First Presbyterian Church of Jackson Pastor David Strain spoke with Sun staff writer Nikki Rowell about church and community efforts in the wake of the coronavirus.
In times of uncertainty like this, how can we talk about this as a family? Especially to children who may be frightened?
“First of all, just very practically. I think we ought not to pretend that everything is just fine, but we ourselves don’t need to panic as parents. And our children will be reassured if we ourselves can be at peace. So, the question becomes, if we are going to care for our families and children, how can we handle our own hearts. If we are overcome by fear and anxiety, if we start to panic, panic spreads.
Panic is a disease just like the coronavirus, and it is infectious. So, how do you fight panic? You can only fight panic with hope, especially when we feel so powerless.
This is a novel virus, and no one has any immunity and we don’t have a vaccine, so the only way to fight it is to isolate ourselves. That is pretty scary stuff. So, our hope has to come from somewhere besides ourselves. As a Christian, we believe our hope is to be found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. In times like this, we have to find our hope beyond ourselves. If you look for hope in one another or in material solutions, our hope eventually can’t be met there. Our hope exceeds our earthly resources. We have to find our hope in Christ alone. That’s where I would point people. Parents don’t have to have all the answers, they need to trust the one who does.”
How long has it been recommended for churches to livestream services to avoid large crowds?
“My understanding is that the latest recommendations from the CDC is that gatherings over 50 for the period over the next eight weeks are not recommended to proceed. What we are seeing as a church right now, given how fluid the situation is, we are working on two-week increments. So, we have cancelled public worship services, all committees, all gatherings under sponsorship of the church through the end of the month. We are not saying that we are going to restart at the end of the month, that means that we are going to keep talking, keep reflecting and we will restart when it is safe to do so.”
A lot of families are livestreaming services at this time. Do you have any advice to parents and families as far as ways to maintain some normalcy at home and approach times of worship with the same reverence even from your living room?
“Just like preparing for church on a Sunday, I would say to parents to make a plan to gather as a family. So, be up and dressed and fed and have Bibles ready. Make sure if your church – our church for example will provide hymns and readings on the website to follow along as the service proceeds – make sure you have all of that ready and that you know when the service begins. That your internet connection is ready to go. And get your children sitting with you.
If you wear Sunday clothes, get them to put their Sunday clothes on, even if it is just for the period where you are worshipping together. Even if it might be a little awkward, try to sing if there is a familiar song. Try to sing together. If the need to quietly draw or make little notes, as you would in church, that you have the same provision for them there. But, again, this comes down to parents being spiritual leaders in their homes. It’s not simply enough to expect the church to do everything for us. Our parents have got to lead our kids and model to them a commitment to the Christian gospel and to the life of the church.”
What needs are you seeing in the community during this time?
“The needs in the community are all over the map, from parents with children who are home wondering how do I make ends meet and provide for my children? We have over 65s who are more at risk, not to mention our shut-in population who are already unable to get out. Depending on how things change, what will that mean for them as they try to make provisions for food and basic necessities. I was in the grocery store the other day and the shelves were empty in whole sections of the store. There was no meat. Toilet rolls gone. It’s basic, simple things that people need. Those are very practical needs. I think there is a lot of fear. I am watching fast food places either closing or going to drive-through only. Part-time jobs are starting to go away in some of those places. Beyond the health concerns, there are some real economic concerns.”
What are some ways that you all, as a church, are responding to this?
“We have tried to pay attention to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Mississippi Department of Health and their recommendations about groups of certain sizes gathering. So, we did not gather for corporate worship this week. We did broadcast on livestream a service. It was weird, but kind of good too. It was me, another pastor, our minister of music and some folks who sang for us. I think there was maybe 10 people in our sanctuary that seats 1,100 people. We had around 2,000 people tune in from around the world actually and particularly people around the United States. We are working on providing ministry encouragement through online broadcasting, livestreaming, podcasts.
We are developing a daily devotional for every day of the week where I can speak straight into the camera and offer some encouragement. We are also trying to develop ways that people with needs, both in the congregation and in the community, can contact us and let us know what their needs are, whether it’s the need for human contact, someone to talk to, or the need for something more tangible, such as food and medicine. We are trying to build our volunteer team so that we are able to respond as best we can within appropriate limits. There are healthcare limitations of course. We are trying to put those things in place. It is challenging because the situation is so fluid, and so what works one week may have to be rethought for the next week. So we are trying to stay flexible.”
How can not only members of the congregation, but also members of the community, help with these efforts?
“You can easily reach out to us through the church website or call the church office and leave us a message. There will be people ready to take calls and direct you to an appropriate place. Whether to one of our partners around the city that are doing good work or get connected to things we are already doing.”
Is the church partnering with other churches or organizations to meet community needs? If so, can you describe those efforts?
“We already partner with things like Gateway Rescue Mission with Mission First that do ministry of all types throughout our city, especially in the most needy parts of our community. The challenge right now is that we don’t know what the needs are because our community has not been severely affected. We are just at the beginnings of this. We don’t know what the impact will really be. So, we are sort of guessing a bit right now. We are gearing up to be ready, but we don’t know for example, if there will be a more serious lock down imposed. We don’t know if restrictions for gatherings will get tighter and tighter. We just have to wait to know.”