After difficult year, COVID-19 vaccines bring joy and hope
OKLAHOMA CITY — “Celebrate. People need hope.” My friend David…
James and Candice Wiser’s church family in Southern California shed tears this past summer as the couple and their two young daughters prepared to move to West Texas.
The Camarillo Church of Christ, about 50 miles northwest of Los Angeles, organized a socially distanced going-away party in its tree-shaded parking lot just off the Ventura Freeway.
“It was really emotionally gutting,” James Wiser said of the hug-free send-off. “They gave us gifts. They prayed over us.”
Then — even as the couple settled into new jobs 1,300 miles away at Abilene Christian University — the Wisers kept showing up for the Camarillo church’s Sunday service.
At 10 a.m. West Coast time, between Bible study and worship, the 100-member congregation enjoys 30 minutes of virtual fellowship.
“We have a Zoom free-for-all where there are 40 squares on the screen, and we all talk to each other, and that’s from noon to 12:30 p.m. our time,” said James Wiser, who joined ACU as dean of library information services and educational technology.
Candice Ortbals-Wiser, an ACU political science professor who taught previously at Pepperdine University, said, “So, during coffee and doughnuts, everyone watches us eat lunch and talk to them, and then we have service after our lunch.”
In some ways, it’s as if the husband, wife and their daughters — 5-year-old Etta and 3-year-old Marian — never left.
“I feel like we need to apologize to them because they were thinking they were getting rid of us,” James joked. “But sure enough, every Sunday we’re still logging on.”
For Christians such as the Wisers, the COVID-19 era has brought both blessings and challenges to the normal process of seeking a new church home.
When the coronavirus is no longer an active threat to people’s health, 91 percent of Protestant churchgoers plan to attend in-person services at least as often as they did before the pandemic, according to a recent survey by Nashville, Tenn.-based Lifeway Research.
But some changes could be lasting.
Since the early days of radio and television, Churches of Christ have been quick to adopt new technologies, most often for evangelism, said John Young, a theology professor at Amridge University in Montgomery, Ala.
Likewise, congregations’ early use of the World Wide Web was geared toward reaching outsiders.
But the last year has demonstrated the internet’s huge potential for “sustaining intra-congregational connectivity,” said Young, whose Ph.D. dissertation included research on online faith communities.
“I expect that churches, having already developed the capacity to effectively stream their services and provide other content online, will continue to do so,” the professor said. “And I think there will be both greater attention paid to congregations’ internet presences and a greater appreciation of the reality that the ‘body’ still exists even when its members are not physically together.”
Just before America’s COVID-19 lockdown began in March 2020, Kevin and Taneise Perry moved from Richmond, Va., to Charlotte, N.C.
Their three sons — K.J., 13; Kent, 11; and Keston, 6 — barely had time to meet their new classmates before all instruction moved online.
Meanwhile, Taneise’s first day with her new advertising agency came just as the company shifted to remote work.
“To this day, I haven’t met my boss or any of my team,” she said. “It’s the oddest thing.”
The Perrys attended the Three Chopt Church of Christ in Richmond. In previous trips to Charlotte, they had visited the Kingdom Church of Christ, where Taneise’s sister Michelle Threatt and her family are active members.
“Had we not moved somewhere where we at least knew someone, we would have been lost when it came to selecting a congregation.”
“Had we not moved somewhere where we at least knew someone, we would have been lost when it came to selecting a congregation,” Taneise said.
“But at the same time, we could’ve easily abandoned trying to get a feel of a local congregation and just watched virtually churches we were familiar with in the Texas area,” she said, noting that her husband previously served as a youth minister for the Mountain View Church of Christ in Dallas.
When the Kingdom church needed singers for its praise team, worship leader Mario McKennon recruited the Perrys.
So, Kevin and Taneise began joining a socially distanced group to record songs each Saturday morning for the congregation’s Sunday video service.
“That’s really been a lifesaver for my husband and me,” Taneise said. “Not only are we getting somewhat of a worship experience, but we’ve also been able to meet a few people this way. We’re obviously in a different predicament than the average person having to stay home 100 percent for worship.”
Related: An unfathomable toll
Still, she worries about her sons’ lack of connection with people from church, except via a screen.
“That’s something we’ve had to face: Are we doing enough?” she said. “Now that we don’t have the backup of Bible class on Sunday, Bible class on Wednesdays, youth events — are we doing enough at home to ensure we’re instilling Christ in our kids?”
Tim and Peggi Kern didn’t make a cross-country move.
They relocated to a different part of the Detroit metro area to be closer to Tim’s new engineering job.
The February 2020 move put the couple an hour away from the Lake Orion Church of Christ, their home congregation for nearly two decades.
The Kerns paid one visit to the Walled Lake Church of Christ, a mile and a half from their new home, before the pandemic.
After the Walled Lake church began offering Bible classes via Zoom, the couple — who have three adult children and three grandsons — welcomed the opportunity to interact with fellow Christians face to face.
“For me, the positive was being able to see the way the leadership acted and kept community together in a time of crisis,” Peggi said. “That was very impressive to me.
“The disadvantage was that you’re not going out to lunch or going to someone’s house at this time, so even though we’re committed members to Walled Lake, there’s still a lot of relationship building that we need to make up for,” she added. “I don’t feel like we know the members as well as we did in the past before COVID.”
The Walled Lake church has resumed in-person assemblies but with masks, no singing and certain pews taped off. Members at high risk of a severe case of COVID-19, if infected, still attend virtually.
“It’s amazing the potential for outreach as well as the need to minister to those who are not physically able to attend live. I think that will be something we will see forever, or hopefully so.”
Even after the pandemic, the Kerns would love to see the church maintain a hybrid approach to in-person and online connections.
“Certainly, the face-to-face, the physical ability to be together, is critical in my opinion,” Tim said. “People in general — God designed us to be communal people. We need that connection.”
But the online option allows shut-ins and members who must travel frequently — such as truck drivers — to remain tied into the body, he said.
“It’s amazing the potential for outreach as well as the need to minister to those who are not physically able to attend live,” he said. “I think that will be something we will see forever, or hopefully so.”
Back in Texas, the Wisers have made spiritual connections with colleagues at ACU.
They’ve experienced the online services of a few local congregations.
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They even attended a Friday night small-group meeting of Abilene’s Minter Lane Church of Christ — with proper distancing in a church member’s back yard.
“I would note that people here have been the church to us,” Candice said. “They’ve brought us food and cookies. It was almost like they were ready to receive us into their ranks and for us to start visiting their church, but there was no way for us to do that.
“So, it’s kind of weird because you don’t want to lose what you have in Camarillo, but everyone here has done all the actions you do when you see a new person and get them to start being your friend and going to your church,” she added. “It’s just a weird feeling, being stuck in between.”
James and Candice met as students at Harding University in Searcy, Ark., in the 1990s. They reconnected at the North Central Church of Christ in Bloomington, Ind., when both were pursuing graduate studies at Indiana University. Their careers later took them to Michigan, where they attended the Troy Church of Christ.
“I try to look on the bright side. We’ve all been healthy. None of us has gotten COVID-19. We have insurance.”
Now, on any given Sunday, they check out a variety of worship services — all online — at past congregations as well as potential new ones.
“We go to more church now than we ever did before, just all virtually,” James said with a chuckle.
In their first year in Texas, the Wisers have endured the death of their dog, Fanny J. Crosby, a 12-year-old Alaskan Malamute named after the famous hymn writer; costly damages to their home from burst water pipes during Texas’ record-breaking winter storm; and, of course, the trials caused by the pandemic.
“I try to look on the bright side,” said Candice, who, like her husband, recently received COVID-19 vaccinations. “We’ve all been healthy. None of us has gotten COVID-19. We have insurance.”
Also, she loves Texas boots.
Wait, what? As she explains, the flooding ruined her boots. Now she has an excuse to shop for a new pair.
And very soon, the time might be right, too, to look for a new church — one much closer to home.
BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].
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