ABERCROMBIE, N.D. — As the coronavirus leaked further into the country’s air last week, and some areas experienced their first deaths from the new respiratory disease, the Rev. Thomas Reagan was battling another, temporary illness from his rural North Dakota home.
“Even as I was recovering, I was thinking, ‘I’ve got to get in contact with people,’ so I started making some phone calls to those in the congregation.”
He said one member of his church, Bethany Free Lutheran, surprised him, reaching out by phone to check on him. By Sunday, Reagan was feeling good enough to cobble together his first-ever livestreamed “church service” for his congregants, who were, like others, confined to home.
Conducting the rudimentary online service from his living room — with a cross, framed picture of Jesus and his couch visible behind him — before launching into prayers and Scripture readings, Reagan apologized for any mistakes. “We can’t go back and edit anything, but… we’ll do the best we can.”
Earlier, he spoke of the strangeness of the sudden about-turn pastors are taking to rethink ways of worship.
“We’re so familiar with our routines,” he said. “It’s like a surreal dream in a way.”
The church, founded in 1881, ministers to 40 to 50 people weekly and rarely cancels services, he said, even in snowstorms. But Reagan said he’s concerned about the fear by which some in America are responding — stoked in part by the wartime terminology being used.
“Fear can help us be cautious, but it’s not helpful if it makes us crazy or unloving,” Reagan said, offering 1 John 4:18 as an antidote: “There’s no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”
A ‘wake-up call’
The Rev. Paul Letvin, pastor at Submerge Church, which rents space in Fargo for its weekend services from the Boys and Girls Club, 2500 18th St. S., said he’s also seeking to not “fall into the fear that has captivated so much of our culture.”
“We as Christians have a great hope. This is not our only life; we have a better life coming,” Letvin said. “In that regard, I’ve been rejoicing and thankful, but I’m not surprised in seeing all the chaos across the country.”
He’d hoped services, which generally include a mostly younger congregation of around 30 people, would happen as usual this past weekend, but ultimately, the building’s owner said no to gatherings for at least several weeks. So, Letvin also set up an inaugural livestreamed service in the living room of his sister, Rachel, and her roommate, Laura Dahlstrom, who gathered with their guitars and a cello to offer a musical worship experience.
Earlier, he’d said the crisis is uncovering “a lot of the idols we have in our lives,” such as when “parents vent that their kids can’t go to this or that sports competition.”
“It’s revealing that our hearts are too attached to some things,” he said.
Letvin said it’s a “good wake-up call for all of us. God is in control of everything, and no matter how much I try to control things, sometimes he takes things away from us so that we might become more dependent on him.”
‘Back to God’
Rollie Johnson, lay pastor at First Lutheran Church in Fargo, said in the week leading up to the first Sunday without in-person church services, everyone was scrambling to figure out how to respond, whether office workers, day care providers or pastors.
“People are hunkering down in meetings, asking, ‘How do we do what we do best in these circumstances?’”
With his son now at home from school, Johnson said he was enjoying the chance to play a little basketball with him.
“It’s important for people to exercise, even if it’s just doing jumping jacks,” he said, noting that the anxiety epidemic that already exists in our society will only rise otherwise.
Johnson said he’s heartened by some of the bright spots in the turmoil as he observes people everywhere “leaning into God” more and sharing inspirational posts on social media to encourage each other.
Even as he was getting ready for the church’s first online Lenten service, Johnson said “care plans” to reach out to shut-ins and others in need were moving forward.
“Everyone on the planet is just making this up as we go,” he said. “I think it’ll slow people down, cause them to reflect, and draw them back to God, because where else are you going to go?”
At Fargo’s Cathedral of St. Mary on Sunday morning, Bishop John Folda offered Mass to a large, empty sanctuary.
Parishioners around the diocese watching the streamed service on YouTube from home could only gaze at, but not partake in, the Eucharist. Folda said he understands the consternation felt by many Catholics in this time, but likened the current crisis to a gas leak, which would necessitate a temporary evacuation of an affected building.
“We can’t ignore the danger to the faithful, and in this case, the danger can be within ourselves,” Folda said, noting that keeping our distance for a short period of time is sensible, but it “doesn’t diminish the bonds we have to Christ and his Church.”
Folda said people can still arrange for Reconciliation and partake in a “spiritual Communion,” asking God to be near them in their souls, using prayer suggestions posted on the diocesan website if needed. Additionally, the churches remain open.
“We’re not removing the Eucharist from our churches, we’re not locking the doors,” he said. “We just need to make sure we’re avoiding the situation of crowds of people.”
He encouraged daily Scripture and other spiritual reading and devotion for spiritual sustenance. Folda said though there’s no substitution for the real presence of the Eucharist, people can now be more aligned with those around the world deprived of the sacraments regularly due to persecution or lack of priests.
“I think this is a way for us to kind of be in solidarity with them, to experience something of the hunger they experience all the time,” he said. “There can be a grace that comes with this.”
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on March 27, 2020.]