| Wilmington StarNews
There’s an old saying that goes something like, “Church isn’t the building, it’s the people.”
During a COVID-19 pandemic that has stretched more than six months, for much of that time taking away the ability of church-goers to assemble, Wilmington-area congregations have had the opportunity to find out how true that statement is — or isn’t.
With some area churches still closed or holding only virtual services, while others have either just started to reopen or are well into that process, the StarNews reached out to a number of leaders in Wilmington’s religious community to talk about the challenges the pandemic has presented to them and their congregations, and how they’re getting through it.
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‘We are so not in control’
Wes Hunter is the young pastor of one of Wilmington’s oldest congregations, Masonboro Baptist Church, which was founded more than a century-and-a-half ago. After doing online services via Facebook Live for most of the past six months, Masonboro Baptist re-started in-person services a few weeks ago, although they’re only holding services outdoors for now.
“Being away was harder than we knew it would be,” Hunter said. The first day of in-person services, “It was awesome. People were crying, just so happy to be back.”
That release of emotion, he said, spoke to how difficult the pandemic has been for many people. But it’s also a chance to reflect on some spiritual lessons.
“It’s a reminder that we are so not in control,” Hunter said.
Looking forward to better times in the midst of hard ones is referenced in the Bible. A notable verse is Jeremiah 29:11 in which God says: “I know the plans I have for you .. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Generally speaking, Hunter said, most people in our society don’t have to rely on hope on a day-to-day basis. But the pandemic changed all that.
“Hope is always a good thing to preach,” he said. “It’s always true. But the circumstances are so different now.”
Hunter added the pandemic hit home on a personal level. Earlier this year, his grandfather died not long after it began. That was hard enough, but due to restrictions on large gatherings, his family had to have a small, private funeral service.
“It was not what he deserved,” Hunter said. “He deserved a big send-off.”
His family found a silver lining, Hunter said, in that his cousin, who’s also a preacher, ended up performing his grandfather’s service. For his grandmother “It was almost more powerful for her that way.”
Funerals, of course, are traditional church functions utterly upended by the pandemic.
Terry Henry, who’s been the pastor at Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church in Wilmington for 32 years, said funerals have been especially difficult for some members of his congregation. Macedonia Missionary Baptist is predominantly Black, and in that community, he said, “Funerals are a time for the community to come together” for large gatherings in the church.
Henry said he’s done eight funerals since March, not all of which were COVID-related, but which were either changed to graveside services or to small, private services.
“I’m going to be honest,” Henry said. “That can be kind of depressing.”
The inability to be together, he said, adds to the burden of his congregation, many of whom are older.
“They really look forward to the Wednesday night outing of Bible study. They miss seeing each other. I think it weighs very heavily on them,” Henry said.
His church has re-started in-person services, with masks and social distancing required. But while people are “still supporting the church” financially, he said, attendance is only at about 10 percent of what it was before the pandemic.
“I’ve got a very large senior population. A lot of them are very afraid,” Henry said. “The number one issue is fear. We are a predominately African-American congregation,” he said, and African-Americans tend to have a higher rate of health conditions that put them at risk for severe complications if they become infected with the coronavirus.
According to a study by the American Public Media Research Lab, as of September nearly one out of every 1,000 African-Americans in the United States had died from COVID-19.
“They aren’t visiting (other people) much,” Henry said. “A lot of people have had to forgo family reunions.”
A ‘weird time to lead’
Increased isolation among older people is something other pastors have seen, including Hunter of Masonboro Baptist. It isn’t exactly rampant, he said, but “it’s enough that we’ve had to wrestle with it. People have been isolated.”
Hunter added that for some people, church was one of their main social outlets, and now they “have lost every bit of social contact (they had). That becomes almost like an emergency situation.”
Which is one of the reasons, said Troy Knight, pastor of Generations Church in Southport, that they decided to reopen services last summer.
Attendance is still down “among our older folks,” Knight said, but among those who do come out, he sees that many of them want to “hang around longer and talk” after services.
“They miss that fellowship and want to be part of it again,” Knight said.
To turn it around, though, Knight and other pastors say they, too, miss that fellowship.
“For me personally, it’s been a weird time to lead,” Knight said. “We’ve struggled with, ‘How do you do church?’ When you don’t see them show up every week, and you’re talking to a camera, it can be weird.”
Tal Madison, who’s the head pastor at Grace United Methodist Church in Wilmington, said that, for him and his staff, “It’s like the world shifted underneath our feet.”
“We’ve still been in ministry,” he said, and his staff is working hard, but they’re “working differently” as Grace prepares to returns to in-person services on Nov. 1. Like many if not most churches, Grace has been offering online services as a way to stay connected during the pandemic.
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“It’s made me learn more about newer technology than ever before. I didn’t know what Zoom was,” said Madison, referring to the online meeting tool. “It’s great. It’s just not the same thing as being nose to nose.”
Henry, of Macedonia Missionary Baptist, said that online services have been a source of both opportunity and pressure.
“It’s been very taxing,” he said. “Your preparation is very different. If you’re doing Zoom or social media, it’s very challenging. If I tune to channel 3 and I don’t like what I’m seeing, I turn it off.”
There’s more pressure on him, when he’s doing an online service, to “hit and hit hard and hit quickly. And if you don’t, they’re gone.”
On the other hand, he said, being forced to be online more “has opened the doors for evangelism,” he said. “It’s like Matthew (chapter) 28” from the Bible, which implores people to “go and make disciples of all nations.”
“We’ve had people watching from all over the world,” Henry said. “I’ve heard people say, I can worship now with three or four churches all in one Sunday,’ where you would never be able to do that in person.”
Knight, with Generations Church in Southport, said they probably reach more people now than they did before the pandemic. Donations to the church have remained constant if not slightly better.
Pre-pandemic, he said, having 1,400 in-person worshippers and 200 online was considered a good Sunday. Last Sunday, he said, they only had 700 in-person but his service had 1,100 unique watches on Facebook, which could translate into more than 1,100 people.
The technology does requires work, he said, because “it is hard online to duplicate what happens in person, especially through music.”
The church has a volunteer whose sole job is to mix the music played by the church band for the people online.
Knight paraphrased another pastor who said, “We’ve decided to be WalMart when it comes to church. WalMart is agnostic about where you buy their products,” whether in person or online, so Knight said he’s trying to make their online and in-person services as good as they can possibly be.
One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is “our mission,” Knight said. “And that’s to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and make disciples.”
‘Be there for each other’
Mike Ashcraft is the pastor of one of Wilmington’s biggest churches, Port City Community Church, which also has campuses in Leland, Jacksonville and New Bern. PC3, as it’s often known, has gone back to in-person services with a capacity of about 20 percent.
Ashcraft said that, for him, the pandemic is a reminder that “you know you’re dependent on God and his provision.”
Many people, he said, “Are like, ‘We’re just going to enjoy this extra time with our family,’ or, ‘Luckily, the economy hasn’t been that bad for us.’ But there’s a lot of people who’ve been hurt very badly.”
He recalls Facetime and Zoom calls with people sick in the hospital who he couldn’t visit because of safety precautions.
Because fewer people are able or willing to go to church in person, he said, he’s trying to increase the personal touch of the church, with lots more phone calls and small-group meetings, “So that part’s been really healthy.”
“Something we’ve been talking about for several years is trying to understand that the most impactful place for a church is outside of the walls,” Ashcraft said. “This has given us a way to prioritize that.”
Tal Madison, with Grace UMC, said difficult times tend to affect people’s faith in one of two ways.
“They either challenge my faith or they drive me deeper. Sometimes, those that start out challenging can end up driving you deeper. I’ve been fortunate in that it’s driven me deeper,” Madison said. “I would say that is is a great time for everybody everywhere to remember to be there for each other. A lot of people have known a lot of loss. I see people reaching out, though, and that’s a good thing.”
Hunter, with Masonboro Baptist, said that “people ask me, ‘What am I supposed to do?’ There’s nothing you’re supposed to do,” he said. “I’ve said this 100 times, but there’s no right way to do any of this. No right way to grieve. We’re all making this up as we go along.”
If you miss something, he said, whether it’s church or something else, look at it as a blessing, as a chance “to see all of these things we’ve been taking for granted.
“I think our church has such a strong sense of community. That hasn’t been tarnished. It’s made people feel it even more. And after this I expect it to be even deeper.”
Contact John Staton at 910-343-2343 or [email protected].