Holston churches gain new vision during virus pandemic

Holston churches gain new vision during virus pandemic

Members at Mafair United Methodist Church sent their cardboard stand-ins to church to inspire the pastor during online worship.

The buildings may be closed, but the church is alive in Holston Conference.

Two weeks after Bishop Dindy Taylor mandated cessation of public worship to the shock of many, church members are not only adapting but rallying to share worship, communion, encouragement, food, face masks, and other expressions of love in a world changed by coronavirus.

On March 18, Bishop Taylor announced all of Holston’s 864 churches would close their buildings to the public “until further notice,” extending an initial shutdown of two weeks. On March 23, Holston Conference leaders announced the closing of Alcoa Conference Center, causing meetings to be canceled and staff to work remotely from their homes.

As other Holstonians retreated to their homes, following government orders to help slow down the spread of the virus, the Hiwassee District was informed last weekend that the husband of a retired clergy member had died after contracting COVID-19. The surviving clergy member was reportedly recovering after hospitalization for fever.

“Please pray for this dear friend,” Bishop Taylor said in an email announcement.

Early this week, district offices received good news from Treasurer Rick Cherry, announcing that a new online giving tool had collected $26,044 from 155 donors in just five days. The online form is provided free for local churches, enabling their members to give remotely, Cherry said.

On March 20, the Holston Foundation announced a new emergency grant program to help churches address the impact of COVID-19 and meet the needs of their communities. Grants of $500 to $2,000 are available, said Paul Bowman, executive director. The application deadline is April 6. Find out more.

Pastors and members of Holston churches shared good news with their neighbors as well.

Broad Street United Methodist Church has had rotating messages on a digital billboard at the busiest intersection in Cleveland, Tennessee, for about four years. When the pandemic became a reality and churches were closed, Broad Street leaders removed the worship-service promotions for a new series of messages.

“We decided what people need is simple good news,” said the Rev. Betsy Switzer, associate pastor.

Broad Street’s messages included in the rotation are now: (1) "You are loved"; (2) "You are not alone"; and (3) "Best of all, God is with us."
Broad Street's billboard in Cleveland, Tenn.

"We're trying to keep everyone positive and connected. That's the big thing," Switzer said. Broad Street's cost for the digital billboard messages is about $400 monthly.

In Dunlap, Tennessee, Church Hill United Methodist Church created a “drive-in church” for the Sequatchie Valley community on Sunday, March 22.

“We had talked about how we could best reach the most people, and the concern was how to reach the saints who don't have social media or internet,” said the Rev. Jared Wood.

Church member Jeff Jones suggested, “Let's get a transmitter and have drive-in church." 

Jones got the transmitters and found open radio call numbers. A team of people “took care of making sure everyone could hear clearly from the comfort and safety of their cars, but at the same time being able to see each other,” Wood said.

On Sunday, 128 people attended worship, listening through their radios. The pastor preached from the back of a pick-up truck, receiving prayer requests by text. Hymn music was pre-recorded. The offering was collected in barrels at the exit.
Rev. Jared Wood preaches at 'drive-in church.'

Worshippers included members of other denominations and churches, Wood said.

“I have gotten a lot of ‘thank yous’ from folks saying it offered a lot of hope just seeing each other, even if it was through a car window.”

In Knoxville, Tennessee, the Rev. Joe Phillips came up with his own version of “drive-through communion” at Norwood United Methodist Church on Sunday afternoon. He reduced risk of passing on the virus by blessing the elements – a bread roll, protected in a sandwich bag, and a mini bottle of grape juice – ahead of time.

Wearing plastic gloves, Phillips gave the bread and juice to participants through car windows, praying at a distance. The intent was for them to take and share communion later, safely at home.
Norwood's drive-through communion

“It was very emotional,” Phillips said of church members who participated. One member was glad to learn about Holston’s online giving tool and went home to make an electronic offering. “Another cried, and yet another was smiling about taking communion to her granddaughter.”

In Kingsport, Tennessee, youth leaders at Mafair United Methodist Church invited church members to create cardboard replicas of themselves to inhabit the pews as the Rev. Adam Love is preaching to an online congregation.

“It’s nice to see faces and not an empty room,” said Love. “It’s very Mafair ... They have a good sense of humor.”
Mafair's cardboard worshipper, Oneda Coates

Eric and Betsy Rowe came up with the idea, inspired by the motionless audience in the television series, “The Muppet Show,” Love said. About 50 church members have joined the “cardboard congregation” so far.

Church members were delighted when Mafair posted an online video of the virtual congregation, inspiring more church members to contribute their doppelgangers.

Responding to a reported shortage of face masks for medical personnel, several Holston groups have been inspired to sew face masks by hand. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control states that although homemade masks may not protect against coronavirus, they may be used as a “last resort.”

Ballad Health has announced it will accept homemade masks at urgent care locations in upper East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. Ballad has released instructions for making the masks. Other hospitals and medical groups have stated they will not use homemade masks.

“I’ve got respiratory nurses using them,” said the Rev. Mark Wills, pastor at Carter’s Chapel and Carter's Station United Methodist Churches in Greeneville, Tennessee.
Rev. Mark Wills sews face masks.

He and his wife, Jana Wills, have organized a social-media group, The Greeneville Tailor Shop, to encourage others to join in sewing masks. Other individuals are wearing homemade masks to discourage them from touching their faces or to reduce the use of manufactured, approved masks needed for medical workers caring for COVID-19 patients.

As of March 24, more than 400 masks had been created, according to Jana Wills.

“I made 33 today,” Wills said. “Thirty went to Greeneville City Schools food distributors -- the people running the buses and feeding the kids and families; one to the mail carrier; and two to a respiratory therapist.”


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Annette Spence

Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.

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