An altar at Our Lady Perpetual Help Catholic Church is seen on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo courtesy of Kathryn Dunagan)

Journeying together: Area churches adapt services to COVID-19

Many local churches have turned to digital platforms to help them stay connected to their congregations

On Christmas Eve, you won’t find Christ Lutheran Church’s congregation in their parish. Instead, churchgoers will partake in a candlelit procession through the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge to Headquarters Lake, where they will sing “Silent Night” and pray together.

The event is one of many Christ Lutheran Pastor Meredith Harber said the church has organized as a way to bring their congregation together throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the summer, Harber said, the church had weekly parking lot dinners where people would set up camping chairs and enjoy meals they brought from home. Before COVID, Harber said she started “Comfy Couch Bible study,” which people could do from home.

“The idea is that you can come and sit in your jammies, sit on your couch, drink some tea, you know, a glass of wine, whatever, and just have a really informal Bible study together from our home,” Harber said.

Harber said her congregation has not been immune, however, to “Zoom fatigue” and that she’s been encouraging people to participate in remote church activities because they want to rather than because they feel obligated to. In addition to streaming regular church services, Harber said they also do a Zoom coffee hour, virtual Sunday school and a weekly Zoom lunch.

“There are a lot of online opportunities for us right now, so I think it’s people finding what is the amount of online screen time that is life-giving,” Harber said. “I really encourage folks … [to] choose the thing that gives [them] life and gives [them] joy.”

In planning Christmas Eve’s refuge walk, Harber said, they tried to keep the event simple and to provide a place where members of the congregation could safely connect face-to-face with each other. Journeying together, Harber said, is what community is all about.

“This is an opportunity for you to come and just journey with others, following the light in the darkness of the world together in a safe way, and to use our beautiful creation that we have in our community,” Harber said.

The event will be multi-generational and will allow people to move at their own pace. Cleats, snowshoes and skis are all encouraged, as are headlamps and other light sources, though electric candles will be provided.

“I think people are excited for a safe way to gather and to celebrate Christmas,” Harber said.

Throughout the pandemic, many local churches have turned to digital platforms to help them stay connected to their congregations. Platforms include Facebook Live, YouTube and Zoom.

Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Soldotna has been streaming church services on Facebook Live for months and will also be modifying their Christmas Eve services to be more COVID-friendly.

The church will offer a children’s Christmas Mass at 5 p.m., a Christmas Eve Mass at 7 p.m. where masks will be required and a Christmas Eve Mass at 9 p.m. where masks will not be required. Social distancing is expected for people who attend services in person and masks are preferred.

Our Lady of Perpetual Help Secretary Kathryn Dunagan said Wednesday that their Christmas Mass is usually well-attended, but they are unsure of what to expect this year with some people opting to view Mass remotely. Dunagan said that the church usually offers Christmas Mass twice, but added a third this year to prevent overcrowding. Additionally, they are planning to have additional seating and video options in an adjoining room if needed.

Fathers Patrick and Whitney of Our Lady of Perpetual Help livestream their daily Mass to Facebook and also add Sunday Mass to their YouTube channel. Dunagan said that currently they are using their personal phones to record services, but that the setup is “definitely not ideal” and the church is hoping to purchase a more elaborate streaming system in the future.

At Holy Assumption Orthodox Christian Church in Kenai, YouTube is the streaming platform of choice. Great Vespers on Saturdays at 6 p.m. and Divine Liturgy on Sundays at 10 a.m. are streamed live on the church’s YouTube channel, where past services can also be viewed.

Holy Assumption Orthodox Christian Church’s Father Peter Tobias said Tuesday that they currently have members attending in person and watching online.

“Ours is a small community,” Tobias said, adding that their Christmas services on Jan. 7 will also be streamed online.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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