The Chinese Supper Club of St. George’s Church, Laguna Hills, holds a virtual meeting via Zoom so that members can connect while in isolation due to COVID-19 crisis. Screenshot by Beth Dancy

California’s March 19 shelter-in-place COVID-19 protection order has left students like Eric Filson, 13, of Upland, feeling “homesick for school.”

The forced vacation “feels like house arrest” but daily morning Zoom chapels have helped to ease his feelings of isolation, says Filson, an eighth grader at St. Mark’s Episcopal School.

“It [virtual chapel] is just a really good way to start off the morning, seeing a group of familiar faces,” he said. “It’s one way for the community to get together because we obviously can’t do it in person.”

Connecting virtually has lifted everyone’s spirits, agreed Kelly Russell, 33, who teaches mathematics, science and other classes at the Upland school. “We’re a very tightknit community,” she said. “Everyone is just so happy to see each other and even though we are all apart, it feels like we’re together in that moment and it’s really nice.”

Throughout the Diocese of Los Angeles, church worship services and activities have also moved online in efforts to stay connected, as new coronavirus cases have continued to spike.

As the lockdown continues indefinitely, many congregations are offering morning and evening prayer services via Facebook Live, Zoom or Go 2 Meeting and other social media platforms. Church vestries and bishop’s committees also use them to continue to conduct business, while book groups, bible studies and prayer ministries are also connecting in similar ways.

Creative connections

That connection is most important, said Bob Howe, a parishioner at St. George’s Church who facilitated a Zoom meeting of the Laguna Hills congregation’s “Chinese Supper Club” on March 29.

For Howe and others, it was a light-hearted way to stave off social isolation. “We miss seeing each other and even though we have kept in touch through virtual worship, individually, we didn’t have that same social interaction,” he said. Instead of the group’s usual practice of gathering in a local restaurant, members ordered take out and deliveries—from Chinese noodles to Subway sandwiches—and ate a virtual meal together.

“We began with a prayer, gave thanks for the food, and then we asked each person, where they were, what they were eating and how they are doing,” recalled Howe.

“We just broke bread together. The whole purpose was to keep in touch with people because we’re so isolated right now. And with Zoom, it’s a very good way to see everybody’s faces all at one time and wave at each other. We even put our pets in our laps so they could participate.”

Virtual coffee hours are also growing in popularity. Recently, members of St. John’s Church in Corona remained online after Sunday worship to sip coffee together.

Such contact feels so important the church has begun hosting daily virtual offerings for parishioners, including Bible Trivia, a book study discussion, a coffee and devotions time as well as Bible study. “This was a nudge, or perhaps a shove, we needed to get into the 21st century,” Stansfield added. “I am very proud of so many of our seniors who took on the challenge of learning how to Zoom.”

Similarly, at St. Augustine’s by-the-Sea, Santa Monica, about 60 current and former parishioners “trickled in and out” of a recent virtual coffee hour, according to the Rev. Katie Cadigan. “In addition to church topics, people talked about things like recipes and how they are getting exercise during the shutdown.”

In Beverly Hills, All Saints Church offered a March 26 Zoom Pop Up Party prior to a live-streamed Compline service. The church’s choir, along with several other affinity and caregiver support groups continue to meet via Zoom.

Kelly Russell of St. Mark’s School in Upland leads her class in weeks before the school was shut down due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Photo: St. Mark’s School

Technology and telephone trees

Like many congregations, All Saints Church in Oxnard is blending high-tech with the traditional telephone tree to stay connected, especially to seniors.

“We also have a ‘WhatsApp’ account that is used a lot by our Spanish service participants and we’ve also been staying in touch with that,” according to the Rev. Melissa Campbell-Langdell, rector.

The church has also increased frequency of electronic updates and newsletters and has added worship services. “We did a Novena with our Spanish language parishioners, where we prayed the healing rosary for nine days,” she said. “Now, we’re going to go to a weekly Evening Prayer in our Spanish service and with the English service we tend to have a Wednesday evening healing Eucharist.

Churches providing aid, assistance

Many churches are also mobilizing efforts to aid those who are unable to leave their homes because of age or health-related conditions, even to go to the grocery store.

The St. John’s “Helpers” in Rancho Santa Margarita, are one such group. Volunteers are organizing to pick up and deliver groceries and other essential items, according to B.J. Sullivan, a bishop’s committee member. Others are coaching members about setting up online food ordering accounts and are making telephone checks and praying with parishioners.

“These are extraordinary times, so we are trying to keep our ministries going and maintain connections,” Sullivan told The Episcopal News recently. “There’s a whole technology learning curve that is getting better day by day. We are using Zoom calls for all sorts of things to connect spiritually.”

Zoom has been helpful with Sullivan’s third-year Education for Ministry studies, she added. “There are about ten in the group. It reminds me of images of the Brady Bunch or Hollywood Squares. I think about [comedian and host] Paul Lynde being in the center square and it makes me laugh.”

Feeding, homeless ministries suffer

The virus has exacerbated social inequalities and created challenges for churches like St. Nicholas in Encino, whose feeding ministry has been forced to close.

“We took a big hit,” according to the Rev. Michael Cooper, rector. “We feed anywhere from 125 to 150 people every Tuesday night, and another 150 on Sunday afternoons. “We are completely shut down.” But he said the church had managed to get some McDonald’s gift cards to offer to those in need.

Similarly, for some college students, the stay-at-home order means staying in school dormitories because they have nowhere else to go.

The Rev. Scott Claassen, vicar of St. Michael’s University Church in Isla Vista, said he has been reaching out to students who are essentially stuck in dormitory rooms.

While the majority of students have left campuses, these students don’t have another home, Claassen told The Episcopal News recently. “They are generally undocumented students and have stuck around,” he said. “They check in with me, nearly daily. There are a lot of kids trying to figure out what their role is in this.”

St. Michael’s offers podcasts of Sunday worship and Wednesday evening Compline. “It’s been touching for people to participate in and to hear,” he said. “This humanizes the whole experience. We are trying to find new ways to be in touch, with phone calls, Zoom, and other things. The things that work the best are the moments when we actually talk about what’s going on.”

Similarly, the Rev. Glenn Libby, chaplain at Canterbury USC, said, “There are about 1,400 kids still in university housing at USC.” The schools are making accommodations for them, he said.

Libby, who also serves as an interim chaplain at UC-Irvine, said the UCI students “met over Zoom last Wednesday, and that was helpful for them. They are all inside and are bored, and it was great for them to hear what each other is thinking. Some were not ready to talk yet; they still feel disrupted.”

Libby is also rector of St. Philip’s Church in Los Angeles, which has livestreamed worship on Facebook in both English and Spanish.

Although some churches may feel challenged to provide online worship, he noted that viewership appears to be outpacing in-person attendance. “We had over 230 views, which is way more than our normal congregation average Sunday attendance. It is very interesting.”

COVID-19’s personal toll

The Rev. James Livingston has felt the impact of COVID-19 virus both professionally and personally.

An associate rector at St. Margaret’s Church in San Juan Capistrano, he also teaches religion classes at the school. And while online curricula has been a teaching tool, the distance learning “has felt a little weird,” he said. “In some sense, all the elements of teaching a class are there. You can talk to students face to face, yet it’s not interpersonal.

“It’s a bit harder to start more spontaneous learning interaction and we definitely can’t do a lot of the fun physical parts of learning. Like I would tell the students to get together in a group and to read a passage of Scripture and rewrite it. That hasn’t been able to happen.”

On a more personal level, he said, “the pandemic became very real” after his mother, Martha “Marti” Livingston, 81, died recently of complications from the COVID-19 virus.

He described as both surreal and a “hit-you-in-the-heart-moment” when he was trying to absorb the news of his mother’s diagnosis. “It was kind of like, hey, that’s that thing that’s really happening all around the whole world,” he told The Episcopal News.

Unable to travel to Pennsylvania to be with his mother, he recalled “getting on the phone with my two siblings and having to make the worst decision of your life” to remove her from life support.

Yet there was a measure of comfort. “This is not how I had planned for this closure,” Livingston said. “But right when they were going to remove her from the ventilator, she was able to hear our voices. I wanted my kids to be able to say how much they loved her over the phone and any other kid things to make her smile. So, my kids were able to talk to her.”

The virus has also been challenging personally and professionally for others, like Lily Cooper, 17, a member of St. Nicholas’ Church, Encino; a Ralph’s grocery store courtesy clerk in La Crescenta; and a high school senior who expected to graduate this year.

“I just spent the last four years with my best friends, and I might not have a class with them again,” she said. “This is taking everybody’s lives over. Some of us realize we might be online for the rest of the year and that really stinks.”

Plus, there are all the fun activities that accompany a senior year. “My senior retreat was cancelled,” she told The Episcopal News. “My prom was cancelled. So was graduation. My school just said they might just mail us our diplomas. Everything I’ve been working so hard for I might not be able to get.”

Her father, the Rev. Michael Cooper, calls her a hero because she continues faithfully to go to work, because as essential businesses grocery stores are remaining open.

“For the first month when this happened, it was really crazy,” Lily recalled. “There were lines outside the store. We were getting overwhelmed. We were running out of almost everything.”

She feels that her youth makes her “more prone to being yelled at by customers. They scream at us even though it’s not our fault,” she said. “The hardest part has been realizing that everybody’s frustrated with this, that they can’t get the things they need. But we’ve been trying to do the best we can. That’s been hard.”

She hopes people will realize that she and other grocery workers are scared too.

“A lot of us are exposed to hundreds of people every day and a lot of customers haven’t realized we’re not the bad guys,” she said. “A lot of people don’t realize we don’t want to be there either, but we are still there, because we realize everybody needs to get food.”

And another disappointment came when “my dad told me that we won’t even have an Easter vigil this year,” she said. “That’s really tough, because Easter’s my favorite time of year and I love it.”

Yet she says she is looking ahead to the future positively and keeping the faith.

“I know God doesn’t do things like this,” she told The News. “God’s not going to put a virus in the world that’s going to jack everything up.”

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