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'It's gonna be a lot of work': local faith leaders work to ensure no one is left behind, young or old

Forest Hills Mennonite Church

Forest Hills Mennonite Church in Leola ThursdayMay 28, 2020.

Since Forest Hills Mennonite Church switched to online services because of the spread of COVID-19 and Pennsylvania’s restriction on large gatherings, not much has changed for Ann and Byron Zimmermans’ Sunday morning routine.

Instead of driving from their apartment at Fairmount Homes, the couple, ages 87 and 90 — dressed in their Sunday best — spend their morning perched in front of their computer and watch Forest Hills’ service, which is streamed on YouTube and Facebook.

Unlike the Zimmermans, 18-year-old Katie Yoder’s Sunday morning routine now looks quite different.

Before COVID-19 shut down churches across Lancaster County, the teenager and member of Forest Hills would often sit with her friends during church services.

Now, she and her parents cozy up on the couch in their East Hempfield Township home while still in their pajamas and watch Forest Hills’ services.

As COVID-19 continues to prevent faith communities from functioning as usual, leaders are working to ensure all members are engaged, young and old, and that members aren’t left behind once faith communities resume services.

Yoder and the Zimmermans, despite being decades apart, represent two age groups that faith leaders are working to engage in the midst of the pandemic.

Tuning In

While the Zimmermans have no problem using Facebook or YouTube to watch Forest Hills’ services, lead pastor Jon Carlson recognizes that not all of the church’s members are internet savvy.

For the handful who haven’t figured out how to access the Mennonite church’s online services, CDs of the worship services are distributed.

But for the most part, Forest Hills’ oldest members have managed to figure out how to tune in to the weekly services.

At St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Lancaster, parishioners don’t need to know how to use the internet if they want to tune in for Sunday Mass. The service is aired on LCTV Channel 66 at 5 p.m.

The Catholic church also livestreams Sunday Mass on its Facebook page and website.

To ensure that no church members were left out of the loop, St. Mary’s church receptionist, Janice Frank, spent two weeks making close to 400 calls to parishioners to collect email addresses so they’d be able to receive bulletins and weekly updates.

And for those who don’t use email as frequently, St. Mary’s sends the same resources via snail mail.

Rabbi Jack Paskoff at Congregation Shaarai Shomayim said that within his community, some older folks just can’t seem to get the hang of Zoom, which the congregation uses along with Facebook for its services.

“Even if you tell them that all they have to do is press one button to get Zoom, they’re still reluctant,” he said.

In those situations, Paskoff or other members will guide those who need help step-by-step on how to log on and participate in the weekly services.

While Forest Hills has no plans to resume in-person church services until Lancaster County reaches Gov. Tom Wolf’s “green” phase, it’s not guaranteed that long-term facilities will immediately allow residents to move freely.

“I used to think that it would be a light switch,” Carlson said. Wolf would announce the reopening of Lancaster County and all of Forest Hills’ members would return to church the following Sunday.

But now, Carlson says he has realized it’ll be more like a “sunrise.”

“There’ll be gradual increases in what we can do in sharing physical space,” he said. “It’s going to be a lot of work to navigate how we do that safely, and how we make sure that we’re not leaving people behind as we resume that process.

“We might end up in a situation where part of the community can resume in-person gatherings,” but older members may have to continue participating at home, whether due to rules set by their long-term living facilities or their own concerns, Carlson said.

Ann Zimmerman doesn’t mind staying at home, though.

“I hope (Forest Hills) can have church, even if we can’t go in the beginning,” she said.

Digital noise

While digital services have been difficult to access for some older folks, Paskoff said some younger members at Congregation Shaarai Shomayim have been having a difficult time sitting in front of a screen.

Carlson noted that for many youth, an online service may just feel like more digital noise.

“It’s great that we’re offering these virtual opportunities,” Carlson said. “... but I recognize so many of them live all of their lives in digital spaces already.”

Zac Hummel, youth and young adult pastor at Forest Hills, said most of the high school-age youth immediately began online classes when the state initially closed schools. And, even before the pandemic, the teens were constantly being bombarded by the internet.

Zoom is cutting it for now, but Hummel said he doesn’t see it as being the most effective way to reach the teens.

“I really don’t want to have a Zoom meeting,” Hummel said. “I feel like that’s the last thing my youth need. … But what else do we have?”

Carlson said that once Lancaster County moves to Wolf’s “yellow” phase, Forest Hills may consider smaller in-person, socially distanced gatherings for youth and young adults.

“We do recognize there’s a gap in spiritual care for (youth and young adults),” he said.

Bob Cybulksi, the youth program coordinator at St. Mary’s, said virtual small groups have been quite popular among the youth at St. Mary’s.

At first, Cybulski attempted to host larger youth meetings on Zoom. But attendance began dropping. After pivoting to small groups, about 40 teens have engaged in the small groups — about double the amount he saw weekly before the pandemic.

In the 10 small groups he has set up, Cybulski said discussions have included themes such as “Why do bad things happen?” and “What is love?”

Within these small groups, the teens have been able to delve into deeper, more meaningful conversations, Cybulski said.

Yoder’s church experience has changed, but it’s not completely negative, she said.

In addition to Forest Hills’ Sunday services, Yoder also joins a weekly youth group meeting on Zoom where she gets to connect with her peers, many of whom are in the same boat as her: high school seniors preparing to enter college

The conversations aren’t “super spiritual,” Yoder said, but being able to have a scheduled time to connect with life-long friends at church provides support and hope.

Yoder admitted that before the pandemic, she didn’t go to Sunday school as often. Now that it’s a simple click away, Yoder has found herself attending Sunday school much more frequently.

“It makes me realize (Sunday school) was something I was kind of missing,” she said.

This fall, Yoder plans to leave home to attend Bridgewater College in Bridgewater, Virginia.

As she prepares for college, Yoder sees the pandemic as a choice to either strengthen her faith or lose it.

Physically going to church every Sunday with her parents was habitual, Yoder said. Now, she said, it’s all about intentionality.

“I think when you take away the physical church building and the physical routine of (church), it can actually kind of manifest itself into something deeper,” Yoder said.