A sign on the door of Kenai Grace Brethren Church indicating that in-person Sunday gatherings have been postponed is seen here in Kenai, Alaska, on March 28, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

A sign on the door of Kenai Grace Brethren Church indicating that in-person Sunday gatherings have been postponed is seen here in Kenai, Alaska, on March 28, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Finding your faith while keeping your distance

Local churches adapt to state mandates limiting physical congregations

With the latest health mandates from Gov. Mike Dunleavy, Alaskans are obligated to stay at home — unless part of an essential industry — and practice social distancing as much as possible.

This means that church leaders can no longer gather their congregations together for in-person services, and faith-based nonprofits can no longer provide their services to the community in the ways they always have before.

“I believe God’s been calling on us to do ministry differently, so we’re just trying to get back to basics,” April Hall, pastor of both Kenai and North Star United Methodist Churches in Kenai and Nikiski, told the Clarion on Friday. “Just because we can’t be in the church, we still are the church.”

Hall performed her first sermon via Facebook Live last week and was preparing to do it again for her churches’ Fifth Sunday service this week. Hall said that every fifth Sunday, both of her churches gather as one congregation to take up an offering for a specific cause, such as a Methodist mission trip or a local charity.

This will be the first time that Hall is leading the Fifth Sunday Service virtually from her home rather than behind the pulpit, and she said that although she’s not the most tech-savvy person, she’s committed to making it work.

“I had someone holding my phone the first time I tried to do it, but I went and bought a tripod so hopefully that helps a little bit,” Hall said. “Like everyone else we’re figuring it out as we go.”

Hall said that for her first Facebook Live sermon about 84 people tuned in, which is about the size of her two congregations put together — North Star has about 35 members and Kenai has about 50. Hall noted that many of the views were from family and friends out of state, and she is mailing physical copies of each sermon to some of her church members who don’t have internet access.

Hall also posts several live videos on Facebook every day, typically while out on a walk. In these videos, Hall reflects on what she sees during her walks, such as a pair of moose or an eagle nesting in a tree, to give an impromptu devotion and offer her congregation words of hope.

“People are looking to us as leaders to see what we’re doing in times of despair,” Hall said. “So a lot of that worry, I’m trying to turn into hope.”

Both of Hall’s churches have food pantries that are still in open, but have had to change the way they operate to account for social distancing.

The Kenai United Methodist food pantry is open from 12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Mondays, and the North Star food pantry is open on Thursdays from 9 a.m. to noon.

Church members will be there to bring food out to people who need it, but no one is allowed inside the buildings except for the food pantry volunteers, Hall said, and the volunteers wear proper protective equipment including gloves and masks.

Hall streams her services on Sundays at 9:30 a.m.

Meredith Harber, pastor at Christ Lutheran Church in Soldotna, said on Tuesday that similar adjustments have been made to her services since March 15.

“An empty sanctuary is a sign of love,” Harber said. “That’s really the policy we’ve been operating under for the last two weeks. The mandates match what we’re already doing.”

Harber’s Facebook Live sermons take place on Sundays at 11 a.m. on the Christ Lutheran Church Facebook page. Harber said that she likes the amount of interaction that is possible during Facebook Live videos. She can see who has tuned in and can take live prayer requests.

While a normal Sunday service draws 90 to 100 worshippers, Harber said that her first Facebook Live sermon had about 75 devices watching. Harber said that many families were watching together on one device, so she guessed that the sermon could have reached well over 150 people.

“It’s actually recorded then, so even more people can go back and watch it,” Harber said. “I’ve heard of people who have gone back and watched it, or college students away from home that have watched it. Even some of my college friends logged on to worship.”

The services that Harber conducts on Facebook Live are different than normal services. Typically, Christ Lutheran conducts a traditional service at 11 a.m. on Sundays followed by a gathering with a live band at 6 p.m., but Harber said that the livestream services combine elements of both. There are also no handshakes, hugs or face-to-face conversations. Harber said that’s OK with her.

“Trying to fit the reality of the world we experience now into a previous norm is when we feel the most grief and stress,” Harber said. “This is an unsettling time, but it is an opportunity to be more connected than ever.”

There are perks to the new normal. At each Facebook service, Harber is able to give a homework assignment to her congregation. The first one was to call three people that the worshipper wouldn’t normally call and ask “Can I pray for you?”

“We all get so caught up in the fast-paced reality of our lives,” Harber said. “I think this is forcing us to slow down, check in and make phone calls that are important in relationships.”

In Nikiski, pastor Dan Smouse of Lighthouse Community Church has chosen YouTube as his platform for his digital sermons. Smouse told the Clarion on Friday that he started a YouTube channel for his church and posts his sermon every week, split into two parts, on Sundays and Wednesdays.

“Watching a 45-minute video of a sermon isn’t necessarily everyone’s cup of tea,” Smouse said. “And after looking at myself on video — the shorter the clip, the better.”

Each pair of videos are two parts of the same sermon, with Sunday’s incorporating an element of “to be continued,” while still having its own conclusion. Wednesday’s sermons expound on the subject matter that Smouse introduces on Sundays.

Smouse has a passion for photography, so he already had much of the equipment needed to begin his virtual sermons. Still, Smouse said that it’s been a bit of a challenge because he’s had to make his sermons more scripted than he normally would.

Smouse said that, like many churches, a lot of his congregation tends to be older folks who might not be familiar with the ins and outs of livestream and video conferencing. That said, he’s been pleasantly surprised at how quickly his older church members have taken to the changes.

“I think the older generation understands sacrifice and the need to step out of your comfort zone sometimes,” Smouse said. “A lot of them have been eager to grab onto the technology.”

Recently, President Donald Trump expressed his hope that churches can be back open to in-person services by Easter. Harber did not share the president’s hopes.

“There were only a few women at the tomb on Easter morning when Jesus was resurrected, so we will celebrate the Resurrection this year like the first Resurrection,” Harber said. “In quiet splendor and confusion as to what is going on in our world.”

While the state’s mandates extend at least through April 11, Hall said that she is following the lead of the regional Bishop of the Methodist Church, who has said that no in-person worship would be allowed through April 26.

“John Wesley said ‘do no harm,’” Hall said. “And I have a flock to keep safe, so that’s what I’m going to do.”

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