By Ezra Sassaman
BAR HARBOR — The coronavirus pandemic has changed many facets of our way of life. How has it changed our local communities of worship?
The Islander spoke to Rev. Rob Benson, Rev. Dr. Janet Adair Hansen and Sarah Mislang, members of three religious communities on Mount Desert Island, to learn more about how local places of worship have adapted to our changing way of life.
At the beginning of the pandemic, all three churches went virtual. The Bar Harbor Congregational Church (BHCC) and its pastor, Rob Benson, has used a variety of online platforms, including Facebook Live, YouTube Live and Zoom. Each Sunday service is a multimedia combination of words, images, music, audio and video, resulting in a unique “smorgasbord” of live and recorded content each week, he explains.
Intentional interim pastor Janet Hansen needed to find a way to adapt the historic Somesville Union Meeting House United Church of Christ (SUMH) to virtual technology after the pandemic hit.
“This church was not in the 21st century,” says Hansen. “Other than the microphone, it felt like worship in the 1800s.”
Although SUMH has not held in-person service in over a year, Hansen has noticed unforeseen advantages of virtual worship. Some older churchgoers who had been reluctant to come in person, especially during the winter, now participate over Zoom. Additionally, summer residents have joined winter services for the first time and partake in virtual committees from out of state. Due to these upsides, Hansen plans to change to an in-person/virtual hybrid model in the future.
The First Baptist Church of Bar Harbor (FBC) held online and outdoor worship during the summer but transitioned indoors in the fall following the public health regulations outlined by Gov. Mills. As ministry assistant Sarah Mislang explained, pandemic adaptations at the FBC today include masked churchgoers, sign–ins for contact tracing and the installation of hand sanitizer on the walls. The church has also opened up extra rooms to create enough space for its congregants to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
Before the pandemic, FBC held baby showers, birthdays, potluck dinners, weddings and funerals. Since then, the church has needed to give up or alter events that were once commonplace.
“Those things that you’re used to doing, that you took for granted, are now much more difficult,” says Mislang. “I’ve been just as restricted from meeting with my church family as from my blood family. Nothing beats that in-person hug and connection with others.”
The threat of COVID-19 affected an important event for the Somesville Union Meeting House last year: its summer pie sale fundraiser. Because of heightened public health concerns, volunteers made sure not to bring anything from home. Instead, small groups of eight or fewer people wearing masks and gloves met in the church space, making pies from scratch.
Beyond selling baked goods, SUMH strives to create a more just and inclusive society. It was the first church in Maine to be “Open and Affirming” towards members of the LGBTQ+ community and it hosts discussions on nonviolent communication as well as race and privilege.
“This church is known for social justice and pies,” says Hansen.
This past year has magnified issues like anxiety and depression for many. Mislang said she sees some members of her church who feel guilty and ashamed of having mental health issues.
“They’re wondering, ‘‘how can I be a follower of God and feel like this?’”
Especially in the midst of a pandemic, FBC’s leaders and staff encourage churchgoers to see themselves guided by a higher power. “We tell them, ‘God’s not done with you yet. You’re not alone. It’s okay to have some days where you feel lousy,’” said Mislang.
When thinking about how coronavirus has changed their lives, Benson said he wants the religious to understand that their faith is a relationship, not a transaction.
“It’s not a quid pro quo that if you believe, you’re going to have a perfect life,” he says.
For Benson, our shared suffering of the pandemic evokes the biblical sentiment, “the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.”
Mislang sees how the pandemic has stripped away the busyness from many people and given them a chance to reexamine their relationship with themselves. She notes that people are used to identifying themselves based on what they do.
“Now people have to ask themselves who, not what, they are,” she says.
Benson holds a weekly event he calls ‘The Saunter,’ a slow, hourlong walk through Bar Harbor that combines quiet reflection with human connection. “You see things you wouldn’t notice at the normal pace of life,” he says.
Benson explains how we mostly think of chronos time, which measures how long things take. The Saunter allows walkers to instead experience kairos time, which is measured by the quality, not length, of moments in our life.
Hansen says the pandemic has resulted in her congregation practicing “a deepened sense of compassion and prayer.” Since last year, SUMH members have engaged in communal prayers lifting up friends and family in areas of the U.S. hit especially hard by COVID-19. Her church has also “doubled down” on
outreach to local organizations helping those hit by the effects of coronavirus.
The Congregational Church has been the home of community programs like Open Table MDI and the Backpack Program, which have worked to meet the heightened need for food during the past year. Volunteering for these programs is a “satisfying way to see people face to face and find common purpose,” says Benson.
Benson says he is not interested in debating the greater meaning behind the pandemic or asking whether humanity did something to “deserve” it. Instead, he’s asking, “How can we be faithful and compassionate in the face of adversity? What can we be doing now to help each other?”