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Churches in Harford County grapple with coronavirus, turn to technology for services

Mass at St. Margaret's Catholic Church in Bel Air.
Mass at St. Margaret's Catholic Church in Bel Air.

Delivering Mass to an empty church has been an adjustment for priests at St. Margaret Parish in Bel Air. But their lessons do not fall on deaf ears — nor do the services of other religious leaders around Harford County who now have to employ streaming and video recording to get the word out — especially as Easter approaches.

"It has been pretty odd for the priests to be doing the Mass without any people there,” said Kathy Reilly, public relations associate for St. Margaret’s, but the church community has been very appreciative of the steps taken, she added.

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The Rev. Lynne Humphries-Russ of Hopewell United Methodist and Wesleyan Chapel United Methodist churches in Havre de Grace and Aberdeen, respectfully, said the change has been jarring, but ultimately for the benefit of the two churches where she conducts services. She plans to hold a digital Easter service for congregants.

“It has been truly like flying a plane and building it at the same time,” she said. “Our mantra is ‘We have never done that before, but we are willing to try it.’”

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She and other Harford County religious leaders had been ruminating on taking their services to the internet. The idea simmered, but never became a priority, Humphries-Russ said, until the coronavirus forced congregants to stay home, emptying pews across the state.

Since the churches closed for services by order of Gov. Larry Hogan, she has taken her services to YouTube, where, with the help of her husband, she has managed to stitch together services complete with a recorded organist playing. It has been successful, she said.

“It is moving everything in an analog place into this digital place, and it is a true paradigm shift,” she said. “There are more people who are viewing us on YouTube than come to the two churches combined."

And beyond the services, faith groups and classes are still convening via Zoom, a video-conferencing application, as are Sunday school classes and meetings of all kinds. She is even working on recording a choir performing over the application.

Those recordings, she said, can stave off loneliness and depression for members of her congregation, whose daily lives and routines have been disrupted by the virus. Some are disconsolate because they cannot see their friends at church; one has a husband in a COVID-19 ward, Humphries-Russ said.

“If we don’t have this hope, this light to look toward, I do not know how [we] could survive,” she said.

Msgr. Kevin Schenning gives a virtual Mass to an empty church at St. Margaret's Parish in Bel Air during the coronavirus pandemic.
Msgr. Kevin Schenning gives a virtual Mass to an empty church at St. Margaret's Parish in Bel Air during the coronavirus pandemic. (Courtesy Maximilian Franz Photography)

Though the congregation at St. Margaret’s is heartened by the virtual Masses, Reilly said the sense of community they built seeing each other at Mass has been disrupted, though many have been keeping in contact with others through the pandemic.

“On every weekday morning at 6:30 and 8:30 we have Mass ... The people that come to those Masses, they are here every single day,” she said. "The contact with people is not there. People are missing each other.”

The priests have been calling parishioners to stay connected with them, but the crisis has thrown the need for churches to use technology into sharp relief, Reilly said.

“We’re learning how to be a part of a world right now that is so technology-oriented,” she said. “It is making everybody step up and be a part of that… that part of it is a good thing.”

St. Margaret will hold a digital Mass for Easter, Reilly said.

The Rev. María McCabe of Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Harford County in Churchville said the church has held three services on Zoom in response to church closures. She estimated that the last worship service attracted approximately 120 people.

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“In that instance, it was a little bit higher than the general attendance,” McCabe said. “This is still a pretty new world for us ... We are finding that using a virtual platform gives folks who are ill or have different kinds of accessibility issues an opportunity to participate.”

The pivot to technological services, she said, is a necessary conversation. Many larger faith communities have been broadcasting their services on the internet, but now the coronavirus has forced her and others around the county to take the leap as well.

The church’s community, she said, has pulled together during the pandemic, which has not fractured the community. Still, the video services are making the best of a bad situation.

"That is not to say there is not suffering, but at least our efforts are to make sure everyone is included in active connections,” McCabe said. “It is hard, especially for folks who live alone.”

Havre de Grace United Methodist Church has been live streaming its worship services, and has also been reaching out to its members in other ways, including wellness check-in phone calls, texting or calling children and sending cards to homebound members, Pastor Norman Obenshain said.

Bishop LaTrelle Easterling, the episcopal leader of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of The United Methodist Church, will offer a conference-wide Easter service, Obenshain said. The Havre de Grace church may offer its own live-streamed service for the holiday as well.

“Unless Gov. Hogan, led by expert medical opinion, lifts the current restrictions we will not gather. Out of love for each other, in order to help folk maintain health, we will keep our physical distance even while working to maintain social connection,” Obenshain said.

He’s optimistic about what the future holds.

“Easter reminds us that the present is not the end of the story. We will rise again from this pandemic crisis to new life and a new future,” Obenshain said.

Aegis reporter Randy McRoberts contributed to this article.

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