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Spiritual care at a distance

In this current COVID–19 environment, even mega churches have shut their doors and the most devout families are sheltering in place on Sundays. This paradigm shift has been a huge wakeup call for all church leaders.

The change is also proving to be an opportunity to reach congregants in ways never before imagined. It’s a situation that has encouraged Salvation Army corps and other worship centers across the United States to reinvent themselves—on the internet. Their strategies are “going viral” and many pastors and officers plan to stick with them long after the pandemic is over.

“Most of the Korean people do not use Facebook for our programming,” says Major Do sung Park, commanding officer of the Philadelphia Korean Corps. “Instead we use KakaoTalk Live 카카오톡. My congregants use their phones and computers to listen to our live services. The congregation has shown its appreciation by sending messages of thanks,” he says. “I use the gospel to help teach people how we can manage this COVID–19 situation. Every Sunday since the pandemic started, I focus on this topic at the beginning of each service.” Park says his audience is more attentive than ever. “During the online service, they really listen and interact. I thank God for that.”

Major Juanita Stanford, corps officer of the Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Philadelphia, Pa., says, “We’re doing every program virtually online. We are fortunate to have a YouTube channel. It’s brand new and improving.”

The Kroc Center is currently serving as a hub for food distribution in the territory, but the Sunday online meetings remain a priority. “We can only have groups here in our chapel of 10 or fewer people. We have a couple of people in the tech booth, and then there’s an ensemble. We try to make it happen and we do a full service.” Major Demetrius Stanford, corps officer, calls it, “a work in progress.”

Major Darren Mudge, corps officer of the Salvation Army in Reading, Pa., says, “As soon as COVID–19 happened, I set up a Zoom account. I bought a license for a year so that we could meet together.” The congregation has drawn even closer spiritually while in the midst of social distancing and uses technology that appropriately expresses those feelings. “We’ve chosen Zoom over Facebook Live because we have greater interaction with folks. When we have a Zoom meeting, we’re able to see people.

“There are several members of our congregation who don’t necessarily have a computer, and so it’s interesting because members will call these folks and will have them on the phone while we’re doing a Zoom meeting. It’s just great to see them minister to each other in that way.”

Mudge also realizes something else is developing. “I see folks becoming less worried about themselves and are growing more concerned about each other. I think I see that happening in our society as a whole.”

Lieutenant Grace Cho of the Flushing, N.Y., Korean Corps Community Center, says online meetings are helping to bridge the spiritual and emotional gap between congregants created by COVID–19. “As we stay in touch by weekly online Sunday school, holiness, and teens meetings, people also give their feedback.”

Lieutenant Chaka Watch, corps officer of the Harlem Temple, says that he intends to continue ministering online. “Actually, even before COVID-19, I started ministering on Facebook. When we come back, things are going to be different. Hopefully, people are going to be focused more on God. There will be a lot of work that will need to be done, a lot of counseling that will need to happen,” says Watch.


Counseling via phone

Such counseling is already well underway in many corps around the territory.

Major Samuel Gonzalez, director of Hispanic ministries, says the need for it is great. “They ask, ‘Are these signs of the end times?’ They feel fear, loneliness, and need for spiritual and emotional peace. My wife and I answer phone calls as members of a ministry hotline. We’re talking to people who are living day by day.”

Gonzalez likens this reaction to the events of 9/11. “There was confusion about how to respond during the early stages.” He believes that people will experience a post–traumatic stress for years and that mental health will become a major area of ministry. “We will continue to be present in new ways and develop and deliver services in a new normal.”

Lieutenant Cho says “phone visitations” are providing emotional and spiritual strength that will move their congregation through this pandemic. “When we face something that we cannot solve by ourselves, unless we open ourselves to God, we hit a wall; there’s not much we can do. So, in this situation where everything is closed off, we learn so much from each other and we become refined.”

Funeral and memorial services are also being done online. Families open their laptops, iPads, and cell phones. They click a link and suddenly hear multiple voices and see faces of family members peer through little boxes as would the Brady Bunch or the cast of Hollywood Squares.

Envoy Vangerl Pegues, corps officer in Troy, N.Y., says, “There’s no other way. We’re doing a lot of things that we’ve never done before. When we get out of this, we’re going to do things differently. Things will never be the same.”

by Warren L. Maye