Coronavirus: faithful accustomed to meeting in prayer, find themselves physically separated

ASHFIELD – The Reverend Victoria Ix, vicar of St. John’s Episcopal Church, was ordained a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts in late 2017.

Interviewed at the time, she spoke about shared support by the faithful and the celebrant coming together to worship.

Now, the coronavirus pandemic and efforts to contain its spread have impacted his ministry in Franklin County, as well as those around the world.

Right before your ordination, you said that part of what attracted you to the spiritual life was the urge to “sing and break bread with strangers”. How do you feel as a minister about not being able to serve your congregation in person during this pandemic?

We’re still singing, but can’t wait to break bread. There are many ways to navigate this time and many congregations have chosen to have a “virtual” Eucharist. St. John’s has chosen to fast from the celebration of the Eucharist until we can be together again. Instead, we pray the morning prayer from the common prayer book and I still preach. We’re feasting on the Word right now until we can get back to the table.

You also commented that in life’s most painful times God is there, but so are many questions. How much do you see this double reaction, people turning to God but also wondering why the impact of this respiratory disease on so many levels so badly in people’s lives?

As recently as last Sunday, I noticed that it is too early to look for “silver liners” or to count blessings. At this time, we are all faced with the mystery of suffering and we must honor the grief of so many families who could not be present with a loved one at the time of death. I have never been very sensitive to the “why”. We preach the gospel of God with us in our pain and ignorance.

Would you describe the makeup of your Ashfield parish in terms of number of families, diversity and age range and the impact of COVID-19 on their daily lives?

We have around 75 devotees with an active core of 40. Our youngest is 4 years old and our oldest is 90 years old. This became real when everyone in Ashfield received a robotic call informing them of a case of COVID-19 in the city. That was about a week ago.

Now we are praying for a number of people – friends and family – who are either in preventive quarantine or presumed positive. As for everyday life, it upsets the daily life of this peaceful hill town. As in all small towns where people all congregate at the hardware store or have breakfast at the local restaurant, people suffer from the loss of routine and daily face-to-face conversations on Main Street.

How do you use social media to bring members of your congregation together for service / discussion and to what extent do they find it a suitable substitute for community presence?

For three weeks we have been meeting on Sunday at 10 a.m. via the Zoom platform. We love it then have a virtual coffee. We also meet virtually on Thursday evenings at 6 p.m. for a potluck and compline. It’s wonderful to see faces and hear the voices of the people you love, but it’s not the same as our Sunday fellowship. It’s something, though, and comforts us all, I think.

What is your ward doing for members isolated due to COVID-19 restrictions as well as older members invited to stay home due to the risk?

We have a pastoral care team and each member has a list of people to call and consult. We ask how they are doing with it all, if they need anything and if they would like to pray.

Deaths and burials must be a special ordeal without the comfort of a minister. How do you deal with this both in terms of your own feelings and in meeting the needs of families going through a death?

We haven’t had a death since it all started, but it’s on everyone’s mind.

Now that the governor has issued the stay-at-home order, we have no choice but to comply with it for the good of all. I read that a Connecticut Episcopal Priest prayed the last rites with someone over the phone with the family during the call.

Ministry is about presence, so taking that option off the table forces us to use the tools available to bring some comfort and peace.

How do you think this pandemic deepens your own spirituality and that of your congregation based on what it shares with you?

I think any tragic or traumatic event calls us to a deeper place of prayer. I have made phone calls and some are short and sweet. Others have been intense with what has been and what will be. We all experience this in our own way.

Believing that God is love and that God weeps with us is my strength.

How has the inability to be physically present with your parishioners been psychologically difficult for you?

they miss me a lot. At the same time, our prayers for one another also allow closeness. We are always connected and we love each other. I think a lot about the return to our little church and the joy of that day. It will be Easter when she comes.

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