Religious leaders look back at unprecedented year

Newburyport — Many sanctuaries may still be closed due to COVID-19 concerns, but religious leaders have found new ways during the pandemic to connect with congregants and keep services available, whether online or outdoors.

A little over a year ago, just before stay-at-home orders were issued by the state, Central Congregational Church hosted its first Facebook live broadcast for people who didn’t feel comfortable visiting the sanctuary due to unknowns related to COVID-19.

Worship services were streamed from a member’s cellphone, which was propped up on a chair, a cardboard box and some milk cartons, according to the Rev. Christopher Ney.

“On one hand, it was awful in terms of being an unprofessional product,” he said. “On the other hand, it was nothing short of miraculous by people’s ingenuity and desire to make this happen.”

The Titcomb Street church eventually installed its own professional camera and broadcast equipment, and even has its own team of “worship broadcast technicians,” Ney said.

The experience is definitely different, with Ney describing it as “apples and oranges” when trying to compare virtual services with in-person worship.

One benefit is the flexibility it presents for people. In fact, Ney said Facebook statistics show that a majority of people are watching services at times other than 10:30 a.m. on Sundays. There are also more people watching online than there were regularly in attendance when in-person services were available.

It’s provided an opportunity for people, who might not feel comfortable entering a sanctuary, to give the church a try.

“It’s a little hard to know what all of this means because everything about the environment is new,” Ney said.

He is also aware that there are members in his congregation “for whom broadcast worship doesn’t come anywhere close to meeting their needs, either for spiritual growth or social connection.”

For that reason, some have started going to other churches where there are in-person programs.

At Congregation Ahavas Achim on Washington Street, services are livestreamed and posted on YouTube.

While this has allowed services to continue, the use of technology also represents “a little bit of tension” with Jewish traditions, congregation leader Alex Matthews explained.

“The sanctuary and the synagogue, especially on Shabbat, is really a place where we try to leave technology at the door and ask people not to take their phones out,” he said.

Though Matthews is looking forward to a return to traditional services, he also recognizes there are people who have been able to tune into virtual services who might not have been able to attend in-person services prior to the pandemic for various reasons. Some members may not have visited the synagogue in years due to health issues or other constraints that kept them at home.

“It kind of opened our eyes to wanting to keep that connection available, even when most of us are able to come back to the building,” Matthews said.

The congregation received grant assistance from Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston to improve technology ahead of the High Holidays last year. Matthews said he went from streaming with his laptop to having a full audiovisual setup.

When it comes to other traditions such as Passover and Rosh Hashana, Matthews said it was important to “find that middle ground between familiar and radically different, and to give enough of the tradition and the familiar so that people would still feel grounded.”

The motto at Old South Presbyterian Church on Federal Street has been, “The building is closed, but the church is open,” according to the Rev. Sara Singleton.

For much of the summer, the church offered services outside either at a member’s home or at Moseley Woods. On Christmas Eve, the church received approval from the City Council and assistance from police to block off parts of Federal Street for a service on the front steps of Old South.

“When the pandemic first hit, we were focused on meeting the needs of the congregation since so many people were afraid and isolated,” Singleton said. “I wrote a daily spiritual reflection called ‘The Daily Bread’ that was emailed to everyone, and we made sure that the church was highly visible to people — we tried to make sure that everyone got a phone call once a week, or an outdoor visit or a drive-by wave.”

Other efforts included livestreamed worship, get-togethers via Zoom for those missing that social connection, a couple of car parades to spread cheer to some of the church’s homebound members, sandwiches served outside in to-go bags, several food drives, and an array of events that led up to the 250th commemorative anniversary of George Whitefield’s death last fall.

“The hardest part has been the effect on the kids,” Singleton said. “They can’t be together, socialize, have outings or any kind of experientially based learning. And they’re on screen so much for school that it’s not very appealing for them to do church get-togethers over Zoom. We are having an online group for teens and one for younger kids, but we’re concerned that for some, it will be hard to come back to church after that in-person connection has been severed.”

Looking ahead, Singleton said, “We will be watching the numbers closely. Right now, we plan to be outside for much of the summer. We hope to be worshipping in the sanctuary consistently by fall.”