Local churches – large and small – adjust Christmas plans during COVID-19 crisis

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GREENSBORO, N.C. — This year, people have needed to lean on their beliefs more than ever. But, with a virus threatening how they’ll worship during the holiday season, some churches are reverting to how they gave praise in the early days, with the help of modern-day technology. 

“It’s very challenging to say we can’t gather for these very important rituals,” said Jill Duffield, Senior Pastor at First Presbyterian Church Greensboro. 

Duffield says her church has bout 2,400 members. The church itself can hold about half of that. Duffield, however, has never been in the space with more than 15 people, because she started there at the beginning of the month as COVID-19 cases were continuing to spike. 

“I think I anticipated that, but the grief around that is pretty palpable. You can really feel the disappointment and sadness about that,” she said. 

Upon her arrival, deciding how the church was going to handle Christmas Eve was at the top of the agenda.  

“We kept joking in staff meetings because Christmas Eve was on the agenda over and over again. So, it’s like Christmas Eve 3.0, Christmas Eve 4.0,” Duffield joked. 

The original plan was to have very limited in-person worship, but that was cancelled before she got there.  

Now, the church will have a Morning Celebration on video at 10 a.m., with its worship staff taking music pieces from one of last year’s Christmas Eve services, while adding in Duffield’s homily and some other new pieces. Then, at 5 p.m., Duffield will be hosting a service on ZOOM from her home. 

“I’m going to do it from my home, invite others to join me from their homes, and we’re going to light the candle, and sing Silent Night, and have a children’s story and keep it very simple,” she added. “The early Christian church, they met in homes, so in some ways we’re going back to the beginning.” 

Pastor Willie Funderburk of Mt Olivet AME Zion Church in Greensboro knows firsthand why adjusting to keep parishioners safe this Christmas is so important. 

“I fought it at home for about three days,” Funderburk said. 

He and his family caught COVID, and why he tried to stick it out at home, he eventually ended up having to go to the hospital. 

“I would walk from my chair to the bathroom, I couldn’t breathe. Like a bag over my head,” Funderburk said. “My blood pressure kept going up, they could never get it down.” 

After being in the hospital for nearly a week, he was able to return home, but wasn’t well enough to return to the church until this Sunday, when they had their Christmas celebration.  

“I’m going to try to take it easy,” Funderburk said, speaking beforehand. “My members say take it easy, give 15 minutes pastor, just take it easy. So, we’re going to try to do that.” 

Funderburk spoke from inside the church, with his members in their vehicles outside, listening over speakers. 

Although he only has about 60 members, the changes have allowed them to reach hundreds of people in the surrounding neighborhoods.  

“It ranges from hundreds, several hundreds, and many of them will come up and tell us, they’re in their houses, the windows are open their doors are open,” he said. 

They were also able to reach hundreds of people in his absence. Thanks to two grants, the church was able to hand out several meals, as well as boxes of meats and vegetables over several days. 

“It was exciting to see how many people we served, how many families we touched,” Funderburk added. 

Although Duffield doesn’t think First Presbyterian will be able to worship in-person until April, she’s looking forward to being able to reach her parishioners in person for other major holidays. 

“It is going to be like Easter,” she said, laughing. “It’s going to be fantastic because we’re going to be able to be together.” 

Although the pandemic has brought pain to people across the globe, Duffield says it’s also showed us just how important it is to be together. 

 “I think there is a blessing in that, because maybe sometimes we’ve taken that for granted, and I don’t think we’re going to do that,” Duffield said. “Not for a while anyway.” 

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