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Howard County, Laurel churches try to offer hope during Christmas in a pandemic

This holiday season at First Church of Laurel, the altar will not be covered with poinsettias and there only will be one Christmas Eve service instead of the traditional three. Holiday cookies will still be delivered to shut-ins, but there will be no caroling to accompany them. At Emmanuel United Methodist Church, a virtual children’s Christmas pageant is planned and over 150 bags filled with inspirational messages, Advent supplies and holiday decorations, were delivered to parishioners in preparation for the Christmas season.

With COVID-19 cases rising and numerous government restrictions in place, it has been a challenge planning the upcoming holiday season which, in the Christian faith, celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. A joyous holiday for many, it can also be a sad time for many, too, especially now, during the pandemic.

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“We’ve been doing many things, part of which is to acknowledge that people are not in good spirits,” said Kim Capps, minister of pastoral care and new members at Emmanuel United Methodist. “We know people are going through things. You don’t have to hit the jolly button.”

During the summer and into the fall, services at Emmanuel UMC were held outside. Now, everything is online. To keep the congregation connected, the staff created the Advent-at-home bags that parishioners can use to prepare for Christmas. A series of Zoom devotional studies has also started.

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“It is hard not to be in touch and know what is happening with people,” Capps said. “The challenge now is, everything takes longer, and you have to think it out a lot more. It’s a new system.”

While members still gather in person weekly at First Church of Laurel, the Rev. Ramon McDonald has been delivering daily devotionals and hosting nightly events like Bible Studies and social gatherings via Zoom since the pandemic began.

“It helps keep spirits up,” McDonald said. “Most of our people are staying home. We had been broadcasting our services before [the pandemic] and will continue to do so. A lot of seniors appreciate that they can stay home and get the full service.”

None of the Masses at St. Nicholas Catholic Church are streamed online, according to the Rev. Timothy Baer.

A sign outside Emmanuel United Methodist Church in Laurel honors coronavirus deaths.
A sign outside Emmanuel United Methodist Church in Laurel honors coronavirus deaths. (HANDOUT)

“Masses are still happening on a regular schedule,” Baer said. “People are coming ... but not as many.”

For some, the mix of the holiday blues with the COVID-19 isolation, Baer believes, is a “double whammy” for depression and suicidal thoughts.

“It is all the more important to convey that message of hope,” Baer said. “The church is here for them.”

As it has in the past, First Church of Laurel will hold a Blue Christmas service, this year on Dec. 20, McDonald said.

“It is a service focused on our faith and trust in God to get us through difficult times,” McDonald said. “... We have had funerals where we could not have people there to celebrate life. Weddings could not have the crowd they wanted. There are a lot of things the pandemic has impacted.”

Emmanuel United Methodist Church is hosting a Longest Night Service on Dec. 20.

“It will give people the opportunity to participate in the age-old tradition to lament and acknowledge darkness,” Capps said. “What is everybody struggling with?”

People are encouraged to send in prayer requests to be included, Capps said. The service will feature music and readings. After the service, people will be invited to join discussion groups via Zoom.

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“If you have pain and don’t express it somewhere, it is like pushing down water,” Capps said. “It is coming up somewhere.”

On Christmas Eve, parishioners will have the opportunity to gather in the parking lot at dusk to sing “Silent Night” together, Capps said.

“It will help people feel connected,” Capps said. “All the Christmas Eve services will be streamed.”

At First Church of Laurel, a Christmas tree is up, McDonald said, but the poinsettias typically placed on the altar were repurposed.

“We are taking donations to help families in need,” McDonald said. “We have decorated the church, just not as much as we normally do.”

After the last outdoor drive-in service at Emmanuel, the holiday lights went up and the Nativity scene was placed outside.

“That is something that will cheer people,” Capps said. “We have a wonderful community and a lot are people are helping us do all these things. There is always a learning curve.”

Decorations at St. Nicholas will go up right before Christmas when the last Advent candle is lit, Baer said.

“We’ll break out the Christmas decorations then. It is almost magical,” Baer said. “We have a dedicated crew. The tree will go up and flowers will go out and it will all be ready for the first Mass of Christmas Eve.”

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