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Church is where God’s family gathers

‘Prairie lessons’ help mom provide worship experience for family

by Karen Milholland Alley for Presbyterians Today | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Before the pandemic, members and friends at Elkin Presbyterian Church in Elkin, North Carolina, including the author, clearly enjoyed the magic of fellowship. (Photos courtesy of Elkin Presbyterian Church)

ELKIN, North Carolina — While the apocalyptic genre might seem relatable in some ways during these times we’re living in, the characters I have found myself relating to most during the pandemic are those found in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s account of life in 19th century America that she writes about in “Little House on the Prairie.” Letting out the hem of last year’s dress to make do for a growing child totally makes sense now. Who needs new clothes when you never leave home? Sitting around the fire at night for a sing-along with Pa while Ma does the mending?

And then there’s Sundays.

As a Presbyterian preacher’s kid, growing up I could totally relate to Laura’s Saturday night baths and putting on her best dress for church the next day. Even the happy gatherings of shared meals on the church lawn were familiar to me. But those times when Laura’s family lived in remote areas where there was no church — or the weather kept them home — that’s where the similarities ended. Her family still celebrated the Sabbath with a day of rest and reading the Bible — at home. To me that sounded like pure torture. Not being able to run and play? Having to just read the Bible with Ma and Pa? I totally felt Laura’s pain as she fidgeted in her Sunday best.

“I would never do that to my kids,” I said to my 10-year-old self.

Well guess what? Things changed.

In mid-March our county government limited the number of people gathered in one place to fewer than 10, even before the governor put a statewide stay-at-home order into play. Churches worked quickly to find ways to continue to minister to their congregations. My church was one of many that now offered the Sunday morning worship service in a new format, streaming live on Facebook. On Palm Sunday, I forced my 15-year-old daughter out of bed, dragged my 12-year-old son away from his Xbox, and we had church. At home. Just like Laura Ingalls. Only this time I’m not Laura. I’m Ma.

While out in the wild of the untamed prairie, she maintained worship on Sunday mornings, doing her best to instill a sense of order and civility in her family amidst a chaotic and uncertain world. As parents, aren’t we always trying to provide stability and comfort to our kids?

Now, more than ever in their short lives, our kids are facing unknown, uncharted territory each day. We might not be mapping out new towns in the Wild West, but we are in the middle of our own new territory, facing challenges and uncertainties as we learn to cope with sheltering in place, social distancing, working from home and distance learning. Like Ma, I’m looking for ways to find purpose and meaning in life, for myself and for my family.

For me, that means sticking to our Sunday routine of going to church, even if church looks a lot different these days. Instead of sitting in our pew in stiff Sunday clothes, the kids are coming to the laptop in pajamas while I show up in dirty jeans straight from the garden. We celebrate communion with grape Gatorade in shot glasses and saltine crackers and read the order of worship off an 8 ½-by-11 piece of office paper from my printer rather than the manila bulletin of church.

Even though it’s different, there’s comfort in the things that remain the same. The familiar face of our preacher, reading from the Bible. Reciting the Apostles’ Creed and saying the Lord’s Prayer together. I find comfort in the routine, but there is something more my kids and I find when we log on to the service — a sense of connectedness.

On Palm Sunday, the first Sunday we tried the new format, the screen of my laptop was divided with the livestream on the left and the dialogue box on the right. While we probably should have been watching the preacher give her sermon, our eyes were glued to the window where fellow church members typed in comments that showed us they too were online and watching. We watched intently as new people “joined.” We laughed out loud when the angry face emoji floated up amongst the thumbs up and hearts reacting to the livestream. Did that 70-year-old church member really mean he disliked what was being said, or was he just struggling to try to participate in this new-to-him medium? (I’m going with the latter.)

When Ma helped Laura button up her Sunday dress and sat down with her children to read Bible stories at home, she knew other mothers were doing the same thing in homes and churches around the country. I understand now how those simple acts helped Ma feel connected to a larger community, especially on those days when the isolation of the prairie was about to do her in. After days of being cooped up together in our house, feeling pretty alone in the world, here was an important reminder that we’re not alone.

I’ve lived in the Bible Belt of America my entire life. Sometimes I have to admit that’s been a cause for embarrassment. Even now, I’m sad to see some churches defying stay- at-home orders and continuing to hold Sunday worship services just like they did before COVID-19 became part of our vocabulary. But at the same time, I’m proud of the way the churches around me quickly adapted to a new reality. Our church is one of many live streaming worship services. Others are using transistor radio to reach parishioners as they sit in their cars in the church parking lots like a Sunday morning drive-in. Zoom has become a useful resource not just for public schools but for Sunday school teachers as well. Like Ma, we’ve all learned the point of church isn’t about sitting in pews together. It’s about the sense of community that comes from worshiping together, whatever shape that might take.

Last Sunday morning, as we watched online the clerk of session make the opening announcements and the pastor rise to read the day’s Scripture, my son kept a close watch of the number in the left-hand corner of the screen. Forty-six people watching … 49 … 52. We figured that the number of people watching was closer to 90 or even 100, for there were families like us with more than one person gathered around the computer screen.

“That’s way more people than are usually at church,” my son remarked with surprise in his voice. I’m wasn’t surprised at all.

If this experience has taught us anything, it’s that our church community is not dependent on the building itself. I hope that we’ll all remember this as we struggle with the questions of when and how to reopen, and to recognize the strength of the online ministries in reaching out to even more people.

Karen Milholland Alley is a member of Elkin Presbyterian Church in Elkin, North Carolina. She is a freelance writer and editor.

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