Prayers are not cancelled - BlueStone Press
June 5, 2020

Prayers are not cancelled

The spirit of online worship

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Before COVID-19 disrupted the daily lives of people around the world, religious and spiritual practice had remained, for the most part, untouched by time. Meditation and prayer had been practiced the same way they had been practiced hundreds of years ago, and services in places of worship would still look familiar to anyone from the past century. Since the pandemic, however, institutions have been forced into the technological age in order to keep their members connected, and with the holiest week of the Christian calendar approaching, many churches have had to innovate new ways of celebrating.

“It’s affected everything,” said Aaron Schulte, a minister of the Community Church of High Falls. In order to stay connected, Schulte has turned to Facebook Live to hold services, has begun creating a podcast for his members, and holds weekly board meetings for the churches he works with via Zoom. “It’s a balancing act,” Schulte explained. “On the one hand, you can’t get away from it, on the other hand, people need a break.”

With an inordinate amount of choices out there, religious communities have had to not only learn how to use the many services available but also how to discern which one best suits their needs. In the past month, religious services have moved to platforms like Facebook Live and Zoom. Often, they are conducted by a skeleton crew of three or fewer people, with the time drastically cut down to half an hour or less.

Music, an integral part of most religious services, is now often impossible with the limitations of online worship and is dangerous during this time of social distancing. Without the presence of a choir, band or organ, services must make do without. Services, gatherings, meditations and prayers have also moved from the normal places of worship and into the personal spaces of spiritual leaders in the area.

For some groups, the transition has been easier. Christ the King Episcopal Church, for example, had a thriving social media presence well before the outbreak of COVID-19. “We were very lucky,” said Janet Vincent, a priest at Christ the King. “We have many members of the congregation who use technology in their work so we were well prepared when service needed to move online.” Christ the King now regularly hosts services on Zoom and posts videos of worship and prayer to their website, CTKstoneridge.org, and on their Facebook page.

It would come as no surprise, however, that many in the area are either technologically ignorant or downright opposed. “We have a bunch of people who don’t do the internet, which is a problem,” said Schulte. For these people, even something as ubiquitous as email is out of the question. In order to keep those who are in this category from falling between the cracks, many establishments have turned to older forms of technology.

The Community Church of High Falls, Marbletown Multi-Arts and the Marbletown Reformed Church are just a few of the institutions using postcards, mailers and telephone chains to make sure that older and less internet-savvy members are kept within the fold.

That being said, trials and tribulations are often catalysts for great change and can be opportunities for improvement, a sentiment espoused by all faiths and one that holds true for spiritual groups housed within Ulster County.

Many of these communities that might otherwise have avoided the use of technology have now discovered many of its uses while adding to their cognitive toolkits. Religious leaders around the area have had to quickly acquire skills they would never imagine needing in order to perform their duties online. From organiz­ing conferences and services to innovating new ways to worship, these people have learned much in a short amount of time.

The silver lining to this situation does not end with the acquisition of skills. Many religious groups have discovered their numbers expanding to unexpected corners of the world. From Europe to Africa, people are joining in on the online sessions being offered right here in the area. A sermon recorded by Schulte, for example, received over 900 views, with people tuning into his service all the way from Africa.

These benefits have not remained within the religious communities but occur in spiritual gatherings as well. For years, people from different faiths and backgrounds have gathered at the Marbletown Multi-Arts (MaMA) for their weekly discussions. “We had someone joining us from Lisbon, Portugal, and another from Las Vegas,” said Evry Mann, one of the leaders of the group’s meetings. In these gatherings people from any faith, agnostics and atheists as well, are welcomed.

Not only local, like-minded members have joined in worship. People who have moved from the area are now able to take these online services as a welcome opportunity to reconnect. Now, online services swell with not only new but also old members as they join in via venues like Zoom and Facebook. Seeing this trend, many leaders have said that they will use the lessons learned during this period of isolation to keep in touch with both old and new members of their respective groups.

“Technology has opened up the world to the church,” explained Caroline Berninger, pastor at the Rondout Valley United Methodist Church. At her church, they were able to welcome back via online services some former members now living in Arkansas and Texas.

Of course, the spiritual benefits and mental benefits of this crisis have not been overlooked either. The world has been forced to collectively slow down and take stock. Many practitioners have taken this time to turn in earnest toward their faiths and teachings. Some have found the isolation a chance to move closer to their higher power, while others have used the time to deepen their commitment to spiritual practice.

“It has encouraged people to reach out more,” said the Rev. Karen VandeBunte of the Marbletown Reformed Church. “It has forced many of us to set aside the many distractions that take us away from God.”

People need more than just food and medicine to live a happy and fulfilled life, and each person must adhere to their mental and spiritual needs in addition to their physical demands. The men and women who are currently fighting on the front lines of this war in the overburdened health systems are heroes. Those who continue to make and deliver food, who serve as firefighters, and who teach our children online are also heroes. And those who have made themselves available to the community in this time of crisis in order to meet the mental and spiritual needs of its people must be included as well. Many of the leaders of these religious and spiritual groups said the same thing when asked what they would like to tell the community, and that is to express their thanks and to welcome any who need their service, regardless of their religious background or lack thereof.

“I want to say thank you,” said Schulte. “It has been amazing to watch what I believe to be the spirit of God moving through all of it.”

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