There may be no greater need for faith than in troubled times, and yet churches throughout Wisconsin and the nation are having to shutter their doors in an attempt to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Many local pastors are urging their communities to remember that the tenants of faith are not principals confined to buildings, and some churches are adopting more advanced technology to connect with their congregants.
Last Sunday, Father Shaji Pazhukkathara offered Mass for a full congregation — often 115 members strong — at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Park Falls. This Sunday, he will offer the Mass alone in the church.
“My whole life has changed this week,” Fr. Shaji told the Review in an interview on Friday.
Like many local religious leaders, it is the first time in his life Fr. Shaji has been faced by such a challenge — attempting to offer guidance and leadership to his community while limiting in-person interactions as much as possible.
“My advice for people is to continue to care for each other,” said Fr. Shaji. “Follow the government’s instructions, keep physical distance, but remain together in spirit and prayer.”
Fr. Shaji will continue to offer the Mass privately on a daily basis for the intentions of the community. On Fridays, people may visit the church between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. for private prayer, although they will need to call in advance to ensure no more than 10 people will be in the church at any one time. A sign-up sheet located outside the main worship area will allow people to see how many individuals are already in the church before entering. Confessions can be made between 1-3 p.m. on Fridays, with the same limitations on the number of people allowed in the church.
In between the community’s visits, surfaces that come into physical contact with visitors will be cleaned, and people are encouraged to use hand sanitizer on a regular basis.
Pastor Dale Heinlein of Peace Lutheran Church in Park Falls has found himself calling on his background as a military chaplain over the last few days; work where he learned to be adaptable in offering ministry wherever and whenever the opportunity presented itself.
“We need to be ready to adjust our ministry opportunities at a minute’s notice,” he told the Review.
While his congregation will no longer be able to gather together on Sunday morning to worship as a community, Pastor Heinlein will continue to offer church services over the radio at 9 a.m. on Sundays on 98.3FM. While the music used in the service will be pre-recorded from previous services, all other aspects of the worship will be live.
Although this will be the first time in the Peace Lutheran’s history that services will not be held in the church on Sunday, Heinlein said that his congregation has been supportive and understanding of the need to temporarily disband in-person worship in order to comply with Governor Tony Evers’ guidelines for limiting the spread of COVID-19.
He recommended that during this time community and congregation members remain in contact via phone, email, and social media.
“We need to remain in touch, if not physically,” he said.
Peace Lutheran has also made access to adult bible studies free of charge at RightNowMedia.com, allowing for people to study from their homes.
Home visits — an important aspect of the work done at many local pastors — have been postponed by both Peace Lutheran and St. Anthony’s, and are being replaced with conversation and prayer held over the phone.
At the Phillips First Presbyterian Church in Phillips, Pastor Matthew Arneson spent much of last week on the phone with fellow members of the local clergy association and local leadership, working to come up with a plan that will serve the community for however long the bans on public gatherings remain in effect.
He said that the strong relationships fostered by the association with community leadership is serving as a boon in this difficult time, laying the groundwork for the churches to help the broader community beyond their congregations. Although it is unknown at this point if it will prove necessary, Pastor Arneson said the use of the First Presbyterian’s church has been offered to local leadership as a site for COVID-19 testing, should such a space be required in the coming weeks.
While the in-church services at First Presbyterian are suspended, Pastor Arneson said the congregants will transition to sharing liturgical readings and worship resources via email, allowing for regular discussion amongst congregation members throughout the week.
He encouraged people who wish to help their communities in this time to reach out to local leadership so that efforts can be channeled into productive and long-term projects that will have a greater impact.
With the guidelines changing frequently, pastors remind their congregants that plans are constantly evolving in response to the news.
Reporter’s note: A closer look at local churches’ changing schedules and ministry plans will appear in next week’s print edition of the Review.