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Faith, hope, and COVID-19

How ministers and congregants cope with virus-mandated restrictions
Pastor Thomas Gibson and his wife Emily. Pastor Gibson founded the North Liberty Baptist Church nine years ago after discovering a spiritual void in the community. The church celebrated the completion of a major renovation project last Easter. (photo provided by Pastor Thomas Gibson)

NORTH LIBERTY– Last Easter, the congregation of the North Liberty Baptist Church celebrated the completion of a major renovation project and the first service in their church after five weeks of meeting at the North Liberty Community Center. This Easter, Sunday, March 12, the sanctuary will be empty with the congregants celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the safety of their homes as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
Governor Kim Reynolds issued an emergency proclamation on Tuesday, March 17, prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people at all locations and venues, including but not limited to parades, festivals, conventions and fundraisers. Social events for community, spiritual, religious, recreational, leisure and sports-related purposes were also prohibited through midnight on Tuesday, March 31.
“These are unprecedented times, and the state of Iowa will do whatever is necessary to address this public health disaster,” Gov. Reynolds said in a statement.
Reynolds extended the order through Tuesday, April 7, and extended it a second time on Thursday, April 2, to last through Thursday, April 30, as the number of confirmed 2019 novel coronavirus cases in Iowa continued to climb.
Several North Liberty area churches were asked, through email, how the restriction was impacting their congregations. Pastor Thomas Gibson of the North Liberty Baptist Church responded. Pastor Gibson founded the church nine years ago after moving to Iowa from Arkansas after discovering what he called a spiritual void.
Gibson said the legal requirement for churches to be prohibited from gathering was a very difficult law to accept.
“Honestly, it felt un-American,” he said. “Though we believe in the cause (preventing the spread of the virus) and the safety, we felt as though the government had underestimated the power of peoples’ faith. I feel the greatest hindrance is that in times past, people attended church more during a time of crisis, and faith either began, or was strengthened. That is not an option at this time.”
The pastor explained the word church comes from the word “ecclesia,” which means called out and assembled.
“We can send out messages via video and live stream (many churches have gone to a live stream of their Sunday services), but it is not church. Each person is a member of the church body, like the hand and the foot, but it is when we are all together that we make up the complete body. Until we can gather again for church, we are striving to give our congregants and our community messages of hope and dependence upon God. But make no mistake about it, we cannot wait to assemble again.”
Gibson said his church would follow the laws of the land for the sake of their members’ health, and the testimony of Christ in their community. Instead of gathering for worship, and instead of live streaming, his church is pre-recording all services and putting them onto DVDs.
“We have a sign-up form on our website. This allows a person to receive a DVD of Sunday morning service, Sunday evening service, and Wednesday evening Bible Study,” he said.
Those who sign up also receive a copy of that week’s songs (so they may sing along), a letter from the pastor, a worksheet to complete during the Bible Study, and a personal connection with a person in the church.
“We currently have seven individuals who deliver the DVDs and keep connected with those on their route during the week.”
It’s also part of their job to make sure nobody feels alone, and that everyone knows they are an important part of the service, Gibson added.
Of course, ministers do more than just lead worship services. Hospital visits to sick members of the congregation are routine, except during an epidemic where nothing is routine any more. With hospitals and nursing homes restricting, or even prohibiting visitors, ministers have had to adjust accordingly, including Gibson.
“We had a dear member in their 80s have heart surgery, and all I could do is call them the night before and pray with them over the phone. Though he was appreciative, it is not the same as standing beside his bed in pre-op and holding his hand while in prayer.”
Many weddings have also been postponed, or significantly downsized and live streamed to family and friends.
“Again, it certainly is not the same for that newly married couple that imagined all their family and friends in attendance.”
The most disappointing impact, the pastor said, has been the graduating seniors who may not get to wear their gown and take the walk across the stage for the diploma they worked so long for.
As of Thursday, April 2, school has been called off until at least Thursday, April 30, leaving perhaps some hope.
He added the impact on the elderly, who live alone, also has been significant as they feel lonely and have a lack of motivation to prepare themselves for the day.
The North Liberty Baptist Church has implemented a food drive every Tuesday and Thursday for the seniors in the church and their friends and neighbors.
Sometimes adversity leads people to exploring their faith, and taking comfort in a relationship with God. But Gibson said that doesn’t seem to be the case.
“I wish I could say people have turned to faith in these times, but we haven’t seen that yet here in Iowa. I believe the closing of churches has hindered that response. It is easier for a visitor to go to a church and find a seat with others, than to call and speak alone about something as important as faith and eternity.”
The church paid for several online advertisements to let the community know they are here for them and encourage them to sign up for the DVD list.
“Due to the expectancy of these restrictions lasting another 30 days, we are meeting to discuss more options concerning making it easier for people to turn to faith in God during these times, and when these times come to an end.”
As for this year’s Easter Sunday service and the weeks beyond, Pastor Gibson said they will have a drive-in service using a conference call system.
“People can watch from their vehicles and listen through their phones,” he said.
The call-in number to listen to the service, on Bluetooth or through the speaker option on their phones, will be listed on the church’s website www.northlibertybaptist.com.
“We are excited about this option, because a person does not have to be in attendance to listen in to the service.”
Ultimately however, the Pastor said, “Our greatest desire is not that people attend our church services, but that people come to know the Lord.”