Reading Churches React to COVID-19

Reading, MA – As we enter further into quarantine and self-isolation, Reading residents have seen a variety of their weekly routines disrupted; going to movie theaters, eating out at local restaurants, and, last week, attending Easter Mass.

A mostly empty parking lot next to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Reading (Photo Julia Corbett)

Among the many victims of social distancing have been religious institutions, something that was acutely felt last weekend when they were not able to hold their traditional Easter Masses and services. Religion has long been held as the bastion of tradition and community, yet in the months since the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in the United States, religious institutions across the country have had to adapt in order to continue to serve their congregations. So, then the question becomes, how can one foster a sense of community during this time of social isolation?

“We made a pretty quick switch to live streaming right away mid-March,” said Reverend Attridge of First Congregational Church of Reading.

All the other churches in Reading made similar moves shortly after the scope of the COVID-19 pandemic became clear. All of the churches in Reading have made the transition to live streaming their services on their Facebook pages and websites. Churches websites now often include troubleshooting pages and instructions on how to access sermons online. This switch to putting mass online is one that some hope to keep even after people are able to worship in groups again.

“We’ve been able to reach a lot of people who just can’t connect on Sunday mornings at 10 am.  […]  In some ways we have more people going to church now than we did before the pandemic because it’s all online. A lot of people have been inviting their friends, and a lot of their friends who have been isolated have been watching. Even some of the little kids have been watching the liturgy. It’s a great way to reach out beyond our community. It allows people to see what we do, without committing. It allows you to be anonymous and explore.” said Reverend Raiche of the Church of the Good Shepherd.

Some children watch the Church of the Good Shepherd liturgy (courtesy of Reverend Raiche)

Churches have taken differing approaches regarding how, and where, to film their services. Some have opted to continue to conduct services while in the church, in order to give their parishioners a sense of routine. Others have opted to film their services at their homes, in order to reflect the reality that many of their parishioners are living in.

“What’s wonderful is moving to this at-home virtual church has allowed us to feature more church member involvement by sending in videos of them reading the scripture or playing music and we sync it all together live,” said Reverend Attridge.

Facebook and the Internet have allowed communities to continue many aspects of the mass and service, albeit in a new fashion. The First Congregational Church of Reading has been having people press the heart emoji during their Facebook Live streams in order to pass the peace, and the Unitarian Universalist has been asking their parishioners to fill out their Virtual Green Card form if they have a joy or concern that they would like to have shared during the service. 

Yet, masses are only one aspect of the community that religious institutions build. Churches in Reading are often home to youth group meetings, coffee hours, and prayer meetings. Many of these meetings have moved to Zoom, in order to give parishioners the chance to continue to see each other. First Baptist Church of Reading is offering virtual prayer meetings over Zoom on Monday, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Old South Church, Unitarian Universalist Church of Reading, Church of the Good Shepherd, and the First Congregational Church of Reading are all offering coffee hours over Zoom. The video-streaming service is a favorite of many of the religious institutions in Reading due to the fact that it allows people to connect either with their webcam, or, if they do not have access to a webcam, through a phone number.

“We are trying to communicate on a regular basis. The coffee hour has been great, especially for older folks, who have really been taking this isolation seriously” said Reverend Raiche.

Local churches have also been performing other services in order to reach their most vulnerable members. Several churches have created volunteer groups in order to drop off groceries to their elderly or vulnerable parishioners. The Church of the Good Shepherd put palms on the fence outside of their church on Palm Sunday so that anyone in Reading, regardless of what church they frequent, would be able to pick up palms if they so wanted.

Palms outside of The Church of the Good Shepherd (courtesy of Reverend Raiche)

When asked if they had any advice for the residents of Reading during this trying time, they offered words of hope and wisdom.

“Be cognizant of your mental health and check in with someone. It’s okay that you’re not “productive” in this time. You don’t need to be” said Reverend Attridge.

“Don’t be afraid to learn the technology, or ask for help, because people are always willing to walk you through it” said Reverend Raiche.

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