CORONAVIRUS

Religious leaders find virtual ways to worship during COVID-19

'We don't serve a God of fear,' Marion United Methodist Church pastor says

Pastor Mike Morgan, joined by only four staff members from his church, leads his congregation in prayer Wednesday by liv
Pastor Mike Morgan, joined by only four staff members from his church, leads his congregation in prayer Wednesday by livestream at Marion United Methodist in Marion. The sanctuary capable of accommodating over 1,000 people when in regular use. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Pastor Mike Morgan is joining religious leaders worldwide in preaching to an empty sanctuary until further notice.

The pastor of Marion United Methodist Church is leading his congregation via YouTube Live after Gov. Kim Reynolds last week prohibited gatherings of no more than 10 people over public health concerns as the novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19, continues to spread.

Morgan said moving services online was “mostly well received, but we’re Iowans, It’s Sunday — we go to church.”

About 2,200 people call this church home, and Sunday attendance ranges from 700 to 800.

But one day last week fewer than 10 people gathered in the sanctuary for a service. Three people ran the tech booth and a small worship band played before Morgan preached.

“The things most of us need right now in a pastoral message is a few words of comfort during a situation that can really cause panic,” Morgan said. “We don’t serve a God of fear. He is our comfort and strength in difficult times. We lean into that.”

Churches across the United States are facing the question of how to bring people together — but still keep them apart — during a global pandemic. As Easter Sunday approaches April 12, religious leaders express a desire to gather together on the important religious holiday, but are not optimistic restrictions will be lifted by then.

And churches face the financial difficulties of not being able to pass the offering plate — or continue to receive pledges from members who lose their jobs.

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Although he’s concerned about church finances during this time, Morgan said people’s safety is his main worry.

“There has never been a moment in the history of the church where offering wasn’t a concern,” he said. “Many churches will struggle during this time because of that.”

Marion United Methodist Church accepts online giving, which Morgan said the congregation has been encouraged to do for years.

People who can’t give electronically are encouraged to mail their offering to the church.

But Morgan realizes that people may lose their jobs during the pandemic.

“People without jobs can’t give offering,” he said. “The best offering we can get is helping people get through this.”

With Easter just around the corner, Morgan said Easter services won’t be canceled, but he doesn’t expect to be able to meet in person. He is planning an online Easter service.

“For every church in our neighborhood, when we all get together for the first time again, that will be Easter — if it’s April 12 or some day in May or June.”

Bible studies at the church are being held online with Zoom, a video conferencing website. The church is keeping the congregation informed with weekly email blasts. For people without access to the internet, the church is mailing newsletters.

The live services can be found online at MarionMethodist.org.

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Saint Pius X Catholic Church in Cedar Rapids has canceled all Masses and is directing people to the Sunday Mass telecast by the Archdiocese of Dubuque at dbqarch.org.

Saint Pius X will livestream the Tuesday and Thursday 9 a.m. Masses at the church.

Father Philip Thompson said livestreaming presents a learning curve, but he has staff with experience.

“Christianity is a relational religion,” Thompson said. “This whole social distancing thing, while I understand the necessity for it, it really is the antithesis of Christianity. God became one of us. He didn’t do it from afar. He came to us. That’s what we’re about.”

People seeking confession can should call Saint Pius X to make an appointment. Confession must be done in person, Thompson said.

Thompson said he is very concerned about Easter, and he doesn’t think restrictions on gatherings will be lifted by then. The staff has begun talking about what livestreaming Holy Week services of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter would look like.

“The simple message is that we will get through this,” Thompson said. “We need to rely on God’s grace and help and continue to pray. There’s no better remedy than prayer.”

Rich Balvanz, associate pastor at King of Kings Lutheran Church in Cedar Rapids, which serves 900 members, said there is the possibility that moving church online reaches people who otherwise would never set foot inside a church.

“It’s a very non-intimidating way to reach people, to have this experience and see what it is we do here,” he said.

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King of Kings is streaming services on YouTube Live on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings, which Balvanz said the church has done for a long time.

“It’s kind of routine for many of our members who use it when they’re on vacation or whatever,” Balvanz said. “As Christians, we are called into fellowship, and we want to try to maintain that fellowship as closely as possible.”

Balvanz said the church as a responsibility to set an example and follow best practices during this pandemic.

River of Life in Cedar Rapids also decided to move services online. On Tuesday, the church asked small groups to cancel their events.

Pastor Steve Irwin his sermon on Fridays, preaching from the coffee shop inside the church. A worship team records one song that will play at the beginning of each service. It will be launched on the River of Life app and website Sunday mornings.

The church is also putting together a phone chain and prayer team to reach out to people in the congregation who are elderly or might be struggling while working from home with young children, Irwin said.

Temple Judah in Cedar Rapids, which serves about 100 families, will be meeting for its Friday evening services over Zoom. Rabbi Todd Thalblum said if 40 people call in, he would be “so excited.”

Thalblum has his eye on Passover in mid-April, and hopes the congregation will be able to meet for Seder at the beginning of it.

“That would be a difficult thing to cancel,” Thalblum said.

Comments: (319) 368-8664; grace.king@thegazette.com

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