The Rev. Rob Bacon was preparing for Holy Week 2020 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church when he got some bad news: They needed to shut down, and the week’s worth of in-person services he had planned wouldn’t be happening.
“All of a sudden, we had to pull the plug and go all electronic,” Bacon said. “I didn’t have a clue about virtual anything.”
With the help of parish administrator Julia Nelson and music director Andrew Shenton, as well as Bacon’s daughter, Maggie — who was forced to come home from her study-abroad trip in Spain — he was able to set up Zoom-based worship. The first thing he did was give the congregation a video tour of his Lexington home.
“We’re finding ways to keep our community together electronically,” Bacon said in that first video, sitting at a table on his porch and wearing a sweater gifted him by a congregant. “We don’t know how long we’re in for this. We’re just going with the flow. We’re trying to be smart and safe and responsible.”
In that maiden-voyage broadcast, Bacon suggested several ideas that ended up becoming the basis for the connection among the church’s members, including weekly “Z-time” office hours held via Zoom and communal prayers throughout the week.
Every Sunday after his church service, Bacon would lead a virtual coffee hour, which he said was one of his favorite parts of the week.
“You got everyone on the screen one person at a time,” he said. “It was much more connective than in-person, because everyone was listening to one person rather than lots of little conversations.”
Other members of St. Paul’s stepped up, too. A small group of women within the church who knit prayer shawls for the community kept going by Zoom. Near the beginning of lockdown, they knit small crosses, putting them in envelopes with notes of encouragement. They would then drive around the area to place them in congregants’ mailboxes.
“That, more than anything else, kept everyone together,” Bacon said.
Meanwhile, the Bethlehem School, a Montessori preschool which operates in the same building as St. Paul’s, stayed open all through the pandemic, with not one student or staff member getting sick.
For six months, Bacon led services from his home before the church was able to install a $12,000 audiovisual system in its sanctuary; this allowed them to broadcast directly from the building. With the help of video, attendance actually increased during the pandemic, with family of current members and past members who had moved away tuning in.
Even so, Bacon said that preaching virtually was not the same.
“Preaching to the camera with no feedback, it was bizarre,” he said. “When you’re preaching live and can see everyone’s face and body language, you know if you’re reaching everyone. When you preach to a camera, you’re just hoping.”
On May 2, the church held a soft reopening, allowing a maximum of 20 congregants to come back in and sit in the pews. Over the next few weeks, more and more members were allowed to return as confidence built up about vaccines and safety measures.
“When we finally opened, I stood at the door and cried as people came in,” Bacon said.
Not everything is back to normal. They don’t use a shared cup for Communion, and effective Aug. 28, the diocese returned to requiring masks inside churches. As a result of the Delta variant’s surge this summer, they are keeping an eye on how things progress.
Bacon said that the whole pandemic has been hard, and the church has lost members to the virus. Every time, though, the community has come together to offer help.
“Even though it’s sad, it’s been a glue that held us together. Even in total lockdown, people open their door and there’s all these groceries and meals on the step,” Bacon said. “The people take care of each other. All you have to do is ask.”