Outside The Box
28 Mar 2020 — The Post-Journal
Jay Young

Spreading faith and comfort to those in need during a time of social distancing has its challenges, but local churches are up to the task. In order to make sure that congregations remain safe from the coronavirus, pastors have turned to 21st century solutions to get the word out.

Zach Stahlsmith has aided and facilitated that process. Currently earning his master's degree from Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, Stahlsmith works as an audio visual technician at Chautauqua Institution. With social shutdowns and self-quarantines rising over the past several weeks, he has made his services available to local churches looking to reach their congregations over the internet and the airwaves.

"I wanted to be able to put my services out to churches," Stahlsmith said. "Pastors who want to get bible studies and prayers out there, that all has to be digital so I just want to help get that out there. It has worked well so far."

Facebook has been an important platform, both for Stashlsmith to contact churches and people in need, as well as a streaming service. So far, he has coordinated with First Covenant Church in Jamestown, Bemus Point United Methodist Church, Park United Methodist Church in Sinclairville and Hurlbut Memorial Community United Methodist Church in Chautauqua.

Depending on the equipment available at each location, Stahlsmith has helped engineer different solutions for broadcasting services and information. This includes Facebook streams, Youtube content, meetings on Zoom and radio broadcasts.

"Every church has had a soundboard that comes with microphones and cables," Stahlsmith said. "I really like Zoom a lot, and especially Facebook. With Facebook it is easier to get the word. Anyone in the world can like your Facebook page and watch you live stream."

At First Covenant, one solution has been radio.

"Zion Covenant Church used to do drive-in services decades ago," the Rev. Adam Rohler said. "I went on Amazon and got a low-range FM transmitter that would cover our parking lot and plugged it in with Zach's help. It seemed to work pretty well, we got good feedback from people." One week ago First Covenant hosted its first drive-in service, and the church hopes to continue spreading its message of hope over the airways in the future. The program is a part of a broad outreach to church members during the coronavirus outbreak, which includes a daily call list to check in on parishioners, Zoom meetings for church leaders, and online content posted to Youtube and Facebook. "I am kind of telling our people that this might be our new normal for a bit. It will be interesting to see because this week and last week have been I the innovation weeks, where we get this technology set up."

A similar approach has been taken at Bemus Point Methodist under the Rev. Bill Allen. Like so many other organizations around the world, church leaders closely followed coronavirus information from public health officials while weighing different options for services.

"We've told our people that (digital services) will be that way through Palm Sunday and then we will reassess," Allen said. "We are committed to doing what the authorities say. What is the wisest to flatten the curve and get as many people as well as possible. We're not interested in proclaiming that we are somehow above the virus and it can't touch us."

Facebook Live broadcasts were an easy transition for Bemus Point Methodist, which is now looking at improving its streaming capabilities moving forward.

"We broadcast on Facebook Live and we will do that for probably the next several weeks. A couple of advantageous things about that, it is really easy, all you need is the cellphone," Allen said. "Immediately on Facebook livestreams, one of the coolest things was everybody began greeting each other, we did not expect that. That was a sweet moment where everyone kind of checked in and said hello. Several people said 'After this is all over let's make sure we have this kind of thing available.'" Taking positive lessons away from a difficult situation has become a common theme among responses to the coronavirus. Rohler and Allen both noted the benefits of opening up new channels of communication with their parishioners, and hope to continue those inroads.

"I was talking with Zach today, because I said, 'Why wouldn't we continue to broadcast over the radio?'" Rohler said.

Facebook streaming of the services for the First Church of God in Jamestown have also been well received. The Rev. Mervin Lee was fortunate to have church members with technological savvy offer their knowledge to help set up digital broadcasting. "We are right now doing live streams on our Facebook page," Lee said. "Last Sunday was our first Sunday. People have responded well and liked it since they have been quarantined at home and are not out as much." Lee has also been working with members of the church to improve the quality of their streams for the coming weeks.

There is no perfect substitute for direct social contact, of course. Pastors are accustomed to offering comfort and strength to their congregations directly, and doing so over the airwaves and internet has taken some getting used to. Not only are people forced to deal with a whole new way of life, but they are doing so without much social contact.

"I think that we are social beings. That we are created to be connected, and that being removed from us tough," Allen said. "I think that we're created for community and to connect and when you take that away there is a loss there. That is one of those things, people sense when it is not there. When it happens to you, you realize truly how meaningful it is. I've spent a lot of time on the phone praying for people, but when you are in their presence you can put a hand on their shoulder and there is a very powerful connective moment."

Allen cited scripture from the Book of Acts as context, and the biblical tradition of the laying on of hands during prayer, which can serve as a conduit to a higher power. Biblical allegories can be found in plenty when it comes to dealing with disease, plagues and the need to separate oneself form society. Rohler used an example from the Book of Exodus, and the lesson of God putting people in their homes to protect them from plagues in Egypt.

"I think people with faith are really finding hope in the midst of this," Rohler said.

Whatever channels are available to them in the future, it is clear that local churches will continue to get the word out to those in need.

This story is provided free courtesy of The Post-Journal.
"Outside The Box" The Post-Journal 28 Mar 2020: A1