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Places of worship Zoom in on new ways to connect with congregants

Among the unforeseen blessings coronavirus has brought for area houses of worship is a shift away from bricks-and-mortar, sit-down-and-pray services — and an embrace of new screen-based technologies that allow more inclusion of the elderly and infirm, a bigger web of pastoral care, and services joined by people living in far-flung parts of the world.

The widespread lockdown, isolation, anxiety and sickness, say Rogue Valley spiritual leaders, also set a tone for sermons about helping each other, building community and keeping the faith in hard times.

“Things have changed drastically in the two months we’ve been closed,” said Joyce Marks, director of ministries at Shepherd of the Valley Church in Central Point. Like most area churches, it now does services and classes via Facebook Live or Zoom.

Instead of organ and choir, Marks says, “We’ve got families singing, playing their instruments and doing technical assistance.”

A dedicated corps of volunteers is “deployed” to the homes of parishioners “where we needed to be all the time, not just in this crisis. That’s the blessing behind closure.”

It’s been a “super creative and exciting time,” with teachers, instead of doing religious instruction in classrooms, fanning out over the valley, dropping lesson packets on front porches and following up with tutoring on FaceTime, she notes.

The world may have turned upside-down, but the beauty of it is that church volunteers get engaged with all manner of help in the regular lives of the flock, says Marks, after spending two hours helping set up a new computer and teaching the family how to connect with Zoom.

Another volunteer found an elderly parishioner on chemotherapy who was extremely tall and couldn’t find a wheelchair that fit — but the volunteer searched all over, found one and brought it to him.

“I don’t know how he did it, but he made the magic happen,” says Marks.

Church volunteers are calling and doing check-ins with 300 elders, and “they (seniors) get so jazzed about it, they call other people and get them going on doing (phone or digital) check-ins too,” says Marks. “It’s beautiful. This needed to be happening all along.”

“Congregants are doing shopping for elders, because it’s too risky for older folks, or they’re on [medication] or they need financial assistance because they didn’t get stimulus checks, or they lost their jobs or aren’t citizens or they can’t get unemployment because they’re self-employed or retired,” says Marks. “Under all the pain, suffering and struggle, a lot of wonderful things are happening. The silver lining is big.”

Another volunteer, catechism teacher Julia Brennan, is collecting boots from her third-graders’ families to give to homeless men, most of them veterans, when they come for weekly showers at St. Vincent de Paul.

“She never stops,” says Marks. Brennan can be reached at 541-531-5413.

Changes at Ashland’s Havurah Shir Hadash have been sweeping, with Rabbi David Zaslow reporting, “It’s transformed our synagogue from being a local to a national and even international event, with attendance doubled. It’s very heartening.

“We’ve had to give twice as many services and adult education classes. On Zoom, we’ve got people now from Holland, France, Israel, but mostly Southern Oregon. We can fit 200 people onto one screen, and we do joint services with the synagogue in Portland, too.”

Zaslow marvels that the system has never been done before and seemed impossible, but because it was the only solution, “it was suddenly very easy to do. One click and you’re all in the same room.”

Digital religion has also been great for the elderly, he notes, because many older people have a hard time driving and are more vulnerable to infection.

In his sermons, Zaslow is dealing “a lot more with suffering and the questions, “Where is God in all this, and what is our moral responsibility? It may sound heretical, but Judaism has been dealing with liberation from slavery in Egypt, which followed 10 plagues — and it was a plague that broke the pharaoh, so what is the meaning for today?”

The crisis has hurt revenues for all houses of worship, but Zaslow, whose fundraising is down $10,000, says he makes a pitch at the end of each virtual sermon, and “even though people are hurting, the appeal is working and they’re very generous.”

In Medford, the Presbyterian and Congregational United Church of Christ have joined in their virtual worship, streaming the message of “comfort, hope and courage” for a flock of 300, says Pastor Laura Lee Kent of Medford UCC.

“We’ve come to a deeper connection as a community, and one thing’s for sure: We’re not going back to what we used to do,” says Kent. “We’re going to livestream services because we reach different people in this and other denominations, and we reach people who aren’t real mobile. Once you get the technology set up, it’s not that hard.”

Kent’s pastoral care team is looking into purchasing Chromebook tablets, which are cheap and easy to use, for pre-digital parishioners.

In Ashland, Minister Brett Strobel of First United Methodist streams worship on the church’s website and Facebook, and Bible study on Zoom, as well as “good old-fashioned phone calls” for pastoral care checkins for “more vulnerable members. They are really isolated right now at home or maybe in retirement homes, where they’re very strict about who can come and go. You have to keep elders safe, but it can be isolating.”

Attendance is up because people in distant towns can attend, says Strobel. “People from Florida, Atlanta, Portland are tuning in, and they feel some connection is pretty cool.”

“Worshiping with a group of people (live and interactive) has a different dynamic than on our website. Several people plug it into their big TV screen and it gives a more intimate setting at home. It’s an honor to be invited into peoples’ homes. Preaching is on a more intimate, conversational level than with a large group.”

Just remember, cautions Strobel, in his sermon. “The virus has no compassion or mercy. It doesn’t care about our rights and liberties. Be patient and smart about what’s best for self and others. Deliverance from this pandemic will come by treating it with tremendous respect and doing what experts tell us to do.”

At Ashland’s Trinity Episcopal Church, Rector Anthony Hutchinson, another pastor and three musicians stream Sunday and Thursday services, while Zoom has “really boosted community life for the pastoral care team, so we’re calling every member every two weeks.”

Virtual attendance is holding steady with earlier physical attendance. Collections went into a mild decline, but giving went up strongly, he said, for people who ran into financial problems because they lost their jobs.

Streaming will continue after the virus fades. If testing becomes adequate and a vaccine appears, the church will open gradually, because most members, he notes, are in the at-risk age category.

“In pastoral care, talking to people, some are depressed, stressed out, angry, blaming (toward political foes), demonizing the other side,” says Hutchinson. “But it will smooth out. We’ll get through this.”

John Darling is an freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Julia Brennan of Shepherd of the Valley Church in Central Point unloads boots that will be donated to the Urban Rest Stop at St. Vincent de Paul for homeless men.[Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]