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Churches shift to online streaming of services in COVID-19 pandemic

Religious leaders are faced with the challenge of leading their congregations now that gathering in-person is no longer safe or allowed.

Picayune’s St. Barnabas Anglican Church stopped offering in-person services on March 15, and Father David Munn spent the second half of March in a home quarantine in New Orleans after testing positive for COVID-19.

Normally, St. Barnabas offers three services weekly to its parishioners. Along with leading the church, Munn serves as a chaplain for a hospital in Chalmette, which might be where he contracted coronavirus, he said.

“That was the 17th of March. We’re now in April and I’ve still got the fever and I’m still quarantined and my wife is taking care of me. We stay in separate parts of the house and we wear masks around each other,” said Munn.

At first Munn had a high fever and could not breathe, so he went to an emergency room in Chalmette, and after hours of testing learned he had moderate lung damage and was told to isolate at home.

“The coughing was terrible for the first couple weeks and the fever, the fever just wears you down,” said Munn.

The 63-year-old was still suffering from a fever and fatigue on Friday, almost three weeks after his emergency room visit. Parishioners text him and his wife keeps the congregation updated on Munn’s condition. Anglican cathedrals are offering tele-services, posted on Facebook and YouTube, and Munn encourages his parishioners to read scripture and pray daily.

Professions that entail a lot of face-to-face contact with people, like leading a church, carry the risk of exposure to the virus.

“It’s our calling, that’s what we’re here for,” said Munn. “You can’t preach the word and not be among the people—it’s kind of hard to do.”

With half of the St. Barnabas congregation in populations that would be vulnerable to COVID-19, it was clear that in-person services needed to stop even before Munn learned he was sick, he said.

It was a hard choice for Mount Calvary Baptist to stop in-person services and switch to online, said pastor’s wife Melissa Comeaux.

“(Pastors) still want to feed their people and minister for their people, but they don’t want to put them at risk,” said Comeaux. “For my husband, it was a very very prayerful struggle.”

Mount Calvary began livestreaming services on the Twitch app every Sunday morning, after Facebook and YouTube were overwhelmed by the influx of people attempting to livestream. Even the Comeaux’s 14-year-old daughter is contributing to the virtual services by offering brief Bible story readings online for children.

The Life Church of Picayune is using yet another app, Zoom, to connect with its members, said Pastor Leo Burge. The church’s ladies group holds prayer sessions every Wednesday through the app. The Life Church held a drive-thru service last Sunday, but the upcoming Sunday services will only be available digitally. The church had already been posting its services online every Sunday for the last two years, but not every member has Internet access. For those members, the church’s team reaches out individually to try and strengthen relationships, said Burge.

Utilizing technology to engage with the church presented a challenge for many of the elderly Mount Calvary members, while many of the congregation’s children had trouble understanding why everyone had to stay home in the first place, said Comeaux.

The other services religious leaders offer have also met with new challenges, she said. Comeaux has been getting groceries for members who are staying at home because they are at a higher risk for COVID-19, which means she wipes the groceries with disinfectant wipes and washes produce in a vinegar water solution in an effort to sterilize them before taking the food to vulnerable church members. Her husband was unable to visit a member who was hospitalized due to a stroke, because, with few exceptions, hospital visitors are not allowed.

“Right now, the biggest need everywhere is we’re having to minister to people who are deathly fearful,” said Burge.

Many members at his church have lost jobs or are worried for the ways their friends and family will be impacted by the pandemic.

“It’s a real, real anguish for my fellow priests and a lot of my parishioners throughout the country not to have Easter services,” said Munn. “It is a high holy day, but we have to keep people safe too. There will be other Easters.”

In a letter to his parishioners, Munn plans to remind them that for the first Easter, the apostles were not gathered singing hymns, but locked in a room afraid for their physical safety.