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Churches go digital

News Photo by Julie Riddle Binder clips, a smartphone, and a music stand form a makeshift tech booth at Peace Lutheran Church in Rogers City, one of many local churches that have turned to live streaming worship services in response to statewide restrictions to curtail the spread of the coronavirus.

ALPENA — Tiny Shoreline Wesleyan Church, tucked into a storefront in downtown Alpena, doesn’t usually have 50 people coming through its doors on a Sunday morning.

The church’s 30 to 40 regulars normally fill rows of chairs, cozily seated side-by-side in the open room that serves as the church’s sanctuary — a small but close-knit family.

The doors of the church are still open, said senior pastor Joe Collins, but the chairs have moved, spread out around the room so people don’t touch, don’t get too close.

Churches across Northeast Michigan are changing the way they care for, and connect to, their members and their communities, another of the many aspects of everyday life changed in unprecedented ways by the advent of COVID-19.

As of March 17, indoor gatherings of 50 or more people were prohibited by the office of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, although she clarified on Saturday that houses of worship won’t face misdemeanor charges if they choose to meet.

As of 10 a.m. Sunday, no cases of coronavirus infection had been confirmed in Northeast Michigan.

Statewide, the tally of confirmed cases jumped from about 550 on Friday to 1,035 by Sunday morning, with 8 deaths reported.

District Health Department No.’s 2 and 4, serving eight counties in Northeast Michigan, had submitted 83 COVID-19 tests to the state as of Friday and had, at that point, received 19 results, all negative.

New testing numbers from the weekend were not available Sunday evening but will be updated Monday, according to District Health Department No. 4 Administrative Health Officer Denise Bryan.

Concerns over a shortage of personal protection equipment and testing supplies have been of highest priority, Bryan said.

Saturday, Whitmer added hair, nail, and tanning salons, tattoo parlors, and other non-essential personal care services to the growing list of businesses and organizations ordered to close temporarily to curb the spread of the virus.

Working to abide by the state’s mandated restrictions, churches are finding new ways to connect people to one another.

At Shoreline, Collins is limiting attendance to 30. His own wife and children will worship from home, he said, staying away to leave more room for those who might more desperately need the community of church in trying times.

The church will continue its weekly family dinner night as long as they’re able, but without the food, and with chairs pulled a safe distance apart.

Separation doesn’t have to mean isolation, Collins said.

The digital world offers Skype, Facetime, and other digital means of face-to-face contact — tools he’s encouraging his members to use to connect with one another.

“Yes, there’s going to be some suffering,” Collins said. “Yes, there’s going to be some loss. But, as a people, we are going to be able to survive this.”

“THEY’RE ROCK STARS”

Like several other denominations, Free Methodist churches in Michigan were directed to suspend in-person worship services, church gatherings, and activities at least until early April to combat the coronavirus.

The edict, said pastor Rich George of Alpena Free Methodist Church, has pushed churches out of their comfort zone and into untested waters of technology.

His congregation is live streaming services for the first time, George said, leaning heavily on a few church members who happen to be in the information technology field.

“They’re rock stars right now,” he said.

Some churches are having to play catch-up, learning how to reach members using communication devices already at their disposal, George said — something he hopes continues long after life gets back to normal.

Closing a church’s doors, instead focusing on caring for the home-bound and others in need, is one way a congregation can “love our neighbors as ourselves,” the pastor said.

“We’re going to have a lot more compassion” because of the changes forced by the coronavirus, George said — “a lot more understanding.”

“NONE OF THIS IS IDEAL”

Live streaming worship services is nothing new for Word of Life Baptist Church in Alpena, which has posted its services online for several years.

Still, pastor Scott Joy said, it’s a little strange preaching to an empty sanctuary.

The church has gone digital-only, with videos, conference calls, and video conferencing taking the place of Bible studies, meetings, and activity nights.

“We all know none of this is ideal or the same,” Joy said. “But it’s something,”

Views of online Sunday services have risen as doors closed in other churches in the area, some of which are unable to share worship experiences digitally. Joy welcomes members of other churches to his livestream, encouraging them to keep supporting their own congregations until they’re able to return in person.

A praise team joined Joy at the front of the church Sunday, standing six feet apart from one another. He’s not sure they should be there, Joy said, conscious that, at times like these, distance equals safety.

The need for precautions is a personal one for the pastor. He and his wife both battle chronic lyme disease, which puts them at higher risk of serious repercussions if he’s exposed to the virus.

“There’s a lot of people who are facing fear right now,” Joy said. “And I understand it. But there’s a way to navigate it that you don’t have to live in that fear.”

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, jriddle@thealpenanews.com or on Twitter @jriddleX.

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