Randy Nelson participated in a recent congregation-wide meeting, along with nearly 100 members of his church, Holy Trinity Lutheran (2730 E. 31st St.), but Nelson could only see 30 fellow congregants at a time. Those 30 were on his computer screen in his apartment.
At a time when church buildings in Minnesota are closed and gatherings with more than 10 people are banned,* Holy Trinity and religious groups all over the state are using computer technology to bring their congregations together. By necessity, church members like Nelson, a retired Lutheran pastor, are becoming computer savvy.
“Before the pandemic, I had never heard of Zoom,” he said. “Now I seem to be using it almost every day.”
At Holy Trinity, church meetings are conducted on Zoom, but the Longfellow Lutheran congregation uses a different technology known as Vimeo for video broadcasts of its weekly church service.
“The service is recorded so we can watch it anytime,” Nelson said. “The videos do help to bring the church into our home but they are no substitute for being there in the pews with our fellow congregation members. For me, at least, videos make the services seem like a spectator sport.”
While they can watch the Holy Trinity service anytime during the week, Nelson and his wife Joy have decided to watch it at 11 a.m. on Sunday morning. “That is a traditional worship time for us, so when we watch the service at 11 it does feel like we are part of a larger group, even though there are only two of us in our apartment,” Nelson noted.
Maintaining connection virtually
At St. Albert’s Catholic Church (2836 33rd Ave. S.), the 9:30 a.m. mass on Sunday is livestreamed on Facebook. “We can see there are at least 110 households present for that service,” said Mike Vitt, a longtime member of St. Albert’s parish. “We are together virtually, so that way we can maintain some connections. We can feel each other’s presence even if we are not together physically.”
Greta Gantriis, a member at St. Peder’s Lutheran Church (4600 E. 42nd St.), said she misses being with long-time friends on Sunday morning. “The online service does keep us connected, but it is not the same as being together in person. So many of us are part of a long-standing community of people with a Danish heritage. St. Peder’s has done so much to maintain that sense of community.”
Like Gantriis, Rita Juhl, another St. Peder’s member, wishes she could be together with fellow congregants on Sunday morning. “But that is not possible now. We have to adapt to this new reality,” Juhl said.
Volunteering in the community
At a time when so many people are finding themselves quarantined at home, churches in Longfellow and Nokomis have made a special effort to stay connected with the members of their congregation.
“With the shutdown in place, many of our members have rediscovered the telephone,“ said Holy Trinity’s senior pastor, Ingrid Rasmussen. “When the shutdown occurred, we contacted everyone in the congregation by phone. We continue to keep in touch that way – particularly for the small group of people who don’t have access to reliable computer communications. We also have a newsletter that goes out every week, by email and by postal mail.“
Rasmussen said that Holy Trinity has maintained its connections with people in the neighborhood who may not be church members. “We know that many neighbors are suffering financially as a result of the pandemic. They may have lost their jobs or been furloughed. We have an emergency fund that can help in special situations.”
Even with the shelter in place orders in effect, Holy Trinity members continued their community outreach efforts. “A number of us are involved as volunteers at Longfellow School, the education center for mothers with children and pregnant mothers,” Joy Nelson explained. “Earlier this month, we were able to participate in an event at the school. We brought gifts over for the graduates. They came outside one at a time.
“With proper social distancing, we stood in the school yard with bells and signs congratulating them. We volunteers were able to see each other in person and even talk to each other through our masks.”
Joint church food shelf busy
At Minnehaha Methodist Church (3701 E. 50th St.), a group of four area congregations jointly sponsor the Minnehaha Food Shelf. The four include Minnehaha Methodist, Nokomis Lutheran, St. James Episcopal and Living Table. George Gallagher, the food shelf’s director, said he has seen an upswing in food shelf use as the pandemic has taken hold in Minnesota.
“Our demand surged in April when we served 880 client, a 22% increase over the previous month,” Gallagher said. “Right now, we are able to keep up with the demand. But our biggest concern is whether we will be able to keep doing that as more people are laid off and furloughed. People in the community have been very generous. Our contributions are up. That is a good sign that we will be able to meet the need in the months ahead.”
“Our church buildings may be closed, but that doesn’t mean that our churches are closed,” noted Minnehaha United Methodist Pastor Becky Seachrist. “We continue to fulfill our mission. Now, we have to do it in new ways.”
* 25% of capacity
*Gov. Tim Walz has issued a new executive order enabling places of worship to hold indoor services, starting on May 27, at 25% of their capacity, as long as they follow public health guidelines. Churches and other places of worship must provide six feet of separation between attendees. Indoor and outdoor events are limited to a maximum of 250 participants.