During turbulent times, people often turn to others for assistance: to friends, to family or to the church. Yet during the recent national health crisis, which is still far from over, it became hard to turn to these safe harbors because of health restrictions and social distancing.
How can one turn to the church when the church is closed? What many local churches realized is that the church members had to be the church, when the churches couldn’t safely open.
Garrett Bowman, minister of First Baptist Church on North Main Street in South Boston, said in the early days of Christianity, groups of Christians frequently met outdoors, on the outskirts of cities, on hillsides or mountains, gathering to pray and share food and minister to others. There were no Christian church buildings at that point, so they lived out their faith through their daily lives.
Bowman said, “The Pandemic challenges us to be the church to others, and it is even more important now than ever.”
First Baptist Church started their first online service on March 15, posting on their Facebook page and on YouTube and on the church website. Bowman said he had to establish a YouTube account and later realized that he had to have a different type of account to post longer videos. It has been a learning experience.
Bowman also started having daily Bible studies online, studying a chapter each day, and over the course of two months he has covered all 28 chapters of Matthew and all 16 of Mark. Starting this week, he started a new weekly Zoom Bible Study on Wednesday evenings that can be a little more interactive. The study also will be recorded and posted to Facebook or YouTube later for those unable to join live.
As Bowman said, “We have to rethink our ministry when we can’t meet in church. We must analyze what we do, why we do it, and find better ways of reaching others.” He added, “Change can be good if we learn how to adapt to it. First Baptist Church is well over 100 years old, so obviously there have had to be changes through the church’s history for it to survive this long.”
First Baptist, like other churches around the county, is now doing drive-in services on Sunday mornings at 10 a.m. and streaming them live on the radio and on Facebook.
The church also has done other things to help the community and be the church during this time. They have collected money and food to give to the YMCA to help with their food drive and collected money to create gift bags to honor the local health care workers at the hospital and did a drive-in rally at the hospital to honor them.
One church member, Brenda Powell, has made masks to sell and has donated all the money to missions. The church also has had prayer chains and card chains to help those who have dealt with losses during these tough times.
As Bowman said, “I can’t begin to express my appreciation to the church members for how supportive they have been. I was worried that we might lose our connection by not having Sunday morning services, but we’re even more connected now and have created new and different ways to serve the community. I’m so encouraged and proud of our church.”
The assistant minister and choir director at First Baptist, Susan Davis, also has done some creative things to stay connected with the congregation.
As she says, “When we were first staying at home, I started playing the piano some each day, using some hymn arrangements I had, thinking it would be a good time to sharpen my piano skills. My daughter Emily suggested I start posting these on the church Facebook page and YouTube. I posted several of these each week along with some background information on the song and the composer.”
She continued, “I found out quickly that these videos were reaching people far outside our church, as well. I’ve had very positive response from so many people, and another minister told me that he was sharing them with his congregation, too.”
Church member Mary Eanes said, “Garrett and Susan have done an outstanding job of keeping church members in touch while providing opportunities for worship in these challenging times.”
Another church musician, Ben Woosley of Main Street United Methodist Church, also started sharing musical pieces from the church’s organ.
“I started doing this during our time of isolation because I feel that music is a comfort to many. It brings the presence of God to us in a way that no other thing can,” he said.
“I have had many people respond that they have been uplifted during this time, and I hope that it has helped to fill the void a little. God has blessed me with a gift, and I try to use it for Him in everything I do. It is a strong part of my faith, and I give God all of the honor and glory for allowing me to use it for Him.”
Woosley laughingly finished by sharing one of his favorite quotations, “Bach gave us God’s word. Mozart gave us God’s laughter. Beethoven gave us God’s fire. God gave us music that we might pray without words.”
The minister at the church, Wayne Rickman, said that his congregation has had to “put themselves on the lines.” He said they were doing a lot of help with food pantries locally, as well as one they have at the church.
He said, “Instead of falling back during these tough times, we’ve stepped up. It’s been very heartfelt.”
Rickman also has put out a sermonette each week by email to his congregation, and his choir director Denise Ferrell also has posted piano music for his church via email. Main Street Methodist also is now sharing the drive-in service with First Baptist Church next door.
Churches further out in Halifax County are doing the same sort of things. André Williamson, minister at Williams Temple CME Church on News Ferry Trail, also has been holding Zoom meetings and conference calls and using Facebook live to hold services.
Williams said they also have just started drive-in services in the parking lot, where members stay in their cars.
“We will not attempt in-building services until July, being careful to use social distancing and wearing masks and making sure to disinfect before and after services,” he said.
The Reverend Dr. Allen Smith of First Baptist Church on Ferry Street in South Boston also is doing Facebook sermons and Bible study on Facebook. He said when they eventually start back, they will practice social distancing and wear masks, and he said they would have a cleaning crew to clean and disinfect hymnals and church doors and pews before and after services.
Smith said his church has been reaching out to help the sick and needy, providing food and help to those who need it. He also said his church members have adapted wonderfully, commenting that they also are supporting the church financially during the pandemic and stepping up to be the church.
Finally, another local church has done a different type of ministry for their members.
Tim Mull, minister at Ash Avenue Baptist Church, said, “When COVID-19 started with shelter-in-place mandates issued, I began to think about our shut-ins. During this time, ‘What can we do for them?’ was the driving force of a new idea.”
Mull added, “I approached our hospitality committee about preparing meals for these families. Immediately, they were on board. The process of creating a list began, and soon it expanded to neighbors. Since beginning this project, the committee has prepared over 480 meals and are still cooking! We have six drivers delivering the meals each week. I’m so proud of how our church has stepped up to help others.”
He said the church had a food drive for the Good Samaritan and collected monetary donations for that organization as well. The church also applied for a grant through the Baptist General Association of Virginia, and they have used the money from that grant to purchase sanitation items for people and to purchase some more food for the hospitality committee.
“Overall, Ash Avenue’s members have quietly done a lot during this time, and what we have done lives into two of my favorite scriptures. One is Micah 6:8, ‘And what does the Lord require of You? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk, humble with your God,” he added.
The other scripture Mull referenced is Matthew 22:36-40: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Mull’s congregation is very supportive of the things the church and Mull have done to keep things going. Church member Faye Baird said Mull “is a great pastor, encourager to all and a hardworking teacher. When we had to stop our church activities because of the virus, he encouraged us to continue our Wednesday night meals by delivery.”
Fellow church member Kimberly Gordon agrees with Baird, saying, “Rev. Mull is very genuine and authentic. Anything the church can do to help others, Rev. Mull is willing and encourages us to pull together to help.”
All local churches now will have to decide when to open to indoor services, based on the different phases of when establishments can open and what each congregation feels is safe. For now, most of them seem to be content with the drive-in services and online services.
First Baptist Church has started up again with their nondenominational GriefShare weekly sessions, where local people in need of help dealing with a grief can come to talk to others and gain support. The sessions meet weekly on Mondays at 1 p.m. and 6:30, lasting about an hour. Those in need can choose one or the other each week as their schedules allow.
Being the church has taken on new meaning during the continuing health crisis, but clearly Halifax County churches are taking the lead in new ways to reach out to their congregations and the local community.