When the regular-season game between NBA roundballers the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder was abruptly canceled right before tipoff back on March 11, Alexander Jensen knew things were changing.
Jensen’s prayer group at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church had been praying for the “terrible things happening in China,” Jensen said.
Jensen was just about to learn that China was not the only place to be affected by the coronavirus. Now the COVID-19 pandemic was hitting close to home.
Jensen and an associate helped to lead the church’s evening prayer services each Wednesday.
“I called and asked what we were going to do,” Jensen said. “We canceled for several weeks. All Sunday services were also canceled.”
Jensen, 26, from Orem is a senior in communications at Utah Valley University. He suffers from severe asthma and in his youth had been hospitalized for it. COVID-19 is a big deal for him.
National reports gave Jensen some hope as they were looking forward to a quick return to normalcy at the church.
“We had a moving timetable for opening up church face to face. First it was Easter, then Memorial Day,” Jensen said. “Then the Episcopal Bishop sent a letter saying we would not be changing until further notice.”
By then Jensen had his evening prayer service on Zoom with five or six from a congregation of about 50 joining in.
He said they had a bit of trouble starting up because they had to help some of the older parishioners learn how to log on. Those joining in are not always the same people either.
“I haven’t gone back to church because I am compromised,” Jensen said. “It has me wanting to be there in person.”
Jensen said before COVID-19, he was splitting his worship time between St. Mary’s in Provo and St. Mark’s in Salt Lake.
“St. Mark’s has been recording Sunday liturgy, but there is no singing and just the recording of the priests,” Jensen said.
“It is very strange when you see the empty church with empty pews,” he added. “I know a lot of people who do all the virtual stuff. I don’t like it. But it is the only way some people can connect.”
At St. Mary’s, Jensen said Reverend Susan Toone has the congregation meeting outside every other week. There is no singing and they have to wear face masks. Communion is being avoided completely.
Emily Lower knows just how Jensen feels. Lower serves in the office of the Springville Community Presbyterian Church two days a week and teaches anthropology at UVU.
Springville’s congregation is very small with mostly retired couples at the moment, according to Lower.
“We’ve been on Zoom except in June when the numbers were lower,” Lower said. “We love each other. We’re a little family that after church is over we stay on and chat.”
Like coffee hour after worship services in other churches, Lower said the members long to have that time together to just communicate. It could be that Zoom becomes a part of the long-term solution to the aging members of the congregation.
During the Zoom service, Lower said one of the women plays the piano from her home for people to sing. The church donated old hymnbooks for members to have at home.
“Occasionally we have Wednesday prayer,” Lower said. “Computers are such a blessing. Some of our members check in on each other, through calls or dropping by.”
Asked how important the singing and celebrating together is, Lower said, “Christmas is going to be tough.”
According to Chaplain Linda Walton, who works with the Utah Valley Ministerial Association, a number of churches have felt the pain of COVID-19 in their pocketbooks and about 25% of them have or will completely close.
Walton is a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Provo, she is chaplain to both universities and many colleges in Utah County, and serves the Provo Police Department.
While some of the smaller churches are struggling to pay their ministers and keep their churches running, this does not seem to be the case for the Provo Adventists.
“We just got the financials, and there is more money than we thought we had,” Walton said. “I do not know why when so many other churches are hurting.”
Walton does credit the Seventh-day Adventist Church for the practice of volunteering tithing — 10% of a member’s income. That money is sent to the national headquarters and all ministers are paid from those coffers.
The local members also give volunteer offerings of between 3% and 5% of their income to keep the local church maintained.
“That takes care of the building, hymnals and upkeep,” Walton said. “We are putting in new carpeting right now at the church.”
Walton said members of her congregation did Zoom for a while, but they are back to regular services. The Provo Seventh-day Adventist congregation spans from Heber to Spanish Fork. About 90% of the congregation is from diverse cultures. There about 150 active members in the congregation.
“COVID hasn’t hit our church,” Walton said. “We also have about 300 other people a week that use our church.”
COVID-19 has caused many of the churches in the county to take a break, either worshipping from home or joining in online services.
Walton, Lower and Jensen are all concerned that churches will lose their members and with that, their clergy. Without knowing when they are going to meet regularly again, it will take all the faith, hope and charity they can muster to get through until they are singing praises and sharing pews.
On Friday, the Daily Herald will take a look at how churches and their membership are dealing with the many facets of faith.