WATERLOO -- On Thursday afternoon, the Rev. Amy Wiles sat in a pew at First Presbyterian Church in Waterloo, Bible open in her lap while a videographer recorded her sermon in an empty church.
The sermon would be emailed and posted at the church’s website and Facebook page for the congregation to view on Sunday.
Similar scenes have been playing out at churches throughout the Cedar Valley as doors are closed in the midst of the COVID-19 public health emergency. Pastors, rabbis and church leaders are putting their faith in technology and social media platforms to serve the spiritual needs of their congregations.
“My sermons are 20- to 30-minute reflections with music, Scripture and prayer for people to do a guided worship on their own, hopefully at 10 a.m. Sunday as much as possible, so we all still feel connected in worship,” said Wiles.
People need to feel part of their faith communities, even while social distancing. It’s particularly important with such major religious observances on the April calendar. Palm Sunday is April 5, Lent ends April 9, and Easter is April 12. At synagogues, Passover Seder is April 9.
In addition to utilizing email, Facebook and online resources, First Presbyterian is organizing a phone tree.
“It’s another way to connect – people can call each other regularly. That’s especially important to those who don’t have internet access at home or aren’t as familiar with technology,” Wiles explained.
Her message is clear: “We are not alone. It’s important to social distance, but that doesn’t mean we’re isolated and alone. God is with us, and God has not abandoned us, just as we haven’t abandoned each other,” she said.
At First Congregational Church in Waterloo, the Rev. Scott Spence said Sunday services are being streamed online and posted on Facebook. On Wednesdays, a live streaming prayer service takes place. “For most pastors I’ve talked to, we’re all learning as we go and trying to figure it out day by day and using all the different social media platforms. With nursing homes and hospitals restricting access, we’re also checking in with folks on the phone.”
Equally as important, Spence said, is reminding church members that “while our buildings are beautiful and beloved, and we take a lot of pride and joy in being there, church is not just the building. The congregation extends beyond the walls and into the community.”
The Rev. John Fuller, pastor at Prairie Lakes Church in Cedar Falls, said the church has been streaming sermons and conducting online services, as well as texting and using Facebook for a number of years. Employees use Zoom remote conferencing services “so they’re all on the same page, but not in the same room.”
“We want to keep our focus on how we can serve others during this season. So many vulnerable people need our help, and we’re texting and Facebooking each of our local partners – House of Hope, the Northeast Iowa Food Bank – to find out their specific needs and where we can help. We have a hotline so if someone has a need, we will help if we can,” Fuller said.
He has been impressed by Iowans’ response to COVID-19. “Iowans always step up in a crisis. Every teacher I know has posted on Facebook that ‘if a kid needs help in math or English, I’m available.’ I think that’s cool.”
Fuller’s mother, LaVina Fuller, 83, of Cedar Falls, was aboard the Grand Princess, the cruise ship where 21 of those aboard tested positive for coronavirus earlier this month. She was quarantined with other passengers at Travis Air Force Base in California for about 14 days after passengers were allowed to disembark in Oakland.
“We’re all in this together – that’s the big message I want to proclaim. There’s a reality we can’t lose sight of, that we stand up on our faith so we can see over our fears. God’s got this. He loves us, and He’s not going to abandon us. There is always hope,” Fuller said.
Laura Sohl-Cryer, communications director at Nazareth Lutheran Church in Cedar Falls, said the pastoral team records a new Sunday service with teachings and music each week that is posted to Facebook and published on the church website. Another new sermon is posted on Wednesdays at 6 p.m. Small groups are gathering for virtual meetings using Zoom. A button at the website allows parishioners to send prayer requests.
“We’re also communicating with our congregation using social media and email. Our staff is making a personal connection with every single household in our congregation – 1,300 to 1,400 households – on the phone,” Sohl-Cryer said.
A group of 20 or so volunteers has mobilized to deliver groceries and prescriptions to the front doors of those most at risk for coronavirus, and the children’s ministry team is sending out weekly Bible lessons, activities and crafts families can do at home. Another group is making prayer shawls for those in need of comfort and support.
“There is a deep need that people have to connect with other people and to be part of a community, even while we physically must distance ourselves from others. I see our community stepping up to support and encourage each other. It’s inspiring. I can see God working as together we go through this hard thing, bringing people closer together and closer to Him,” Sohl-Cryer said.
Wiles’ message to her flock at First Presbyterian Church is to “live by faith, not by fear. Living by faith means that we hope joy comes in the midst of sorrow, that peace comes in the midst of anxiety and hope comes in the midst of despair, and we actually need to act out those promises.”
Fuller cites Romans 12:12: “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.”
“We must go and do from that stance,” he added. “We may be in different rooms, but we are all still together.”