Worship goes virtual: Religious leaders find alternatives to deliver messages to the masses

The Rev. Amy Yarnall can’t welcome people through the doors of Wesley United Methodist Church in downtown Dover with the COVID-19 pandemic, but she invites them to join online at wesleyumc-dover.com. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

Congregations have taken a backseat in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Gov. John Carney’s stay-at-home order has banned large gatherings leading to places of worship being forced to close their doors.

But thanks to the internet and some creativity, Easter and Passover celebrations continue.

Religion has made the move to the virtual world. Easter masses will be livestreamed across the interwebs today while Passover Seders were shared via videocalls on Thursday.

For Christians, the church closures means not only missing out on in-person Easter mass, but also Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday and Good Friday. Local churches were determined to find ways to observe Holy Week whether it was by drive-in service or virtual gatherings.

It’s not lost on leaders how difficult this time is during the pandemic.

“This was the hardest week of Jesus’ life,” said the Rev. Dr. Erika D. Crawford, pastor of Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Dover. “Now it’s the hardest week of the church’s life.”

Time to ZOOM

During the age of social-distancing, the program ZOOM has become a must-use for businesses and social activities. ZOOM is a cloud platform for video and audio conferencing across mobile devices and computers.

It did not take long for religious institutions to hop on board.

Wesley United Methodist Church in Dover is using ZOOM for Sunday school and Bible study. Every night at 6 p.m. it has a conference call on ZOOM for an evening prayer. It also has Sunday worship on ZOOM at 9:45 a.m.

For Holy Week, Wesley UMC pre-recorded services for Thursday and Friday and posted them on YouTube. It is gathering this morning on ZOOM for an Easter service and all masses also are being livestreamed on Facebook.

Pastor Amy Yarnall is also posting videos of herself addressing the community to the church’s Facebook page.

Holy Cross broadcasts its Holy Thursday service online, a reality for religious institutions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re celebrating Holy Week like we’ve never celebrated it before,” Pastor Yarnall said.

Seaside Jewish Community in Rehoboth Beach hosted a virtual Passover Seder on Thursday night. The community has had to cancel or move online religious school classes, board meetings and adult education classes.

While ZOOM is the newest technology available, churches have been using Facebook, YouTube and Skype as well.

Calvary Baptist Church is broadcasting its Easter mass on YouTube today at 9:30 a.m.

“The church is still open and we’re still operating,” said Bishop W. James Thomas II, the senior pastor at Calvary Baptist in a message to its community. “We’re just doing it in a very different and creative way.”

Rev. Crawford said the virtual meetings have both positives and negatives. She said about 70 percent of the Mt. Zion congregation has been able to join on ZOOM and Facebook.

But some older members of the community do not have computers or smartphones. While that’s a deterrent, the internet has allowed people who normally could not make it to church in person to join in worship.

“We’re able to communicate with people who we would usually not see,” Rev. Crawford said. “We’ve been having children of our congregation members join who don’t live in Delaware and some people serving in the military. That’s been a wonderful thing.”

A sense of normalcy

Religious leaders across the state are all in agreement places of worship should be closed for safety reasons during the pandemic.

And they also agree it’s still important to meet virtually to remember the meaning of Holy Week, as Father Robert Coine, pastor at St. Michael the Archangel/Mary Mother of Peace Parish in Georgetown, said in a letter to the parish.

“I find it particularly poignant that many of us may be experiencing the same emotions of fear, isolation and uncertainty that Christ might have been feeling as he faced his final days here on earth,” Father Coine said. “But, like Christ, we must have faith that our sacrifices are made for the good of all. We must remember that, although we are isolated from our families and friends, we are not alone, that God is always with us.

“Although we are temporarily unable to worship together, we have an opportunity to make this one of the most memorable and significant observances of Holy Week in our lifetime,” Father Coine added. “We are all usually so busy with the details of our lives that we only stop for an hour on Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday to attend a Mass and fulfill our obligation. But this year, with our minds unburdened by our everyday duties, we can clear our minds each day of this Holy Week, allowing ourselves time to reflect on Jesus’ life, His great sacrifice, the Passion and Resurrection.”

Online Easter services at Calvary Church in Dover will feature Lead Pastor Ryan Coon and live music. Visit calvarydover.org/home for more info.

Bishop Thomas at Calvary Baptiste urged his members not to let the virus get them down. The church is still running as much as possible, with its Sunday breakfast and Monday soup kitchen, operating on a to-go basis.

“We’re in some dark and dismal days,” he said. “Churches are closed all over the country, and for good reason. Believers are having to worship online, which is a new venture for some. … I continue to believe this is an awesome opportunity for the church but it’s also a test for the church. Will we allow COVID-19 to shut us down? Shut us up? I can only speak for Calvary Baptist Church and we’ll continue to declare the strength of God.”

Churches which made up the Diocese of Wilmington all have access to use the diocese’s YouTube channel during Holy Week. The masses will appear at www.You-Tube.com/DioceseOfWilm, from the Cathedral of Saint Peter in Wilmington with Bishop Francis Malooly presiding.
Some like Holy Cross Church in Dover, Our Lady of Lourdes Roman Catholic Church in Seaford, St. Edmond Roman Catholic Church in Rehoboth Beach and St. Ann’s Church in Bethany Beach are using their own websites or Facebook pages to livestream mass during the stay-at-home order.

“I am not going to take any unnecessary risks to this mandate by making exceptions,” said Bishop Malooly. “I have to be a good citizen, and I have to follow my conscience and not put anyone in danger. Today, we are being invited to lean all the more into our faith to draw strength and peace from Christ our Savior. Jesus has never abandoned his Church, and he is not doing so now. God’s grace, certainly present in the sacraments, is not bound by them. God can — and does — come to us by grace when we are unable to receive him sacramentally.”

Rev. Crawford at Mt. Zion said not having church is especially tough for the African American community. She pointed out how important meeting at church was during slavery and the Civil Rights movement. Even when churches were being bombed in the South during the Civil Rights movement, that could not deter African Americans.

“In the worst of times, it’s always been church,” Rev. Crawford said. “This is the first time there’s no church to go into for refuge.

“It is very important that people see the light at the end of the tunnel,” she added. “Worship becomes essential just for your own mental health so you can see it can get better, even if you can’t time when it will get better. My challenge as a pastor is to show people this is bad, but God promises it will get better.”

The worst part, says Rev. Crawford, is not the lack of Holy Week services — it’s not being able to hold funerals.

“That’s the hardest part,” she said. “To not be able to gather as a community to celebrate a life well-lived.”


Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

Have a question, tip, or resources about the coronavirus pandemic? Submit it to our newsroom and we’ll do what we can to provide answers.