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Pastors emphasize:  People are the church

By Margie Holmgren
In the middle of March, life as we know it changed drastically. Every aspect of our lives was altered to try stop the spread of the coronavirus. This included the way we worshipped. Sunday found area churches empty and ministers trying to find new ways to reach their congregations.
Most turned to an online media platform – such as Zoom, YouTube or Facebook – to reach out to their members.
For some this was a challenge, not having used these formats before. But each week they provided a service for their congregations who had access to the internet.
Pastor Marge Landwehr, First Presbyterian Church, Hallock, used Zoom to hold her weekly church gatherings.
“It gave us the ability to see and converse with each other,” Landwehr stated, “not the same as in person, but it worked well for us.”
Others used Facebook and/or YouTube, including Pastor Frank Johnson, Grace/Red River Lutheran Church, Hallock/Kennedy; Pastor Daniel Ostercamp, Trinity Lutheran Church, Hallock; Pastor Chad Larson, Assembly of God Church, Hallock; and Fr. Emmanuel Sylvester, St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, Hallock and Holy Rosary Catholic Church, Lancaster; and Kathy Levenhagen, SAM, Maria Lutheran Church, Kennedy, Zion Lutheran Church, Lake Bronson and Sion Lutheran Church, Lancaster.
In addition to weekly services provided on the internet, some churches came up with other ways to stay in touch with their members. Levenhagen stated they sent additional newsletters to the members. She also called members, especially those who didn’t have access to the online services. The phone call was greatly appreciated by those members, she said. Some of the people she talked with stated they had watched several services, which Levenhagen said was great to hear people were opening up finding their faith connection however it worked best for them.
At First Presbyterian Church, they sent out the sermon and order of worship each week to those who could not join the service via Zoom.
Landwehr also connected via Zoom with her members for “happy hour” Wednesdays at 4 p.m. and deacons checked on members and phone calls were made as well to keep in touch.
Father Sylvester stated they did a drive through confessional service, which was much appreciated. They also tried to stay in contact with their faith community with various posts on Facebook.
Larson at Assembly of God stated he continued his sermon series he had started before the shut down and tried to keep things as close to normal as possible. He preached about being the church, keeping hope alive and how God is good.
Trinity Lutheran had its Sunday school children read verses, wave palm branches and shout Hosanna in a video recording that was spliced together and shared via the internet for Palm Sunday.
Preaching to a camera can be quite different than preaching to a live audience. Levenhagen stated it was “hard to preach to an empty church.” She said the church echoed with emptiness and she missed seeing people’s reactions on their faces and body language.
Ostercamp said he enjoyed the feedback they received on Facebook, through emoticons and comments during the service to emails and calls after. They could easily see the number of people reached by looking at the Facebook metrics.
Each church has been and will continue to  follow directions from their governing entities, which are aligned to follow the recommendations of the governor.
“We do not believe in civil disobedience so we honored the governor’s executive order to shelter in place,” commented Larson of Assembly of God. “After all, it wouldn’t be a good witness to thumb our nose at the human authority God has placed over us. Our denomination encouraged and recommended our cooperation.”
Now as we enter the next phase of guidelines from the state, these churches are slowly starting to open up with guidelines in place.
Trinity Lutheran began services on May 24 by having a registration system for up to 10 people; they have increased that to 50 people as of June 14. Their council approved a required COVID-19 preparedness plan.
On May 31, Assembly of God held its first service at the church where they too prepared a plan after consulting the guidelines set forth by Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order. For now they will meet in the fellowship hall with families sitting at their own tables 6 feet apart. They enter and exit through different doors, have sanitizer available and encourage face coverings. They will also continue to provide online services for those who feel they need to stay home to stay safe.
St. Patrick’s Catholic Church provides masses each Saturday at 5 p.m. and Sunday at 9 a.m. using a sign up sheet to limit the number of members at each mass.  Holy Rosary, which meets every Sunday at 10:45 a.m., has a smaller congregation so they can attend without signing up.
On June 14, First Presbyterian began worship services, also meeting in the fellowship hall to allow social distancing. There was no coffee hour, no singing and people were encouraged to wear masks. They limited their members to the fellowship hall and bathrooms with 32 members attending that first Sunday.
Starting July 5, Grace Lutheran Church will meet on the front lawn of the church, which will allow them to have some music and other practices that would not be as safe if they held worship inside. However at Red River, services will be inside with more precautions including less music and a shorter service.
For Levenhagen, who works with three churches, the schedule of reopening has been staggered. In Lake Bronson at Zion Lutheran, where the membership is small, they have started services but have safety practices in place such as social distancing, no singing and hand sanitizer available. Maria Lutheran, in Kennedy, held its first service on June 28, and like other churches are meeting in the fellowship hall. Meeting in the fellowship hall allows families to sit together at tables, which have been determined to be easier to clean than pews. They also have hand sanitizer available, masks are recommended and there will be no singing or spoken responses from the congregation. Sion Lutheran in Lancaster will hold an outdoor service on July 5.
“The congregations are anxious to get back to worship inside the church building,” explained Levenhagen, “even though we have continued to be church all through the pandemic.”
Attending church, like so many activities in our lives, has changed and may never be back to normal but our ministers remind us to remain hopeful and look for the lessons that can be learned through this pandemic.
“Keep preaching the Gospel, in and out of season,” stated Ostercamp. “People are indeed hungry for a clear and confident word. Work to communicate well with each other and stay hopeful about solving difficulties and trusting in the Lord’s good grace. We continue to be in a time of trial, but can share God’s steadfast love.”
Larson shared the lessons he feels we can take away from this.
“Humans are adaptable and resilient; love and patience go a long way when dealing with difficult situations and God always has our backs – his loving kindness never ends. We gotta trust and hope in him,” Larson said.
“People learned the lesson of how precious community worship is and gatherings matter a lot when they miss it,” Sylvester commented. “Mass media communication was very helpful and we have decided to communicate livestream once in a while. Thus the parish members are connected in this unique situation, this shows how creative our congregation can be to take any challenges in the future.”
“The best lesson we can take from all of this is that we can still be the church no matter what,” stated Landwehr. “We need to remember that the people are the church, not the building, and I think this pandemic has shown us that!”
“I feel like the one thing we need to grasp is that we are grieving,” Johnson replied. “Even if we can return soon enough to worshipping in the same style as before, with music and communal speaking and proximity to one another – and even if a vaccine comes sooner than we expect, we will still be grieving the loss of what was. It won’t feel the same just because we open the doors. One thing we learn in counseling is that healthy grieving requires that we let go of the word normal. Normal will not come back. Someday worship will look the same as it did a few months ago, but even then it will not feel normal. Uneasiness will last for a long time, and every church will experience turnover – people will switch churches, people will leave churches, people will come back to churches and people who have never gone to church will show up. This will happen no matter what we do and regardless of whether we have people in our churches die from this virus or not. So, we will slowly learn how to grieve this together and it will be painful, but growth will come out of it too. Like any loss, we don’t wish that it happened, but we will do our best to faithfully respond to it as best we can.”
Levenhagen stated, “The best lesson I learned is that we can be church without being in a church building. We are checking in on one another and finding different ways to communicate and are hearing how much people love to get letters and cards in the mail. I am about as anxious as the congregation to gather again. But I want to be faithful to the care and needs of the congregation. I do not want to put people at risk. I believe the COVID-19 virus needs to be respected and caution needs to be used. If we follow guidelines we will be able to worship in new and old ways to the glory of God.”

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