Congregants ready for a virtual Easter

04/08/2020

This Sunday, West Marin’s churches will not be filled with singing worshippers. Grass fields will not be swarmed with kids hunting for eggs, and family meals will be smaller.

It’s a time of modified traditions for Christians who cannot meet in person because of the coronavirus pandemic. Still, faith plays an important role for some people in isolation, and congregations are discovering new ways of gathering for worship.

At Sacred Heart Church in Olema, Father Erick Arauz has been celebrating mass in private, following the guidance of the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Parishioners watch a livestream of daily mass, and lone priests fulfill any intentions requested of them at their churches. “I continue the regular schedule—praying for the community, praying for the suffering,” he said.

While private worship is underway for all four Catholic churches in West Marin, Presbyterian and Episcopal churches are meeting over Zoom, the video conferencing platform that has seen its users rise from 10 million to 200 million in recent weeks. 

“Being on Zoom and seeing each other’s faces really helps,” said Cornelia Cyss-Carter, the pastor at Tomales Presbyterian Church, where the Easter egg hunt is canceled. “The important thing is that the congregation can be together, and that we can worship together. It is different, but we are still the church even if we are in different spots.”

Many churchgoers meeting on Zoom are actually feeling closer to their community. “In church, we see the back of people’s heads, we tend to sit in the same place, next to the same people,” said Linda Williams, who attends St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Inverness. “Though some of us make a point of mingling with folks we don’t know, folks tend to do the same thing at the social coffee hour as we do in church: cluster in friendship groups.”

Zoom has broken down those barriers, as people are seen up close in their personal spaces. Some appear in their Sunday best, and others wear their bathrobes, Ms. Williams said. 

Father Vincent Pizzuto uses a Zoom function to randomly assign parishioners into groups of three or four; each group is given a few questions to ponder, which has allowed Ms. Williams to connect with people she’s never met before, including people from Mexico and Australia. The virtual service has brought in dozens of people who wouldn’t normally be able to make it to a service in Inverness.

“In many ways, people are going deeper than they usually do because of this disconnect from the physical,” Ms. Williams said.

Fr. Pizzuto has also decided to let go of certain rituals—whose purpose is to bring community together, anyway—and adopt new traditions, like holding a candle to the webcam.

One important ritual that can’t be replicated in a virtual church is Holy Communion, or Eucharist. Usually, the pastor consecrates the bread and wine, and the parish consumes them. It’s an important part of Christian worship, and many members are longing for it.

Singing is also a challenge over Zoom because the application is tends to broadcast the loudest voice. When churches have tried to sing together, it ended up with one person unknowingly performing a solo act. 

At the Point Reyes Community Presbyterian Church, a rotating cast of three musicians—a pianist, a flutist and a clarinetist—have continued to play on Zoom without voice accompaniment.

The congregation at St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church in Bolinas especially loves to sing. A piano player usually accompanies their voices, but now they are singing with muted microphones.

“It’s going to be a much quieter Easter,” Bolinas resident Grace Godino said.

Typically, Holy Week at St. Aidan’s involves a three-hour service on Good Friday, complete with a formal liturgy, a reading of the Passion Play of Easter, deep, solemn prayer and time for reflective discussion. The service ends with a bell. On Holy Saturday, the church gathers for a less formal service, and they decorate the building for Easter. By Sunday morning, they are celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ with joyful hymns. The church’s attendance can swell from 10 to 30 on these days.

This year, some traditions will be missing, pastor Carol Luther said, but they will still read the play, reflect and sing. Alongside the joy, she hopes to bring in another feeling tied to Easter that is often overlooked: uncertainty. The Bible says that on the first Easter, when several women found Jesus’s tomb empty, they ran away in fear. It was a disorienting day.

“I hope, God willing, both to reflect the uncertainty and the joy,” Rev. Luther said. “That’s how it’s going to be a little different this year.” 

West Marin’s congregations are small and have many older members. Beyond tending to their spiritual needs, church leaders are also trying to help out with practical needs. 

“It’s a big support group, and it goes beyond the Sunday service,” said St. Aidan’s parishioner Tom Dibblee, who has been diligently checking on seniors.

Margaret Farley has been delivering food to older members of St. Mary’s Church in Nicasio. She said that although many are over 80 years old and living alone, everyone seems to be doing okay. 

“We are making sure everybody has what they need,” she said. “One of the ladies was craving lettuce, so we had to go find lettuce. But that’s what you do.”