Pastors and priests continue to provide hope and help in unaccustomed ways

CANANDAIGUA — It’s Sunday, and the view from behind church pulpits is jarring.

Seas of empty pews in darkened sanctuaries mark the second week of faith communities at worship, cyber-style, “together but apart.”

As congregants log onto Facebook, Zoom or YouTube to hear messages of hope, church leaders simultaneously scramble to meet parishioners’ needs, stem the coronavirus spread, rethink how to do community in isolation, and master online communication and technology overnight.

Strange, unprecedented times, these are.

And area churches are stepping up in ways they never could have imagined a few weeks ago.

Everything changed

Area pastors and priests across the board appeared slow to panic and quick to remain optimistic. At first.

The Rev. Colin Pritchard of First Presbyterian Church of Victor said he’d been following the news, but it looked like the coronavirus threat would run its course in just a couple of weeks.

“It would be an annoyance but wouldn’t change the world,” Pritchard said. “We’d just make sure people were happy and healthy.”

But the implications for his church hit home when it became clear COVID-19 wouldn’t just be a two-week hiatus, but a months-long situation.

“It was time to pivot from an institution completely based on relationship, attendance and presentation,” said Pritchard. “People were together, and they got most of the experience by being face-to-face in a small group and in worship.”

But with no option previously in place for streaming services online to homebound congregants, the shift was gear-grinding.

“This is an interesting moment in the life of a church that’s been around since 1798,” said Pritchard. “It has seen World War II, national rationing, it has been through the Depression and wartime change. For our current membership’s memory, this is a novel experience, and not in a good way.”

Lead Pastor Kevin Maloney of Grace Road Church in Rochester said it took him a while to grasp the nature of the situation.

“I was thinking it would be a short-term thing at worst,” he said. “It was one of our elders — a medical doctor — who said we have a duty to contribute to public health and not allow this disease to spread.”

That meant they’d essentially have to replant the church, to find a new paradigm that would be vital and effective in the pandemic.

“This is not a season that is good,” said Maloney, “but it’s a season in which we want to do good.”

At St. John’s Episcopal Church in Canandaigua, the Rev. David Hefling ObJN said he, too, was “holding out hope that this wasn’t going to be as overwhelming as it has become.”

“These are chaotic and confusing days,” Hefling said. “I’ve seen some of the best in people come out. They want to help one another, and they are, as much as we’re able.”

Last Sunday, Hefling live streamed worship via Zoom, and his parishioners were comforted to see the inside of the church, he said.

“It was just me and two readers and an organist last week,” he said. “This week I’ll be doing the Service of Morning Prayer from my living room or the church. We’re separated, but we’re all out there.”

Business as (un)usual

Jeanette Williams Housecamp, a pastoral associate at St. Benedict Parish, is the voice at the other end of the phone when parishioners call St. Mary’s Church in Canandaigua and St. Bridget's Church in East Bloomfield. She makes sure needs are met and questions answered.

Both churches continue to be open for a few hours each day so people can come in and pray, she said. A skeleton crew is still working — the communications director and two priests who say daily masses and respond to other urgent needs. And daily masses are streaming online.

First Presbyterian Church of Victor broadcasts services through Facebook and then uploads to YouTube.

“We were forced into a whole new set of skills,” said Pritchard. “This is a ‘first time’ for me. I’m fascinated and a little entertained that our viewership went up the minute we closed the church. We had hundreds of viewers per service, which is more than our average attendance. We’re making it work and people are very understanding.”


And how about the bottom line? How are faith communities walking the tightrope between severe financial instability and providing meaningful care for parishioners and others?

It’s a true test of faith.

“As an institution not receiving weekly offerings, these times are extremely threatening,” said Pritchard. “This is no fun — it’s financially terrifying. But we are a ministry before we’re an institution, and if we’re not willing to be open to that, we shouldn’t be open in the first place.”

Likewise in the heart of Rochester at 50 Liberty Pole Way.

“Offerings have been quite low so far,” said Maloney. “Many people are out of work, and many more are afraid. But we don’t think this is a time to hoard our resources or withdraw from real ministry in fear. We will spend our reserves, if necessary, to provide a team of ministers and a host of ministries to our community in a dark time. And at the end of all of this, if we emerge with no money but have served our community well in an unexpected season, that will have been a big win for the kingdom of God.”

At St. Benedict's parish, and in all faith communities, many foundational sacraments and sacred practices are now squarely off limits.

UR Medicine/Thompson Health, for instance, is no longer allowing priests to enter in order to give last rites. For Catholics, this final cleansing of sins before death is pivotal.

Likewise funerals cannot be performed, so priests are only able to give Christian burials with memorial masses being scheduled for another time.

“It’s so difficult, so hard for families,” said Housecamp. “We’re praying like crazy.”

Viewing daily masses online is also a tremendous challenge, she said, and is “especially hard for some of the older parishioners.”

In just two short weeks, feeding the hungry got trickier, as well.

While the Blessing Room food pantry at St. Bridget’s is open for two hours every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, Housecamp said food is now bundled ahead of time, and there’s still a great need for deliveries or transportation because buses are not running.

At St. John’s, the Gleaners’ Kitchen remains open for lunch. Hefling, a kitchen manager and one volunteer practice social distancing while preparing food assembly line-style and delivering to diners waiting outside. Groceries are also given out twice weekly, Hefling said.

Homeless families being cared for by the ecumenical Family Promise Program still spend their nights at St. John’s, but no new clients are being accepted.

It’s business as usual, sort of, but with far fewer volunteers, Hefling said.

The upside

Without in any way minimizing the level of suffering and loss caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Pritchard said there have also been unexpected moments of joy.

For instance, last Sunday, people tuned in from multiple states and Europe.

“We had one family from Pennsylvania participating live in the worship service,” he said. “Nobody knew that their son’s name would pop up from a military station in Germany. It was this huge gift. That doesn’t happen when you’re only based in a facility.”

When the pandemic is resolved, First Presbyterian will continue streaming worship, Pritchard said.

“We will establish a meaningful online presence,” he said. “And what a weird little gift to receive in this reality we would never choose. We now have an opportunity to be in service in a new and vital way.”

Maloney tapes his sermons from his 900-seat auditorium. It’s a surreal experience to teach in an empty room.

“We’ve just acknowledged that this is not normal,” he said. “I don’t really believe church can be online. Ultimately it has to be in person, face to face, looking in each other’s eyes. This can never be that.”

So Grace Road has stepped up with more blogging, podcasting, recording sermons, doing Zoom meetings, emailing, and phone calling to maintain vital relationships.

“I’ve been thrilled at the response,” said Maloney. “More people are watching and listening to the sermon than typically attend Grace Road on a Sunday. Over 500 listened to the Grace Roadshow (podcast), and the inbox is more active than ever with people desiring to stay in touch.”

Easter’s coming

With Easter Sunday, April 12, just two weeks away, Christians around the world will need to find new ways to celebrate Easter and observe Holy Week.

“For my non-traditional spirit, this is actually a nifty opportunity,” said Pritchard. “We’ll acknowledge the calendar day of Easter. However, Easter is not a day, it is a season. The day is really the secular holiday. The season is the nature of what it means for people to live, hope and joy in the resurrection all the time.”

So Victor Presbyterians will celebrate Easter at least twice this year, Pritchard said.

“Once will be the calendar day online, and the other will be upon our return into personal community as we celebrate the new life we now have,” he said.

At Grace Road, Maloney said he and his team are taking things one week at a time, but Easter worship will probably be completely online.

“There will be a little bit of lament that Christian community is a gift and it can be taken away for a time,” he said. “It will leave us hungry.”

Maloney compared online church to foraging for food in the wilderness — not an incredible meal, but you can get the necessary calories until you make it back to civilization.

“It’s not the same as meeting in person, shaking each others’ hands and taking communion together,” said Maloney. “But it is holding us over for now.”

St. John’s parishioners will be urged to turn their eyes toward Washington on April 12, Hefling said.

“We’re going to refer people to the National Cathedral website,” said Hefling. “In order for this to be a Holy Week with any kind of integrity, we’ve got to use that resource.”

A lot is still up in the air at St. Benedict’s, Housecamp said.

“We’re still going to be saying the Holy Week masses and services on Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter,” she said. “But it’s a different time right now, and what we’re really missing is coming together and praying as a community. Now it’s just being done in a different way.”

The church’s role

What’s the most essential role of the church in weathering this current storm? What’s the one thing it must do well?

“We have to attend to those who are at risk and in need,” said Pritchard. “It’s the tradition of caring for the widow, the orphan and the most vulnerable.”

To that end, First Presbyterian’s membership has been divided into three categories: those who are “fine but annoyed” with the present crisis, those who are “socially isolated but don’t need tangible care,” and “people who have direct, tangible needs like groceries, medicine or dog walking.”

Those who are isolated receive a call every day, and those in immediate need receive help, Pritchard said.

“All our stuff is always open,” he said. “If you’re in need, if you need prayer, if you need contact, we will respond. It’s not tied to membership, it’s tied to need.”

In the heart of Rochester, Grace Road has a large constituency of people at risk, and an active cadre of volunteers who now need to serve and social distance at the same time.

They’ve found creative ways to deliver groceries to the quarantined, deliver supplies to local agencies, provide 50 box lunches to workers at Rochester General Hospital’s ICU and help finance the purchase of personal protective equipment for medical workers at Rochester General Hospital.

“We’ve also begun meeting the needs of members who have lost jobs and are falling on hard times, helping them with basics and necessities,” Maloney said. “Nobody starves. Nobody goes without food.”

St. John’s leaders look for ways to offer reassurance in a frightening and disorienting time.

“Our role is to bring stability and make sure people remember that we are people of faith more than ever,” said Hefling. “We’re grounded in ethos and a theology that puts God at the center of all we do and believe.”

It’s easy when individuals are in crisis for them to turn to faith, even if they haven’t been practicing as completely in other times, he said.

“But we teach that God is with us always and walks with us each and every step, through good times and bad times,” said Hefler. “We need to be open to that and looking for that. Everything in this life is a gift.”

Parishioners have said they look forward to his daily updates and inspirational messages, he said.


For those in isolation — for everyone — the message from churches is one of hope.

“There is an endpoint to this. This is not a new, forever reality,” said Pritchard. “It’s longer than we want and harder than we imagined. So be compassionate with one another because everybody’s world changed. The anxiety and rough edges you may be feeling personally — everybody’s feeling. A deep breath and moment of compassion will serve us all really well.”

There’s also no shame in saying “I need you and I would like to talk,” Pritchard emphasized. There’s a surprisingly high number of people who are happy to meet that need. They just need to know it’s there.

“Do what you can, stay connected, and recognize that this won’t be forever,” said Maloney.

“It’s a tough time, a scary time and I’m glad I have my faith to rely on,” said Housecamp. “Keep the faith. I’m looking outside and seeing spring coming. The grass is turning green and green is the sign of hope. Easter is coming.”