for children’s ministries for 26 years, and joined a small, diverse, welcoming congregation in a nearby town, where I soon settled into a mix of rewarding volunteer roles including directing the annual Christmas pageant, co-directing a Vacation Bible School; leading an ongoing adult Bible study; managing the parish web site and publicity graphics; and preaching a few times a year.

In the fall of 2020, despite the pandemic, this parish was faithfully carrying out its key outreach ministry, “Dinner for a Dollar.” This weekly community supper had switched from a sit-down meal to takeout, was serving more guests than ever, and was a crucial source of social interaction and a sense of purpose for many in the congregation. As well, several core groups of members were gathering regularly online for worship, Bible study, and fellowship. A few children were taking part in Sunday school online. But many folks seemed to have disappeared. We knew that some were keeping up—reading the e-News, viewing the liturgy on Facebook at their convenience—but the lack of direct interaction, and of the sacraments, had begun to take its toll.

We decided to have a Christmas pageant…

Clearly we could not put on our traditional, intergenerational, dramatized service of lessons and carols taking up the whole liturgy on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, which I had directed every year since joining the parish. Instead, we would bring as many people as possible into a simple nativity play on video. Two timely articles in Building Faith—“Christmas Pageants 2020: Recorded, Zoomed, Live Outside,” and “Zoom Drama Tips: Using Technology for Biblical Storytelling,” gave us the courage and some of the tools.

After posting a series of announcements in the e-News, I sent personalized emails and/or text messages to almost every parish household.

  • To families with children, and adults who had been “pageant people” in previous years, these messages were customized to invite them to sign up, as household groups, to rehearse (masked) and film (briefly unmasked) one scene, in the church, with costumes and props, at an assigned time on a Saturday early in December.
  • To other parish members, the message invited them to take video of themselves reading a short passage from Isaiah, to be edited into a collage of readers making up the opening scene of the pageant.  
  • Families who were quarantined or otherwise unable to take part on the assigned day, could have angel costumes dropped off at their homes, and take a video of their children proclaiming the angels’ message, “Glory to God in the highest,” to be edited into the shepherds’ scene.

These personal messages (sometimes followed up with phone calls) drew an impressive response. Many people said they were touched to have been contacted individually. Those who recorded scenes in person in the church told the camera team how powerful it felt to be back in the sanctuary with fellow parishioners, even briefly and under these unfamiliar conditions. The sense of teamwork and mutual support was powerful. My daughter, Marion, put in many hours editing the final result, which you can view on Vimeo.

A Similar Approach for the Easter Vigil

Encouraged by the response to the pageant, our priest-in-charge invited my thoughts about “an Easter Vigil event like our Christmas Pageant?” We quickly realized that unlike the pageant, this should take place online in real time, and involve the participants, scattered in their various homes, as directly as possible in the unfolding drama of the liturgy. Another Building Faith article—“A Framework for Intergenerational Worship or Family Worship Online” gave us some ideas for fostering a heightened sense of communal prayer and praise online.

Again, we recruited participants—in this case, readers—via individualized email messages. The readings would be prerecorded to be presented via screen sharing, as would hymns for singing along at home. Everything else would happen live. Along with the Zoom link came instructions to have on hand a few simple items: a candle, a pitcher of water, a bell or noisemaker, and some festive food and drink: “Participants will gather online to light candles in our darkened homes; wait and tell stories and renew our baptismal vows, then proclaim Christ’s victory, turn on the lights and make noise, and bring out some festive foods and decorative items, each in our own homes.”

The Zoom liturgy drew a fairly small attendance, which has also been true of the Easter Vigil when celebrated in person over the years. But those who attended found it powerful and moving, and the recording of it, posted on the church’s Facebook page, has received a large number of views.

Much of the Easter Vigil consists of readings. Presenting them as edited videos provided a way to supplement the unrelentingly verbal online experience with visual or musical enrichment to help create a kind of virtual “sacred space.”  Some of the readers supplied their own visual images and even sound effects.  For the others, and also for several of the hymns, I edited the recordings to add images, mostly drawn from works of art. 

For one of the hymns—“If You Believe and I Believe” (Wonder, Love and Praise, #806), that followed the Dry Bones reading—I was having trouble coming up with effective images from art. Browsing through my photo files, I idly opened some folders of photos of parish life and worship. In a moment of epiphany I realized that a slideshow of our own people doing what the church does—a baptism, Dinner for a Dollar, standing witness at a Black Lives Matter rally—was the best possible visualization of the words of this hymn:

If you believe and I believe
and we together pray
The Holy Spirit must come down
and set God’s people free[1]

… and Pentecost

And so, in the hopeful weeks of spring—as more and more of us were vaccinated, as we began worshiping outdoors in person and, at last, celebrating Eucharist together—the stage was set for the next project: a video compilation for Pentecost, to lift up and celebrate the work of the Spirit in our small but mighty parish over this strange, hard pandemic year.

The Sunday school children, meeting outdoors and masked, created a lively mural of the Spirit’s descent. And once again we issued a general invitation, followed up by personalized emails: “Anyone who can read a line from Acts 2:1-4 in another language, please record yourself; anyone with something to share about the power of the Spirit, please do so.”

Video clips in various languages turned up in my inbox. So did two moving testimonials on video from a family that had experienced both death and birth in the last year. The priest-in-charge sent me footage, from before the pandemic, of himself and other parish members jamming on guitars and keyboard to rap lyrics about the Spirit by one of our young men. I dug through the church’s Facebook photos and my photo files as editor of the parish web site.

I spent a week of intense work editing this material into a nine-minute tribute[2] to the diversity, grace, and love of this congregation, its openness to the Spirit’s movement, and the vibrancy of its response.

For me, this work was cathartic and deeply fulfilling. As a teacher, artist, writer, liturgist and preacher, I am called to make things—pictures that reveal the face of God—and offer them to others—in this case, the caring, practical, conscientious and energetic folks who make up this congregation. They, who draw their spiritual strength mainly from community and service, have received these offerings as the gifts I have hoped they would be, and have found their spirits fed in the same way that the loving work they do in the world feeds the world.

Gretchen Pritchard is author, illustrator and publisher of The Sunday Paper lectionary series for children, Beulah Land felt story kits, and other resources for parish faith formation. She served for 26 years as staff member for children’s ministries at the Episcopal Church of St. Paul & St. James in New Haven, Connecticut. Since 2009 she has been a member of Grace & St. Peter’s in Hamden, Connecticut, and would like to give special recognition to Allison Batson, the Rev. Robert Bergner, and the many others who make that parish so special.

[1] This hymn is at 1:08:03 in the video of the Zoom Easter Vigil.

[2] A “program” explaining the contents of the Pentecost video can be downloaded here.

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