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Finding faith in uncertainty: How Southern Illinois churches celebrate Easter at a distance
Pastor Tim Sims opens the Maundy Thursday service on April 9 in an empty sanctuary at St. John Lutheran Church in Chester. The church has been streaming its services online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
CARBONDALE — For many, Easter and the week leading up to it are filled with egg hunts, family dinners and church services. But this year, because of social distancing and concerns over COVID-19, Christians are finding different ways of celebrating. For ministers, that means rethinking how to deliver the season’s message of hope in the midst of immense fear and uncertainty among their flocks.Illinois Gov. J.B. Prtizker last week extended his stay-at-home order to April 30 in an effort to curb the spread of the sometimes deadly COVID-19 respiratory virus. The order bans gatherings of 10 or more people and limits trips outside the home to essential needs, like grocery shopping and medical visits. That means churches have closed their doors to parishioners.But just because the doors are closed doesn’t mean the lights are off. Many churches have gone to online services through Facebook Live events or other online meeting platforms.“It’s weird, I’ll tell you what,” Pastor Tim Sims said of leading a church service to empty pews. He ministers to the congregation of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chester.“It’s strange to proclaim such a powerful message … looking out to empty pews,” he said. He, like many, goes through his service as he would on any given Sunday, but directs his eyes and message to a camera.
Associate pastor Justin Massey delivers the sermon during the Maundy Thursday service on April 9 at St. John Lutheran Church in Chester. The church has been streaming and recording services for its congregation during the pandemic.
But Sims and many other ministers have found the times a poignant way to remind congregants of the hope that is associated with the Easter holiday — one that celebrates the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.Father Gary Gummersheimer preaches at St. Andrew Catholic Church in Murphysboro. He said in preparing to preach during Holy Week, the week of holy days leading up to Easter, it is important to go through what happened to Jesus' disciples after he was crucified, especially in light of the times.“They were scared,” Gummersheimer said. He said in that time, it wasn’t uncommon to come after students after a teacher was attacked.“They didn’t know what was going to happen in the world,” he said. He said this sounds an awful lot like what is happening today with the fear of COVID-19. But, he said, the reminder of Easter is that there is hope even on the darkest days.Sims put it this way: “Fear not for your king is coming,” he said.Gummersheimer said in this time of uncertainty he has done his share of ministering to people who do have this fear.“The greatest unanswered question is why,” he said — though this isn’t a question unique to the pandemic. He said his answer for this question is simple.“I don’t know, but I have faith in a God who does.”The Rev. Chris Swims, of Carbondale’s Hopewell Baptist Church, said he and his church have been doing some sort of Facebook Live presentation of their services for years, but said this year was the first time they had broadcast an entire service. He said keeping the flock together, even remotely, is important — he said faith isn’t something to be practiced alone.“This walk of faith is meant for us to walk it together. This is not some isolated thing we do alone,” he said.
Churches are trying to do anything they can to keep members engaged, though Sims said even this is getting limited. His church had planned to have a parking lot service for Easter where members would come to church and stay in the car. However, Randolph County’s health department this week issued a statement asking churches to call these services off.“There will be no car assembly in our parking lots. We are cancelling the private Communion(s) that were previously scheduled,” Sims wrote in a newsletter to church members.Gummersheimer and Swims said their churches would still be broadcast for remote attendance. But, Swims said the isolation is hard on him.“I’m really missing seeing my people,” he said. “I love hugging my people, high-fiving them.” He and his church leadership are still doing all they can to keep in touch. They already had a weekly prayer call, but the Sunday and Wednesday services are being put online. But k76 this challenging time, Swims said, he even has to remind himself to have hope.“I have to preach to myself on a daily basis before I preach to others,” he said.Swims said he sees this remote ministry as an opportunity, though.“It presents a very unique opportunity to be able to engage with people,” Swims said. He tells his church members that spreading the word is a pillar of their faith, but this doesn’t always mean walking up to a stranger to talk about Jesus. It can be as simple as clicking “share” on Facebook.“That’s it, you’ve just evangelized by using technology,” Swims said. He added that, to him, in these times, there isn’t a choice but to make these changes, uncomfortable as they may be sometimes.“Even in moments like this, the church really has no choice but to adjust, adapt or die,” he said.Gummersheimer and Sims said they are unsure what it will be like when the stay-at-home order is lifted and churches can again have normal services. Both have received calls from parishioners that they miss Sunday services. But they wonder if the ease of at-home worship will keep some away.Or, maybe, some will realize just how much church meant to them and come back with renewed enthusiasm. And, just maybe, some who fell away from church before COVID-19 will return to the faith out of a need to make sense of the [email protected] Twitter: @ismithreports
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