It’s ‘the people, not the building’: How churches navigated the pandemic

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NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WWAY) — Many houses of worship are back open after closing their doors during the pandemic, but most never really shut down at all.

“We have spent a lot of time preaching that the church is the people, that it’s not the building,” Cheryl Brainard said.

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Brainard, an Associate Rector at Saint James Episcopal Church, says the pandemic was undeniably difficult, but they took it as an opportunity to grow and connect with one another.

“We had some 40 callers divide up our 82-page directory to keep in touch with people, to help them get online, to see if they were okay, to see if they had financial issues,” Brainard said.

They utilize their downtown location, as well as their summer chapel in Airlie Gardens where people can sit outdoors and distance. This location was the first to open following the pandemic, with outdoor seating and distancing mandatory at first. Now, both locations are open for indoor services, but Zoom remains an important tool for the church.

Each morning they host a daily morning prayer via Zoom that typically sees about 20 to 25 people log on, compared to opening the chapel for in-person morning prayer during holidays and only 1-2 people showing up.

The church has also created a virtual dialogue on race called Sacred Ground. It touches on how various groups of people have been treated throughout history and what their church’s role has been through it all as well.

“These are things that have brought us together as a community, that have kept us as a community and made us stronger during the pandemic,” Brainard said. “Ultimately, the goal is to create a new story and that’s where I feel like we are now.”

Brainard says they want to send a message that all are welcome and she emphasizes that citing a prayer.

“It’s a prayer for the whole human family and it asks God to take away our arrogance and our hatred, our divisions, and asking God to break down the walls that divide us,” Brainard said. “That truly has been our goal at St. James is to live that prayer.”

Just across the bridge at Wrightsville Beach Baptist Church, Senior Pastor John McIntyre says they went digital immediately during the shutdown and waited about two weeks to reopen once it was permitted to see how things worked out before they resumed in-person services.

“Very, very solid online attendance, but then toward June, end of May, folks were fading from that experience,” McIntyre said. “They really wanted to be in person.”

While more of the congregation prefers in-person, virtual services played a special role in the life of one new church member.

“A lady, sweet lady, found us from Annapolis, Maryland. She got plugged into the life of the church through Facebook Live, became a part of the life of the ministry, and even joined a Sunday School class fully online, and now we’ve helped her move to Wilmington,” McIntyre said. “That’s a win for us. A way to live out the ministry that God calls us to do.”

McIntyre refers to the church as a launching pad into the community, so the church managed to continue to serve the community through the pandemic as well, like through a food delivery program.

“We literally just at the end of May finished a complete year of delivering food boxes every week, as many as 40 every week,” McIntyre said. “That was an intentional ministry opportunity for us to get into the homes and onto the porches of folks that we probably wouldn’t have been touching the lives of otherwise.”

Some churches are still erring on the side of caution when it comes to reopening. St. Stephen’s AME in Downtown Wilmington is still fully virtual. Pastor Reverend Thomas O. Nixon says their return to the sanctuary will likely take place in August.