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The Pandemic

No choir, no communion, no congregation. how to celebrate lent in a pandemic

Pastor couple finds new ways to worship, serve, grieve

On the second Sunday in Lent, Rev. Sara K. Corum posted on her church’s Facebook page several photos of smiling members of her Midtown congregation filling colorful plastic eggs with candy.

“Some bunnies got busy this morning prepping for our 3rd annual Breakfast with the Easter Bunny and Egg Hunt. Have you marked your calendar yet? It’s April 4th. Breakfast is at 9:00 and the egg hunt will begin promptly at 10:00. Bring your neighbors and family. There are so many eggs!”

Before the third Sunday in Lent, Sara canceled communion, and asked for volunteers to deep clean the church.

“It was not our year to try and have communion every Sunday in Lent. We will not continue with this practice this year and will try again in 2021,” she posted on Trinity United Methodist Church’s page.

“Do you have an hour you can give to help do some extra cleaning at the church? Can you come wipe down handrails and doorknobs? We’re taking extra precaution here in lieu of what’s happening around our world and, now, close to home with COVID-19.”

As the third Sunday in Lent approached, Sara and her husband, Rev. Josh McClurkan, pastor of Shiloh United Methodist Church in rural Fayette County, were still hoping the world hadn’t completely turned upside down.

“Some of you have asked if we intend to cancel worship for Sunday, March 15th. At this time we do not intend to cancel worship,” Sara posted at 11:55 a.m. Friday, March 13.

Then Sara and Josh took their four school-age kids to see the new animated movie, “Onward.” They kept checking their email. By the end of the movie, they’d gotten word that United Methodist Bishop William McAlilly in Nashville was asking churches to cancel on-site worship services for the next two Sundays.

Sara wept as she typed. “Friends,” she posted at 3:13 p.m. that Friday. “Upon recommendation of Bishop McAlilly and the Centers for Disease Control as well as the World Health Organization – each of whom is concerned with public gatherings – we will be canceling in-person worship for this Sunday, March 15th, and next Sunday March 22nd.

“There is no harder decision I make than the decision to cancel worship. In 10 years I’ve had to three or four times for weather-related reasons. Never have I ever had to cancel worship for this reason. I will admit that this is something they do not teach in seminary – corporate worship during a pandemic 101.”

Neither Sara nor Josh had much time to learn.

“You start thinking about what you will not have,” Sara said. “No Sunday school. No choir. No communion. No fellowship or passing the Peace. No congregation. No hugs. What will worship be?”

While larger congregations have been livestreaming worship services for months or even years, smaller bodies of Christ like Trinity and Shiloh have not.

Sara had used Facebook Live a few times before, once to stream a special church event, several other times to post video messages to the congregation or the Evergreen neighborhood.

“When our food pantry gets low, I’ll post a video on the neighborhood’s Facebook page and within hours our shelves are full again,” she said.

Trinity sits in the middle of Midtown Memphis. Its cell service and WiFi are strong. But Shiloh is set back in a wooded area on Yum Yum Road about 10 miles north of Somerville. Cell service at the church is spotty.

“I can’t livestream from the church, but most of our members have internet or a smartphone or both,” Josh said.

Rev. Josh McClurkan, pastor at Shiloh United Methodist Church in Somerville, preaches to his congregation in a live stream on Sunday morning, March 22, 2020, from an empty room his wife’s Midtown church, which is closed to worshippers due to COVID-19. (Karen Pulfer Focht/Special to the Daily Memphian)
Rev. Josh McClurkan, pastor at Shiloh United Methodist Church in Somerville, preaches to his congregation in a live stream on a Sunday morning in March 2020, from an empty room his wife’s Midtown church, which is closed to worshippers due to COVID-19. (Karen Pulfer Focht/Special to the Daily Memphian)

Despite their uneasiness about conducting worship – the work of the people – without the people, the two millennials felt good about their social media skills.

“Some members and ministers have been joking with us for years, ‘Get off Facebook and visit with us,’” Sara said. “But, hey, we’re really good at this. We can help you. Social media can be relational.”

Saturday, March 15, Sara and Josh made plans to live stream abbreviated services from Trinity the next day. Josh would go live at 9:30 and Sara at 11.

Saturday evening, Sara’s father called from Jackson, Tenn. Her grandmother was dying.

“Memaw died just after 10:00 last night, completely surrounded by so many of the people who love her,” Sara posted that Sunday morning.

“I flipped through her Bible last night. There were markings on just about every page (less Leviticus and Deuteronomy. She wasn’t a fan of those, and who could blame her?) I love seeing what she thought was most important. I love knowing that so much of what she held near to her heart about God is what I hold near to mine.”

A few minutes later, Josh sat in front of a laptop and an iPad in Sara’s office and started the first virtual joint worship service in the history of Trinity and Shiloh United Methodist Churches.

“Good morning, everybody,” he said. “I hope that you are having a blessed and restful Sunday morning.”

He explained why Sara wasn’t there. He made a few announcements. He said he would be reading and preaching from John 4, the story of Jesus talking to a Samaritan woman at a well.

Then he read a prayer from page 268 of the Methodist hymnal.

“Oh, God, our deliverer. You led the people of old through the wilderness and brought them to the promised land. Guide now the people of your church that following our Savior we may walk through the wilderness of this world toward the glory of the world to come.”

While he preached and prayed, members of both congregations posted heart emojis and encouraging text messages.

Shiloh’s Jonathan Frangenberg: “Thank you so much for this Josh. I have been missing church due to the work schedule but this was really nice to see and hear. Prayers and thoughts for you and your family.”

Trinity’s Kay Ritchie Jordan: “Thank you, Josh, for your insights into this passage of scripture and for leading us in worship today. Praying for Sara and all the family.”

Typical Sunday attendance is about 70 at Trinity, about 40 at Shiloh. By week’s end, Josh’s virtual worship service had 400 views on Trinity’s page and 322 on Shiloh’s page.

Before Sara and Josh could think about the fourth Sunday in Lent, they faced more unknowns.

“Let’s hunker down and find a way to still be the church in the days ahead,” Sara said in a video message she posted last Monday. “There are still ways to be in service.”

That would become more difficult as well.

Several church members live in senior apartments that have been closed to visitors, including pastors.

Room in the Inn, a ministry that provides meals and overnight shelter to the homeless in churches such as Trinity, abruptly closed for the season Tuesday morning.

“Even with all of the extra precautions the suggested compliance is that we practice social distancing and avoid gathering in groups, especially in vulnerable populations,” Rev. Lisa Anderson, director of the ministry, explained in a Facebook post. “RITI guests are in this group. Also, many of our volunteers are in age groups and health groups that are at risk.”

Other ministries were canceled as well. Trinity hosts a Boy Scout troop and four chapters of Narcotics Anonymous. All of their meetings were canceled.

“NA never cancels,” Sara said. “They meet on Christmas Day. They meet in blizzards. Not now.”

Trinity also has been providing $25 food vouchers to about two dozen families of school-aged children in Shelby County each month.

By Tuesday morning, after the superintendent announced that schools would be closed at least two more weeks, parents looking for help jammed the church’s phone lines.

Sara and church volunteers gave out more than 200 vouchers in the next few days. But as more people came to the church, with or without kids, Sara faced another difficult decision. Whether and when to close the building.

“We are going to give until we have nothing left to give,” Sara said. “But a lot of our members and our volunteers are older and more vulnerable to COVID-19,” she said.

Sara and Josh closed their churches Friday. They don’t know when they will reopen.

“We’ve got family to consider,” Sara said. “I’m a pastor but I’m also a pastor’s wife. And Josh is a pastor’s husband. But we’re going to give until we have nothing left to give.”

On the fourth Sunday of Lent, Josh sat in front of his iPad in Sara’s office at Trinity and welcomed Shiloh’s members to their second virtual worship service.

“We’re just going to take a minute and let everyone log on and see that we’re streaming,” Josh said on Facebook Live. “We’re in a weird time, right?”

Josh recited a prayer from the Methodist hymnal, then read the first 41 verses of John 9, the story of Jesus healing a man born blind.

He prayed for medical workers, grocery store workers, truck drivers and others who are putting themselves in harm’s way during the pandemic.

He prayed for parents and students and teachers and others who are scrambling to deal with new realities this week.

“Fear blinds us,” Josh said as he began his sermon. “We’re all afraid. These are scary times. It’s hard to admit, but I’m scared. I’m scared of what happens in the next couple of weeks. I’m scared someone in my family or my circle of friends comes down with COVID-19. I’m scared of what the economy looks like on the other side of this.

“We all walk blindly, we all walk in fear, but we don’t have to because we have Jesus. God is with us.”

After his service was over, Josh set up the iPad in Trinity’s worship space.

Sara stood behind the lectern while music director John Holtzman played the piano prelude behind her. During the service they sang two hymns.

Sara recited a call to worship, then the church’s mission statement: “The mission of Trinity United Methodist Church is to proclaim God’s love by building community and living by the example and teachings of Jesus Christ.”

As Sara spoke to her online community, they followed along on the order of worship she posted on the church’s Facebook page.

She delivered a prayer, then she read the same 41 verses from John’s gospel.

“As we’re huddled up at home, we’re asking where is God in all of this,” Sara said in her sermon. “If God is in control, what does it mean that thousands are getting sick and so many of them are dying?”

The Facebook live feed froze briefly every minute or so. “Video Interrupted,” the screen announced.

“Come what may, God is with us,” Sara said. “We live in God’s world. We are not alone. Lean on each other – albeit from a distance of at least 6 feet.”

For some, the six weeks of Lent is a time of directed instruction, study and preparation.

For others, it’s a time of ardent prayer, spiritual re-examination and renewal.

And for others, it’s a time of silence, fasting and other forms of self-denial and self-sacrifice.

For Sara and Josh, the COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened the need for those Lenten practices. 

Sara attended her grandmother’s funeral last Thursday.

“We were the last family visitation the funeral home allowed,” Sara said. “But we all tried to keep our distance. I saw family I hadn’t seen in five years and I couldn’t hug them.

This Tuesday, Sara will preside at the funeral of a close friend’s mother.

“We can’t have the funeral indoors, so it will be at the graveside,” Sara said. “No visitation. No hugging. We’re going to have to learn new ways to grieve during this pandemic. And new ways to love and support each other. But despite the chaos of the world right now, I still believe in the Lenten promise — that resurrection is coming.”

This story first appeared at under exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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