‘Real time’ religion

Published 6:54 pm Friday, March 20, 2020

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With the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic affecting almost every part of daily life, local places of worship in the Roanoke-Chowan area are also feeling an impact with many finding themselves having to cancel or suspend services until further notice.

Last week, Gov. Roy Cooper issued a mandate prohibiting gatherings of more than 100 people, and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services recommended this week to cancel or postpone any gatherings consisting of 50 or more people for the next eight weeks. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends avoiding gatherings of 10 people or more.

To learn more about how churches here are dealing with the situation, the News-Herald reached out to Rev. Samuel K. Shaw, III, senior pastor of Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Windsor, and Rev. Terry Stockman, Director of Missions for the West Chowan Baptist Association which includes churches in Hertford, Northampton, and Bertie counties.

Both pastors agreed that churches will have to find more innovative and creative ways to reach their congregation in the wake of many having to cancel regular worship gatherings.

“All of our events, both association-wide and at a lot of our churches, have suspended their public services and suspended any mission work. Everything is sort of in a holding pattern right now,” Stockman said.

Shaw acknowledged the circumstances are unusual for church leaders, saying, “many of them have not prepared for a situation as this, to be able to function and still have service through the coronavirus pandemic. Pastors are not being able to pastor the flock and feed the people in a spiritual manner.”

Stockman pointed out that closures and cancellations have an adverse effect by halting momentum, even leading up to “our greatest holiday of the year,” Easter.

“Our churches are working hard to keep momentum going. Our leadership are finding other ways to minister to them,” he explained.

In response, some pastors have reached out individually by phone or one-on-one visits to congregants who may need it. But many churches have transitioned temporarily to online resources to reach a larger amount of people, utilizing video recordings to post on their websites or Facebook Live in order to preach in real time.

Shaw said he has been grateful for leaders in the church who have helped him learn more about different technology options even before the pandemic, and he recognized that churches have to be flexible enough to adopt new methods.

“You have to learn how to reinvent yourself,” he said. “The people still need leadership. The people still need the presence of God, the word of God, and we need to find a way to serve.”

Shaw pointed out that the church has always faced challenges, even since its earliest days, and this will just be another one to face.

“The position that I’m in has to shift to be relevant to the season I’m in,” he continued.

He mentioned, for example, the teachers at a school he works with having to shift from their usual place of classroom learning to helping out in other ways for now, such as by bringing food to students.

“Are you able to shift,” Shaw mused. “I think that’s the question that every church has to be asked. Are you willing to shift your position to meet the need of these times?”

Stockman suggested some passages of scripture for people to read even if they find themselves unable to tune into online sermons. He pointed in particular to several Psalms with encouraging words, including Psalm 91, Psalm 100, and Psalm 107.

He also mentioned 2 Timothy 1:7 as a source of comfort. That verse reads “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but one of power, love, and sound judgement.”

If people think they need more direct help, Stockman encouraged them to reach out to the West Chowan Baptist Association, and he can help connect people with pastors or others who can provide assistance and guidance. Their website is westchowan.org and their office number is 252-332-1973.

Both pastors emphasized taking the situation seriously, but also to rely on God along the way.

“We’re going to have to trust in God. We’re going to have to trust one another,” Shaw said.

“It’s a difficult thing to endure, but there are a lot of people who’ve lost a whole lot more than we have,” Stockman said. “We believe that ultimately God’s got this thing, and He’s going to turn it around. We’re going to come back stronger than we were. That’s what keeps us motivated.”