It’s something like a koan that we have been living for almost two months. Ever since it became clear back in March that the novel coronavirus made it unsafe for us to gather as a community, we have distanced ourselves from our campus at Edwin Place on Asheville’s north side.
Worship, religious education, covenant groups, committees, spiritual groups, staff meetings – everything we do we are learning to do while peering at small screens, bathed in blue light, navigating unfamiliar software. For some of us this was a pretty quick transition. After all, we were already spending a lot of our lives online, and so shifting more of what we do onto our devices was not a big deal. Others of us have been wading into a not-so-brave new world that is disorienting and frustrating.
We’re far enough into this new world that it’s starting to lose its novelty. Sure, it was fun for a while catching up the Berlin Philharmonic for free or binge-watching Friends, but we miss good old face-to-face conversations, not to speak of hugs and handshakes. What if we are weeks, months . . . who know how long? . . . from being in each other’s company again?
In such stressful times, we need more than ever the support of a community that affirms us for who we are, that points us toward higher values, that demands justice for all – for the oppressed and marginalized, but also the vast number of people who have seen their lives tipped into chaos.
Whether we congregate or not, the work remains: the drive to find inspiration, to facilitate connection, to build community, to uphold the common good. So, all of us – staff, lay leaders, facilitators – are keeping at it: mostly at home, often on Zoom calls or by telephone. We are learning new skills but also sticking with the tried and true – check-in calls, meal trains, singing, laughing, talking over whatever medium we have available to us.
Worship, my chief responsibility, has changed radically. Everything we do is much more a “production” than it ever was. The writing is different, and we’re more conscious of how we integrate images into all that we do. We’re still reaching some 250 to 300 people a week, but video is a more intimate medium than presenting to a sanctuary full of people. What’s nice is that it’s enabled us to invite lots of different people into worship. For example, we’re involving families and children more than we have before.
As we look ahead to the summer, we want to do more of this. Claudia and I will be asking around, but don’t wait for our call. If you have something to offer or if you just are willing to be a video worship participant, please let us know. As disorienting as this time is, it also presents us with all kinds of opportunities to try new things. We have continued to follow something like what had been our regular order of worship. It is, after all, a tested container that we’re familiar with. But I envision us exploring some other options as this medium evolves. We still want music, meditation, stories and inspiring words, but what form they take may shift. Come help us figure out what this might look like.
And the same applies to our Wednesday Vespers, offered weekly at 6:30 p.m. It is the part of what had been our Wednesday Thing that still continues, and we would like to stick with it, if we can. We see Vespers as a moment to pause midweek for a kind of spiritual tune-up. Unlike the weekly worship service, it is presented live on Zoom, which gives us a chance to see each other. Presenters offer a story, reflection, meditation for 15 minutes. Then, we take another 15 minutes to share, either together or in Zoom break-out rooms if the gathering is more than 10 to 15 people. Please check in with Rev. Claudia if this sounds interesting, or even better: join her planning team. We could use some more help right now.
The biggest lift of all has been learning to interface with the daunting array of technology to produce all of this. It is bright and shiny, but also often a real puzzle to sort through. The technologies we’re using are new to many of us and often take enormous amounts of time to figure out. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t. We’re learning.
One decision we made around Sunday worship early on to was record the elements of the service in advance, then combine them into a package that can be viewed on Sunday. That way we can present a relatively finished presentation. But, of course, what’s missing from all this is you. So, we’re beginning to talk about what it would look like to offer a live, rather than recorded Sunday service. The downside is it would take away the flexibility that you have to watch the service whenever you want, but it would also enable us to truly “congregate” and more easily welcome visitors into our services.
There has been lots of speculation on when people will feel comfortable gathering again. We staff are operating on the assumption that we will be worshipping online at least until early September, and, depending on how well we navigate the COVID pandemic in North Carolina, it could be much longer. One thing I feel confident in saying is that the way we “do church” is changing. But if we do this thoughtfully, compassionately and with an eye to our values and mission in the world, it can be for the good. And throughout all this it will be good to have you along for the ride.
Be well. Stay in touch. Hold onto hope.
Lead Minister Rev. Mark Ward