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'The church is not a building'

For the head pastor of one Medford church, 2020 was the year his oft-repeated saying took on new meaning.

“I’d always said the church is not a building,” said the Rev. Murray Richmond, of First Presbyterian Church of Medford. “Ever since I was a kid I was saying that.”

The pews in the 1927-built sanctuary on Eighth and Holly streets are as empty as they were at the start of the pandemic. Richmond called his decision to keep worship services virtual for the foreseeable future one that’s “easy to make but hard to live with.”

“A lot of our congregation is older,” Richmond said. “Even if we started (resuming in-person services), I’m not sure how many people would feel comfortable coming.”

The virtual services are more sophisticated now than they were in March, according to Richmond. Over the summer and fall the church purchased a “labyrinth” of professional audio-visual equipment consisting of cameras, sound mixers, switches and an audiovisual synchronizer. With the help of choir director Tony Chunn, the church also purchased the necessary licenses needed to broadcast music.

“Everything we put out there legally now,” Richmond said.

Getting to the polished and licensed video worship services they have today took months of trial and error — and experiments with at least three digital platforms.

Richmond said they started with Zoom, but between members of the congregation forgetting to mute themselves and worship leaders forgetting to unmute, the early online services were a comedy of errors.

“It could’ve been a ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit,” Richmond said.

Weeks later, Richmond said the church switched to live YouTube broadcasts, but “so did every single church on the West Coast at 10 a.m.”

In October the church switched to videos for worship services using footage recorded that week. Richmond says he misses the audience feedback he’d get during in-person services, and greeting his congregation as they left the sanctuary after services prior to the pandemic.

“When I’m done now, I just walk back to my office,” Richmond said.

One local church that took creative steps to combat the feeling of empty pews during the shutdown was Grace Point Fellowship, whose congregation in April provided dozens of selfies that were then printed and taped to chairs in the sanctuary.

“They are there in spirit with these pictures,” Grace Point associate pastor Jim Durham said at the time. “It’s another way of getting ‘together’ and feeling connected.”

Grace Point Fellowship returned to virtual services in late December following a pastor’s illness, according to the church’s Facebook page.

Going all-in on virtual services is not presently required under Oregon law, according to Jackson County Health and Human Services. Churches, synagogues and mosques are allowed to hold indoor services with up to 25% occupancy or up to 100 people, and health officials recommend limiting indoor services to one hour while the county is at “extreme” COVID-19 risk,

In-person services were linked to one Southern Oregon church’s COVID-19 outbreak and a pastor’s hospitalization this year.

From October until December, Joy Church Medford halted in-person worship services after health officials linked the church to at least 18 coronavirus cases, including that of executive pastor Kim Schmelzer, who was hospitalized with the virus.

Steve Schmelzer, Joy Church Medford’s founding pastor and Kim Schmelzer’s husband, did not respond to a message seeking comment, but he provided the following statement Oct. 16 stating that Kim Schmelzer is out of the hospital and recovering “well.”

“This experience has shown us how quickly COVID-19 can spread in a community and we are going to ramp up our health & safety efforts,” Steve Schmelzer wrote. “We are committed to providing a place for all people to gather and come to know the love and hope of Jesus; our job is to achieve that in as safe a way as possible.”

In May, some Southern Oregon churches and thousands of locals voiced opposition to Gov. Kate Brown’s shutdown orders at the Faith and Freedom Rally outside the Jackson County Justice Building. Among the speakers was Pastor Jim Wright at Mtn. Church in Medford, who spoke about the hope and healing that churches provide the community — especially for those battling depression and addiction.

“Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you’re not essential,” Wright said at the rally.

Richmond at First Presbyterian in downtown Medford said he’s looking forward to engaging with people in 2021, but even after the vaccine is readily available he acknowledges that life won’t simply be as it was before the pandemic.

“This year I don’t want to go back to anything,” Richmond said. “I want to move forward and create a new normal.”

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.