They once preached to pews full of people, now they're tinkering with Zoom, learning to e-blast and livestreaming to online groups of invisible worshippers.

Pastors, priests and religious leaders have taken to social media and other modes of electronic communication to tend to the spiritual needs of their flocks in this new age of COVID-19.

"We've been forced to get into the 21st century," said the Rev. Dr. Cal Lord, pastor of Central Baptist Church of Westerly. "We did our first Facebook Live and we're looking at ways to expand on YouTube."

Lord, who also posts his sermons on the church website, cbcwesterly.org, said he sends out regular emails with church news and is experimenting with ways to make CDs to send to homebound parishioners. The church website also includes a way to click and send prayer requests, and a link to the church's Facebook page.

Lord said is also reminding his congregants, especially in these trying times, that "God has not abandoned us."

"It's like Isaiah said in Chapter 4, Verse 10," he added. "Do not fear: I am with you; do not be anxious: I am your God. I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand."

Across the street at Westerly's Christ Church Episcopal, the Rev. Sunil Chandy said church leaders took "the bull by the horns" last week and immediately made plans to livestream services once the state mandate limiting large gatherings had been issued.

On Sunday, even though there was a technical glitch during his sermon, Chandy said, roughly 50 people stayed for his entire online service of 45 minutes, and more than a thousand popped in and out; christchurchwesterly.org

"It was well-received and people found it powerful," Chandy said in a telephone interview from his office on Elm Street. "I've been getting phone calls and text from people who said they found it helpful."

"We are looking at all ways to connect," said Chandy, who serves as the church's rector. "We are, after all, spiritual beings and we need community and we need to know we are not alone."

From now on, Chandy said, the church will offer Wednesday morning prayer at 10, a service of Compline at 6 p.m. and Sunday morning prayer at 10. All services will be broadcast live on the Christ Church Westerly Facebook and Instagram pages along with Chandy's daily "Food for Thought" talk which is aired live in Facebook every day at noon.

Across the river in Pawcatuck, the Rev. Ruth Hainsworth, pastor at United Congregational Church of Westerly, United Church of Christ, said she was doing a number of things to keep in touch with her congregation. There are Facebook Live Sunday services; Hainsworth's daily "It is what it is, so let's make the best of it," posts on Facebook; and "Thursday Community Office Hours" from 2 to 4 p.m. For the office hours program, Hainsworth said she invites participants to post questions in the comments section, and she does her best to respond.

"It won’t be quite the one-on-one format but I think we can still have a nice conversation," said Hainsworth, who is also preparing instructions for "Worshipping at Home," which will be sent out in the mail to people who make requests.

"We're also making some Jesus calls," said the pastor, explaining that parishioners are calling other members "to check in and see if they need anything or just want to talk."

Hainsworth said she also posts daily messages on two town-affiliated Facebook pages, The Stonington Forum and Living in Westerly.

"I give reality checks to support people," she said. "I want people to know that it's normal to be feeling overwhelmed ... it's challenging for us all and we can't pretend it's not happening."

 "It's important to remember we're not in this alone," Hainsworth said. "God is with us too."

At St. Michael the Archangel Church in Pawcatuck, the Very Rev. Dennis Perkins said he plans to meet with the church's social media director to discuss the best ways to virtually serve the St. Michael's community, and was exploring the idea of Facebook Live. For now, he said, he will continue to celebrate daily Mass without a congregation, and keep the church open during the day for people to come in, "pray in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament," and practice "spiritual communion with the Lord" while keeping the appropriate social distances.

The church is being cleaned regularly, and all the surfaces are constantly being wiped down, he said.

"We posted an icon of Saint Raphael on the church Facebook Page," the pastor added, noting that the archangel's name means "It is God who heals." He added that the church was "asking people to pray for all who are affected by the coronavirus pandemic."

"We are going through uncharted territory, but we will get through it," Perkins said.

In Ashaway, the Rev. Dave Stall, pastor of the First Seventh Day Baptist Church of Hopkinton, said that while he has been livestreaming services for a couple of years, the coronavirus has forced a big shift in the way he conducts them.

"Before, the cameras were like a fly on the wall, but we've adjusted them so they can help create a more intimate, more personal [experience] for people at home ... so they can see facial expressions."

"We've changed our style quite a bit," added Stall who is coordinating with staff members, including church musicians, to create an optimum experience — while acknowledging that "God is still in control."

"Our true connection is with Him, the pastor said. He also extended an invitation to anyone who is interested to log on to the church website, at www.hopkintonsdb.org. "We've had people from all over the country," he said.

In Charlestown, Pastor Lisa Stoen Hazelwood of St. Andrew Lutheran Church said she tried her first Facebook Live service last month.

"We had a technical glitch and I heard that some people had to tilt their necks," Hazelwood said with a soft laugh, "but we've made adjustments." Even with the awkward angle, said the pastor, more than 800 people dropped in during the Sunday service, which included music, preaching and prayers.

Aside from experimenting with new ways to offer worship services, Hazelwood said that church members were focusing on people in need. "One of our first priorities is our food pantry, and our personal needs closet," she said.

"We have our regular patrons," Hazelwood said. "We will do what we can for as long as we can."

The monthly St. Andrew Family Supper Table, a community dinner that offers free meals, will continue to be offered, Hazelwood added, but instead of a sit-down, in-person meal, it will become a "supper to go."

"The new question we are asking is 'How can we be the church now,'" she added. "That is our driving force." Updates will be posted on the church's website, standrewri.org.

In Westerly, Matthew L. Lewiss, president of Congregation Sharah Zedek, said the congregation is concerned about the effect the coronavirus pandemic is having on everyone in the community. 

Scott Frankel, the congregation's first vice president, "has graciously offered to assist those who may not be able to leave their home for health reasons," Lewiss said in an email.

Congregation Sharah Zedek is also collecting donations of money and food for The WARM Center, Lewiss said, and to help students who typically rely on the school system for breakfast and lunch. Anyone interested in making a donation can contact Frankel at 518-301-4020 or ssfrankel@aol.com, Lewiss said. 

Pastor Chip Northup of the First Baptist Church of Hope valley said that while he's trying to think of creative ways to virtually tend to his congregation, the restrictions of social distancing present a challenge.

"We are highly relational," he said. "We're used to always hugging and kissing and shaking hands and visiting nursing homes and hospitals ... so this is a real struggle."

However, he added with a chuckle, the era of coronavirus isolation has produced some light moments.

A few of the church musicians joined the pastor to tape what he called a worship singalong.  "It's kind of like our church karaoke," Northup said. He also plans to record services and benedictions and post them on the church Facebook page and is considering using the video-conferencing platform, Zoom, for a Bible studies group.

"I miss our day care, I miss our Cub Scouts, I even miss the board meetings," Northup said. "We've never dealt with anything like this before."

"But Martin Luther and Isaac Newton did great things during the bubonic plague," he added. "Sometimes people do good stuff during difficult times."

At St. Pius X Church on Elm Street, the Rev. Michael Najim, pastor, was cheerfully preparing to recite the rosary on Facebook Live.

Najim, who has maintained an active Facebook page over the years, now celebrates daily Mass, and recites the rosary and the Chaplet of the Divine Mercy on Facebook Live. He also posts regular suggestions and comments, sometimes featuring his dog, Summer.

"She literally has no idea what’s going on in the world and it’s such a great reminder to us to try to live each day as she does," Najim posted one morning last week, along with a picture of Summer wearing a bandanna and two pet-related emojis.

Soon after came another post: "Friends: an important reminder to please check on elderly family, friends, and neighbors, especially those who may not have anyone else to check on them. Tomorrow, think of some elderly people that you can check in with. Keeping social distancing directives in mind, ask if they might need any assistance with groceries or anything else. We have several parishioners at St. Pius who are ready and willing to help with shopping and delivery. Stay healthy!"

Najim said that despite the severity of the virus and the contsrictions of social distancing, he feels optimistic. "I think there's an upside," he said. "A lot of families are spending time together and bonding through this. I think a lot of good can come out of this."

"God can always bring good out of bad," said Najim. "I think you'll see a real goodness coming out of this. I think the Lord is trying to draw us closer and remind us that He is the center of our lives."

At the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Westerly, Pastor Giaccomo Capoverde, who maintains an active social media presence, praised Facebook for making it possible to share Masses and prayers with so many people.

"Facebook provides a great forum," said the priest, who celebrates two Masses a day — one at 8 a.m. and one at 12:10 p.m. — and live streams the rosary, morning prayer, evening prayer, benediction and the Divine Mercy Chaplet during the day.

"I end each day with evening prayer, and a time for an examination of conscience," Capoverde added.

"It gives people some comfort, and some encouragement," he said. "I like to offer prayers and hope."

At the Dunn's Corner Community Church, Presbyterian, Pastor Wayne C. Eberly said that while the idea of experimenting with social media is in the works, he's had to reply on some rather old-fashioned methods to share news with his congregation.

Because some people haven't received news about services being canceled, Eberly said, he's been printing copies of his sermon and waiting on a chair inside the door.

"When people drive in, I run out and hand them a copy of the sermon," he said with a laugh. Keeping the proper 6 feet apart of course.

nbfusaro@thewesterlysun.com

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