Since March, Christian traditions have found themselves altered and morphed by a pandemic.
Churches grappled with things like how communion could work in a safe way and connecting with remote congregants. Two of the faith’s landmark holidays, Easter and Christmas, didn’t escape the impact of COVID-19, either.
As churches prepared to enter the season of Lent with Ash Wednesday, some were set to continue that morphing trend. The First United Methodist Church in Mesquite had planned a socially-distant-friendly imposition of ashes as well as an in-person service. Grace Lutheran Church of Carrollton had also planned an in-person service, live streamed for remote watchers and complete with “to-go” containers of ashes that could be picked up before the service.
But the onset of extreme winter weather put a wrench in those plans as millions of Texans found themselves without power and as roadways became dangerous to travel. As a result, Ash Wednesday for some places of worship meant moving online, a move local churches have become more accustomed to in the last 11 months.
“This time last year, we did not have cameras in our sanctuary,” said Tom Palmer, pastor at First United Methodist Church in Mesquite. “We had a video camera that we recorded and put it on a CD, but that was about it. But we've pivoted to Facebook Live, YouTube, we have people watching every Sunday from around the world.”
Instead of performing the planned in-person Ash Wednesday service, Palmer went live on Facebook that evening from his home office and delivered a litany to congregants.
“I'm trying to make sure they have a candle flame, some dirt and some water available,” he said earlier that day.
Viewers would be able to self impose ash on their palms, he said.
“It's going to be on the palm that you shake hands with, because that's a recognition that we need connection, one with the other,” he said.
Pastor Mark Vowell, who heads First Frisco United Methodist Church, said the church’s in-person worship crowd is still fairly small as most members still watch online.
“We're much more internet-savvy, online-savvy than we were just a year ago, especially a lot of our older members who really didn't have any use for online stuff, I mean that's their lifeline now,” Vowell said.
In the wake of the winter weather, First Frisco moved its Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday services to the next week. The church has plans to use medical swabs to administer ashes.
“Rather than getting all wrapped around the axle about what's not possible, you say 'What is possible?' and then ‘What would really be a blessing to people?’” Vowell said. “And you just do the best you can, and most of the time, the congregation understands, because everybody else is dealing with their own limitations.”
As Grace Lutheran Church of Carrollton dealt with intermittent power issues, Pastor Nathan Strong said the church decided to go completely online for Ash Wednesday by creating a recorded service that would be uploaded online that evening.
Strong said the season of Lent is a time of reflection and a being reminded of what is truly needed.
“God's word and the sacraments and what it is God is doing among us, and truly how it is we're called to care for one another in their time of need,” Strong said. “Many of us right now have that opportunity all around us in our own neighborhoods where we are sharing either electricity or heat or water itself. It's an opportunity, I think, for us to really share what God has blessed us with to those who are in need. And sometimes that's our neighbors right next door.”