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May 29, 2020 – The joy of God’s presence continues to lift people up through online worship services at Peace Lutheran Church in Grass Valley. Though church pews sit empty, anyone can find spiritual nourishment amid the COVID-19 pandemic through Peace’s music, scripture readings and preaching at www.PeaceLutheranGV.org.

Pastor Bill Wong, left, recites the invocation that starts a usual worship service at Peace Lutheran Church in Grass Valley, while Walt Strony, the church’s organist, takes on a new role as videographer for Peace’s online worship experience. Photo by Anne Vaaler

            Despite recent state guidelines that outline the limited re-opening of houses of worship (see below), Peace’s building remains closed to stop the spread of the coronavirus. This will help people “to stay well and to save lives,” said interim Pastor Bill Wong. “Many at this congregation view this as a way to love our neighbors.”

            On May 25, Gov. Gavin Newsom released new guidelines from the California Department of Public Health for the limited re-opening of houses of worship. Those guidelines underscore the higher risk of coronavirus infection people face if they worship in person at this time.

“In particular, activities such as singing and group recitation negate the risk-reduction achieved through 6 feet of physical distancing,” according to “COVID-19 Industry Guidance: Places of Worship and Providers of Religious Services and Cultural Ceremonies.”

“As I read this document, I would sum up its guidance to houses of worship in one, simple phrase: ‘Just because you can gather for worship, doesn’t mean you should,’” wrote regional Bishop Mark W. Holmerud in a letter to Lutheran churches the next day. “It is not yet time to put aside our concerns for the well-being of the most vulnerable in our communities – seniors, black and Latino persons, and people who live in poverty. Each of these communities has been disproportionately affected by the spread of COVID-19.”

            On May 22, Holmerud joined two other regional bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to urge churches to continue following scientific advice about the virus. A day earlier, President Donald Trump had encouraged churches nationally to re-open for worship over Memorial Day weekend. But the bishops asked their congregations in California and Nevada to consider caution as an act of love for the most vulnerable.

“There is nothing sacred about a church building except as our sentiment makes it so… God is as accessible to us in personal intercession as in corporate prayer,” the bishops wrote.

“Our faithfulness to God is shown by our love of our neighbors, and in this situation, there is a clear witness to be made — the one that best shows care for others,” the bishops added.

They sympathized with people’s need to feel the personal contact faith communities offer. But, they pointed to surges in COVID-19 infections after some churches reopened in recent weeks contrary to federal health guidelines. They urged Lutheran church leaders to follow state and local health officials’ guidance in deciding when it is safe to re-open.

“Both a reduction in infections and effective measures to block contagion will be needed before we will be able to gather in person again,” the bishops wrote.

A time for spiritual deepening

            At Peace, a dedicated cadre of staff and lay worship leaders gather in the sanctuary in the middle of each week to record the worship service for the Sunday coming up. The abbreviated format includes the Gospel reading, a sermo n from interim Pastor Bill Wong, and music led by organist Walt Strony and vocalist Anne Vaaler. Words to the hymns appear on the video screen, so viewers can sing along.

            “A crisis is a time when people really need God and crave spiritual guidance,” Strony said. “None of our staff had ever done an online service before, and we were a little insecure about our lack of experience. But, the overwhelming feeling was that we needed to make this happen.”

            So the staff and lay worship leaders, including Myrna Heppe and Judy Kenney, eagerly accepted the challenge. During a recent rehearsal, Vaaler — a local music teacher who also directs the Colla Voce Youth Chorus using Zoom — practiced newly published lyrics written for the pandemic and set to a familiar hymn. The words speak to the discomfort of COVID-19 restrictions. They also remind listeners that God’s love is stronger, and they are not alone despite physical isolation. Lyricist Carolyn Winfrey Gillette, a Presbyterian minister based in New York, recently published several such pandemic-related works.

“When I learned about these new lyrics, I knew that they would speak our heartbreak and express our hopes for the time when we can gather again without fear or worry,” Vaaler said. “God is with us, and this has been an amazing time for learning acceptance and patience!”

This can even be a time for deepening one’s faith, Holmerud wrote in a second letter May 27. He encouraged faithful people to gather virtually or in small groups, using all recommended precautions, for prayer, Bible study and planning service projects to help those in need. He also encouraged congregations to remain closed for in-person worship until the end of July, calling online worship “a very effective tool for evangelism.”

‘I am weary of sheltering in place… and yet I am hopeful,” Holmerud wrote. “Imagine what might come out of such times of study, prayer and service that would inform how we will worship when we are able to safely gather again!”

            At Peace, members are holding Bible study and Sunday morning fellowship online using email and Zoom. Contact the church office for more information, (530) 273-9631.

Singing hymns amid COVID-19

  • Sing safely with Peace Lutheran Church and share in worship at www.PeaceLutheranGV.org
  • People who wish to speak to a pastor may contact the church office at www.PeaceLutheranGV.org or (530) 273-9631. DIRECT LINK: https://peacelutherangv.org/contact-peace/
  • Read the bishops’ letters urging caution before re-opening at www.PeaceLutheranGV.org DIRECT LINK: https://peacelutherangv.org/2020/05/22/bishops-against-re-opening-churches/
  • Find Carolyn Winfrey Gillette’s hymns that speak to faith amid COVID-19 at www.CarolynsHymns.com
  • Find the latest information about COVID-19 for faith centers at www.CDC.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/php/faith-based.html

Freelance journalist Trina Kleist is a member of Peace Lutheran Church and can be reached at tkleistwrites@gmail.com.