Computers, apps, chats and gloves: Salem’s churches turn to new tools to stay connected

Jon Lemmond, lead pastor at Trinity Covenant Church in Salem, now records Sunday sermons and posts them online so that parishioners can view them from home amid social distancing guidelines. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

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In March, life changed for Salem’s pastors, reverends, imams and rabbis.

As COVID-19 entered Oregon, tightening restrictions on gatherings put most worship ceremonies off limits. 

Like dominoes falling, one worship house after another stopped its traditional gatherings.

The Salem Islamic Center canceled services by March 12.

Salem Alliance Church canceled weekend services on March 13.

Trinity Covenant Church closed its facility to congregants on March 17.

By mid-March, most Salem houses of worship were shuttered. But leaders still had messages to share.

So they turned to tools like Zoom, Facebook Live and WhatsApp to connect. And others changed their service models entirely, so they could continue some form of personal worship while maintaining strict social distancing protocols.

Making the shift is hard, and sometimes, technology seemed to interfere with real connection. But faithful Salem community members, looking for solace during a tough time, appreciate that work.

“I am truly thankful for the leaders who are willing to move beyond ‘what’s always been done,’ going outside of their comfort zone, and pursuing these new methods of meeting together to fight the isolation we suddenly find ourselves in,” said Elizabeth Silva, member of the congregation of West Salem Foursquare Church.

Many Salem organizations are looking for ways to hold regular, real-time gatherings in which the community comes together to pray while remaining safely at home. On some digital platforms, they can even call out words of encouragement to one another or ask questions of their leaders.

Two of Salem’s Jewish communities, Chabad of Salem and Temple Beth Sholom, are using both Facebook Live and Zoom for services. Terri Ellen, owner of local pet-sitting company Salem Bed and Biscuit, uses them both.

“I like the fact that Facebook Live can send me a notice when someone ‘goes live,’ but I also like being able to put a Zoom link in my calendar and just click it,” she said. “I have to say, I really like the more personal connections on Zoom. I can see faces and participate in a conversation if I want to. With personal connections so scarce these days, I value the ability to be face to face, even if it is not actually in person. My experience with Facebook Live is that the communication is via chat is not quite as intimate.”

Dealing with all of that conversation and chatter can mean that pastors, rabbis and other leaders must change the way they deliver services. They must build in time for such interactivity.

“It’s really changed the way that I preach, because I’ll even pause and say ‘Okay, let’s comment as a community on this,’ and people can respond,” said Rev. Jon Lemmond of Trinity Covenant Church.

In his view, that exchange is critical.

“In the end, I think what people really appreciate are things that are engaging and interactive. The things that allow people to engage in some way so that they’re not just passive audience members,” he said.

But the experience is very different than one congregants experience in person. And sometimes, people miss what’s not available to them.

“In this new normal, the trappings are gone, and the essentials remain. We can still ‘gather’ to listen to words of wisdom and hope, to share music provided by our worship team and to be encouraged in kindness. I know I’m not the only one who sings along from home,” said Sue Crothers, member of the Salem First Presbyterian Church. “Gone is the after-church coffee klatch at the IKE Box with special friends and new faces. I’m sad about that. We have to work harder at keeping in touch individually.”

Small workgroups can help members connect to deepen their faith and tackle the scriptures. Those smaller groups do allow for a higher level of intimacy, said Teddi Tate, member of the Salem First Presbyterian Church. She’s used Zoom to connect with two such groups.

“Meeting with these folks has been a big part of my life for years, and I feel blessed to have the technology to continue to share with them. These are challenging times, and we all need all the support we can get, however we can get it,” she said.

Digital tools may help congregants feel connected, but leaders and worshippers miss the opportunity to see one another, even at a distance. Some groups are responding by bringing back interactions when they can.

Josh Dolar, coordinator of communications for Salem First Presbyterian Church, said his team recently hired a formal congregational care coordinator to ensure that homebound congregants get the food, medications and support they need.

The position was in the works for months, Dolar said, and the hiring process was completed a week before the organization had to shut down the building entirely.

“Our plan all along was to have a congregational care coordinator, but we are incredibly fortunate, and it’s honestly an example of God’s timing, that she was able to start just when we needed her the most,” he said.

Rev. Jody Becker, associate pastor at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, connects with her community through something called “Little Church.” Six days a week, congregants can drive up to the church. They stop the car, and a pastor comes to them. Parishioner and pastor remain a safe, six-feet apart. But the group talks and prays together. At the end of that talk, the parish team brings Eucharist on a tray in individual, plastic servings. Parishioners take the plastic home with them and dispose of it there.

“You can see how much it means to them, and the calming it brings to know that even though we can’t be together, our relationship with God and one another hasn’t changed,” she said.

But most of the leaders interviewed acknowledge that social distancing can save lives. And even though congregants and their leaders long to come together in large groups, it’s not always wise or safe to do so.

“We really advise people to just follow what the doctors are saying. Abstain from going out unless you have to. I really hope people listen to that. Even if you are not sick, if you go out and infect your grandfather or your grandmother, you’re going to live with that consequence for the rest of your life,” said Mostafa Sobh, a board member of the Salem Islamic Center.

Technology can open some doors to people who might not otherwise join a community of faith. But sometimes, barriers keep people apart.

Katie Mayer, communications director and young adult pastor of West Salem Foursquare, said her organization has connected with parishioners that have long been absent from the community.

“We are definitely astounded by the response we have seen online,” she said. “We have been able to catch up with some people that we haven’t connected with recently, while feeling like we can still worship together as a church family. We are definitely missing being together in person, but it has been exciting to see people who haven’t been able to come to church in awhile, those who can log in from abroad because they have been deployed, and even family members who live out of state and want to join in.”

Silva shared pre-recorded services with a family member who lives nearby but can’t always make it to services.

“We watched it ‘together,’ and we were able to share that experience we wouldn’t have under normal circumstances,” she said.

Lemmond said that technology can reduce some barriers to worship. Someone that feels uncomfortable about walking into a building to pray might find logging on a little less intimidating. But he worries about some community members that might feel left out.

“I have older parishioners I am incapable of seeing. And that’s also the challenge of technology. Some people who are older and with less experience, they really struggle. There is a feeling of isolation as well,” he said.

It’s a difficult and unusual time in Salem, and many people are reaching out to their spiritual leaders for guidance and support on navigating the challenges.

Mayer said her community is evenly split.

“While some are doing well, others are having a difficult time finding out what their new rhythm looks like when their office, gym, kid’s school, church and favorite restaurants have all been relocated to their home. Some are bored, lonely or depressed from the isolation. And even worse, we have those who are sick or mourning the loss of loved ones who have been affected by the virus,” she said.

Lemmond said his community often asks him how to be compassionate with those in need without violating social distancing protocols. How can they help give a hungry person food, without risking all of those they pass while shopping and when delivering that meal?

Questions like these are hard to answer, even during quiet times. But Becker said people in her position are always helping their parishioners grapple with the tough questions. And sometimes, the best solutions come from connection and prayer.

“We’re not giving them a word of hope. We’re discovering that hope when we join together,” she said.

Some Salem groups had plans in place for other circumstances that may help them weather the times.

Becker said her organization anticipated a dip in donations and financial support, but so far, she hasn’t seen it.

“Our community has been amazing and generous, and we haven’t yet seen the decline that we expected,” she said.

But her organization continues to plan in case that shifts and she does see a financial impact in the weeks to come.

Lemmond said his organization is in the midst of accounting processes, and progress is hampered by staff out due to social distancing concerns. But he knows donations are down. Despite that, his team committed to paying all part-time employees, even though some aren’t available to work.

Sobh pointed out that his community employs online-only, automatic deductions to support the Salem Islamic Center, and with an all-volunteer staff, overhead costs are low.

“We were prepared ahead of time,” he said.

But he worries about the impact of COVID-19 on Salem. His team, for instance is reaching out to other Islamic communities to prepare proper burial instructions if the worst comes to pass, and many people lose their lives.

Reduced donations, frightened parishioners, illness and fear make this a challenging time for Salem faith communities. But some see opportunities.

Becker said her community has stepped up to support the vulnerable, and she’s inspired by those who reach out to help neighbors. She’s also impressed by how Salem, as a whole, is banding together to confront COVID-19.

“Sometimes Salem feels like a small town with a lot of people in it. But I have fallen in love with this community all over again just in how individuals, and congregations, and private businesses and leaders and everyday citizens are banding together to speak up and find hope,” she said. “And I just think that’s inspiring all the way around. We have a strength that maybe we didn’t realize as a community.”

Lemmond said communities of faith remain open to serving the Salem community. Open lines of communication remain critical.

“Reach out to let us know, or to let the church on their street corner know, what they need or maybe how they can serve. There may be no place to do that now, but down the road, we very much will need that help,” he said.

He envisions a community of motivated Salem residents ready to open their doors, walk out into the sunshine and start serving others in person with compassion. It’s something he, and presumably many others, pray for.

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