Our congregation suspended in-person worship from March 15, 2020, to May 30, 2021, to protect one another from the risk of coronavirus transmission and infection.
After the members of our congregation who could be vaccinated received their shots, we resumed in-person worship on May 30, but in a measured way that included live streaming worship services and avoidance of close group meetings.
On July 25, 2021, we returned to virtual gatherings because of the current surge of infections, hospitalizations and deaths associated with the Delta variant of coronavirus.
We have gone from attendance to Zoom, literally from A to Z, back to attendance and now are back to Zoom, again.
We missed being together when we went virtual before.
After we resumed in-person worship, we realized that we missed special connections shared during our virtual gatherings each week – several minutes during each gathering when we engaged in “reflection,” a time to share thoughts, hopes, anxieties and connection.
We missed our reflection time when we resumed in-person worship.
Last Sunday, two men – who live in different states and different time zones – and another man – who lives in a different part of our state – worshiped with us, safely, on Zoom.
In addition, two members of our congregation who have fragile autoimmune defenses, as well as a woman who lives in Little Rock, shares caregiving responsibilities with another sibling for their homebound mother, and who recently became a grandmother, worshiped with us, safely, on Zoom.
We learned a truth about the meaning of fellowship during our earlier experience with virtual worship that we had not realized before the pandemic forced us to suspend in-person gatherings.
We did not lose our sense of community. The Holy Spirit led us to expand our sense of community and become a congregation, virtually, that we would not have believed possible beforehand.
We are thankful for those blessings.
At the same time, some aspects of being virtual are painful. It is especially frustrating to be unable to comfort each other through personal visits, handshakes and hugs when we experience illness, death, grief and other troubles.
We cannot share fellowship meals on the church campus or elsewhere.
Before the pandemic struck, we could visit people who were hospitalized or who were confined to their homes due to illness or injury. That has not been possible for months.
Those changes have been frustrating.
Nevertheless, the Spirit has guided us to improvise. Homebound people in our congregation have received greeting cards and notes. We have learned that we can practice social distancing yet avoid social isolation.
Above all, we have learned that oneness with God and one another is not created by being at a common location. Oneness with God and one another comes from being aware of our kinship.
Now a new surge of infections, hospitalizations and deaths is happening. It is driven by the large population of persons in our state and across the nation who have refused to be vaccinated.
The new surge is especially painful.
A year ago, people became infected, sickened and died because vaccines did not exist. Now, people are being infected, sickened and dying because they refuse to be vaccinated.
A year ago, people tried to find face masks. Now, people are refusing to wear face masks and politicians are bragging about passing laws that prohibit local and state health officials and other leaders from mandating that people wear face masks.
We shut down in-person congregational worship and other gatherings because we love one another. We wear face masks because we love one another. We encouraged one another to receive the vaccines because we love one another.
Loving one another gives us meaning, hope, joy and peace even as we face the present surge.
We returned to virtual worship gatherings because we love one another.
We are one people from different households, backgrounds and experiences, who live in different states and time zones.
Each Lord’s Day, we recite, virtually, an “affirmation of oneness” that we recite whenever we worship.
We praise and worship God, together.
We petition God, together.
We proclaim God, together.
We welcome all persons in God’s love, together.
We live for God in every breath and heartbeat by the power of the Holy Spirit as followers of Jesus Christ, together.
That affirmation is true – or it is not true – whether we gather virtually or in- person.
Oneness with God, oneness with one another and oneness with all creation and all other creatures requires appreciating our kinship. Oneness involves infinitely more than physical proximity.
That is what it means to be a community, from A to Z.
Editor’s note: From June through August, articles will be published from faith leaders reflecting on the pandemic ministry adjustments they enacted, looking ahead to the future or both. If you’d like to submit a column for consideration, email it to email@example.com.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.