As believers shelter at home, churches find new ways to keep the faith

MARFA — When Michael Wallens, reverend at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Marfa, switched from in-person to livestream sermons last month, he was shocked by the turnout.

Judging “by the numbers on Facebook,” he said, “there’s no way they could fit in our church.” And the virtual pews stay overflowing week after week.

As coronavirus upends everything from commerce to daily life across the United States, it’s also changing the way people worship. After decades, or centuries, of in-person services, churches around the country are going digital.

Texas, unlike other states, has classified religious gatherings as “essential services.” They can still continue during the pandemic so long as believers practice good hygiene and social-distancing rules, according to guidelines from Governor Greg Abbott and the Texas Division of Emergency Management.

Those rules make it unlikely that Texas will see situations like in Louisiana — where, for example, a pastor in Baton Rouge has been charged with at least six misdemeanors for continuing to hold church services. Still, Texas officials are encouraging churches to conduct home and remote services if possible. And as a precaution, many are doing just that.

For church leaders like Wallens, that guidance has led to big changes. St. Paul’s has started broadcasting Sunday services on Facebook Live. For Bible studies and other gatherings that require conversation and community input, the church is trying out Zoom.

“I’ll admit I didn’t pay much attention to tech gatherings,” Wallens said with a laugh. “It just never crossed my mind. And now I see there’s a lot of benefit.”

Wallens and other faith leaders have also been brainstorming other ways to keep their church together as congregants self-isolate. As a member of the church’s Bishop’s Committee, he’s asked church leaders to call up congregants to “check on how they’re doing and what their needs might be.”

If congregants need groceries or other errands, he calls up someone on the church’s volunteer list. Other times, they’re just lonely and need to talk.

Wallens is still figuring out how to handle other big events. At the top of that list is the upcoming Easter holiday on Sunday, April 12.

His initial plan, he said, was to organize some kind of ad-hoc service in the Marfa Elementary School parking lot. People could stay in their cars and worship together. But “even that’s prohibited now,” he said.

St. Paul’s has kept its church doors open 24/7 so that “people can come in, say their prayers and keep their distance,” he said. The church is also still running a food collection, where people can drop off donations. And Wallens has been mulling ways to handle more hands-on parts of the faith, like baptisms.

One idea, he said, is to do baptisms via Zoom or over the phone. “Let’s say someone has a baby and they want that baby baptized,” he said. “I could talk to them and guide them through the process. They pour the water on the baby, and we say the prayers together.”

Still, he misses the community-based parts of church, whether they be baptisms or marriages.

“All those require, or used to require, some sort of presence,” he said. “I miss that. I think we lose something when we can’t gather the community together.”

As Wallens sees it, the pandemic has forced both good and bad changes. He’s found new ways to connect to believers and has seen new people tune into his services from across the tri-county area. There’s been an outpouring of charity and goodwill.

At the same time, he worries about believers who might think “maybe I don’t have to come to church anymore.”

He worries even more about already isolated people — especially the elderly — who might not have the technology or know-how to tune in to virtual services. He doesn’t want anyone to feel abandoned or to “drop through the cracks,” he said.

Father Miguel “Mike” Alcuino at the Santa Teresa de Jesus church in Presidio has found himself grappling with the same issues.

He’s been adapting church traditions like funerals to conform with the new social-distancing guidelines. Burials can be visited by “only members of the family,” he said. And if the family wants a funeral mass, it’s done the next day, with “limited numbers also.”

As for mass itself? “It’s been suspended until further notice,” Alcuino said with a laugh.

He admits he’s “not really that computer-savvy.” And if he does figure out a way to livestream his services, he’s not sure how many people in Presidio would have the means or know-how to tune in.

But even without Sunday services, Alcuino says he doesn’t worry about people losing faith. “People who have faith, they have faith,” he said. And the lack of Sunday services could even “be a good thing, because this is what we call a test. Of their own selves, their own faith.”

Besides, he points out, people in Presidio have many other ways to continue gathering (if only virtually) on Sundays. Many of his churchgoers, he said, are already tuning into mass on the Eternal Word Television Network, a Catholic TV station.

And while Alcuino isn’t trying out livestream services, he nonetheless sees how they are bringing people together. The Vatican has been streaming services, which Presidio residents can tune into.

And it isn’t just the Vatican, either. Churches as far away as Asia are putting their services online, he said.

“Can you even imagine?” he said. Where once there was physical mass at Santa Teresa, churchgoers now have a digital buffet of Catholic services to choose from.

Alcuino is trying to keep a stoic perspective on the coronavirus pandemic.

“This will pass away,” he said, “and we will just go back to normalcy. We don’t have to be so uptight about it.”

That’s the perspective Wallens is trying to keep too. “I’ve stumbled down with the technology,” he said, but “we learn from our stumblings, and we grow from our successes too. This is new territory for all of us.”

“I’m not saying I’m glad we have this pandemic,” he added, but “it’s forced us to be a certain way. There’s a lot to be learned from this in terms of how to support people and how to love people.” And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.