Creativity in Connection: How Parishes around the diocese are finding unique ways to stay in touch
It was around this time a year ago that the world went into lockdown. March 2020 was one of major changes for all as the novel coronavirus became a real-life threat, causing worldwide travel bans, mandated mask-wearing, and the quick dispersement of in-person gatherings. Little did we know at the time, but social distancing and mask-wearing would soon become a normal way of life.
A year later, we continue to mourn the loss of gathering with loved ones, sharing physical touch, and traveling to see friends and family. As the church, we especially mourn the loss of gathering in community, as worshipping and growing together are a core part of what makes us Episcopalians. And yet, in the past year, even as we find ourselves surrounded by grief, the church has proven time and time again that we have not lost our sense of community, and rather have gained new ways to be so. From virtual talent shows to stop-motion animation, calls from friends to puppet shows, the unique circumstances of this year have challenged us to get creative. A year later, we want to celebrate this creativity by sharing some of the stories of these ministries as a celebration of the many ways in which we as the church are community.
Perched mountainside overlooking the valley, Holy Cross, Valle Crucis is a small parish with a big impact. Though located in the rural Valle Crucis, a small town outside of Boone, NC, the parish hosts over 400 active members. Because of its rural location and surrounding natural beauty, Holy Cross welcomes parishioners from all over Western North Carolina, some driving as far as an hour out of their way to attend Sunday services. With it's outreach-focused ministry and large active membership, the small parish has made big waves throughout the region.
For Jo Betts Baxley, a member at Holy Cross, the impact of losing not only in-person worship but in-person ministries was huge. Like many who attend Holy Cross, Baxley lives in a rural location and considers Holy Cross her community hub, a place to not only share in worship but also to share in friendship with the surrounding community. However, she was reminded of this community one afternoon early in the pandemic when she received a friendly call. The caller? A member of the Holy Cross Vestry, just calling to check in and catch up.
"It was the nicest, gentlest reminder that we weren't by ourselves, somebody was thinking about us!" Baxley said. "It wasn't intrusive at all, I really thought it was the most wonderful idea. And how easy is it? It's so easy! We're at home enough now, it can be the highlight of our day."
The call soon became a weekly occurrence, as Baxley began to get to know her new friend. Excited by the ministry, Baxley contacted Father Allan McCaslin, rector of Holy Cross, to find out how she could become a caller herself. For McCaslin, he was excited to watch the ministry grow.
"This was all the brainchild of my wife, Pan," McCaslin said. "During a conversation at home early in the pandemic, Pan said 'We need a way for the parish to continue to stay connected because geographically we are very spread out, we should be making phone calls!' So I put forward to the vestry that what I'd like each vestry member to do is divide up the parish directory and make it your goal to contact everyone on your page with a telephone call that week, and then do it again the next week. It went really well!"
For many like Baxley, receiving the calls each week was a blessing in a time of loneliness. As the ministry continued to grow, McCaslin was excited for more lay members to get involved as callers and enjoyed watching new connections form throughout the congregation. Although the community was not gathered in person, McCaslin said the ministry serves as a reminder that the work of the church is greater than a building, and is fostered by the laity.
"This was an idea that came from our laity and not from the clergy, it has come up from the laity and is being fostered by the laity," McCaslin said. "I think it has been an affirmation to this parish that the church is much more than four walls, it's been an affirmation of what we've already known here for so long."
Down the mountain in the Foothills of the Appalachians, another parish has found creative ways to connect with parishioners old and young. Whether you know them for their talking dog videos, virtual talent show, or "Cami's Corner" godly play videos, Cami Roberts, Children, Youth, and Family Formation Leader at St Alban's, Hickory, said she had no prior experience making videos, but the pandemic forced her to get creative.
"This was totally born out of the pandemic!" Roberts said. "We didn't know what to do at first. We decided we'd record services start to finish and it'd be one long video, but then things would happen like there would be mistakes while we were recording. So that kind of grew into me [learning to] break the services up into sections and then I started making other videos.
Much of Cami's ideas for videos stemmed from her hoping to help upkeep a sense of normalcy in the St. Alban's community despite the circumstances. A highly active church in the Hickory community, St. Alban's hosts a variety of events throughout the year, from a Halloween "Pumpkin Fest" to building gingerbread houses at Christmas. For Roberts, finding ways to provide these events for the community, even if in a different way, was vital to facilitating a sense of normalcy in the midst of unprecedented events.
"At Pumpkin Fest every year I always read 'Who Took My Hairy Toe," Roberts said. "Well this year we weren't able to have an in-person Pumpkin Fest, so instead, I asked everyone to send in clips of them saying 'who took my hairy toe!' and compiled them. I think the more participation that you have, the more it keeps people engaged in their church family."
Roberts has noted that the contributive-style videos she has been making for St. Alban's have helped the parishioners form connections that might not have otherwise existed. In fact, Roberts hopes that these videos will help foster more inter-generational connections in the St. Alban's community once the parish can return to in-person worship.
"When you to to church, you probably have your own little sub-community and you know those people," Roberts said, "Like if you're an older person, you might not know all the kids names, and nice versa. But by using these videos and having people's faces on, these opportunities bring a connection even more so than a directory with pictures, so they can hear them and see them and they can watch the videos again to know who people are."
Though many of the videos she makes are created for children, Roberts said that she has found they connect with the adult congregants at St. Alban's as well who are seeking connection and joy during this challenging time. Ultimately, Cami believes that Episcopalians young and old can connect over the stories we share.
"I sometimes think Godly Play should be brought back into adult formation so that people can think about a story from the Bible reading in ways they haven't in a long time," Roberts said. "I think it actually speaks to the adult generation as well."
To the west, near the lush forests of the Mills River wilderness, the Rev. Nan Woodworth echoed this sentiment. As the Associate Rector for Formation and Parish Life at Calvary Fletcher, Woodworth is deeply passionate about storytelling with both the young and the elderly at her parish. However, she likes to do so in yet another creative way: puppets!
"So from 2003-2006 I lived and worked in Atlanta, and they had the Center for Puppetry Arts and they offer workshops," Woodworth said. "So I learned a lot of skills from the Center for Puppetry Arts about making puppets our of recycled materials, from paint to tennis balls to scrap fabrics, so it just felt like a great thing to add to the mix [here at Calvary.] So this time last year, we went from children coming to church for Sunday School to having to provide videos for children on our Calvary website. There was a group of parishioners here who are former teachers or just love kids and had a bunch of puppets already, so we recorded a show!
The first show they put on was all about "Hiding and Finding the Alleluias" during Lent. The main character was a Church Mouse, a restored stick puppet revamped from the character of the Mouse King in The Nutcracker Sweet, which Woodworth had originally performed at a St. Nicholas dinner at All Saints, Atlanta.
Following the first video, more people from around Calvary were eager to get involved with the ministry. Woodworth noted that while the videos were intended for children, she felt the act of creating the videos safely together was as much an act of ministry for those they were intended for as they were for those participating in them.
"I think it's a ministry for the people who are involved in the storytelling because social isolation is a big thing," Woodworth said. "I know that this creative effort has helped me and these folks get through this whole pandemic.
Since the first video, the puppeteers at Calvary have created many unique videos to share with the congregation. Among these videos is a series on the stories depicted in the stained glass windows at Calvary, retelling of several Old Testament stories like that of Esther and Samuel, and most recently, a full puppet musical adaptation of "The Peaceable Kingdom."
"I was actually looking for my Advent wreath in storage when I found the script and CD for The Peaceable Kingdom!" Woodworth said. "I loved producing it at Trinity, St. Augustine in 2002 with live actors, so I suggested we do it for Epiphany with puppets. It's all about finding 'shalom,' finding inner peace, and becooming peacemakers."
The story of The Peaceable Kingdom is based on the painting by the same name by Edward Hicks (1780-1849) The painting was inspired by the scripture from Isaiah 11:6, which reads "The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them." A common scripture read during Advent, Woodworth loved the message of peace and patience.
"My favorite line in one of the songs is, 'Shalom is not just the absense of war, shalom is everything good," Woodworth said. "I think it's a great message and the music is pretty catchy! So we just had a great time doing and, and I know it's feeding the souls of the people involved."
Above all, Woodworth has felt that the joy these videos bring, both to those who watch and those who participate has not only been a guiding force in navigating this challenging year but a reflection of a core tenant of her own faith.
"My favorite picture of Christ is the one where he's laughing," Woodworth said. "I want to focus on the joy. My faith has helped me be resilient. I try to model resilience through working with others creatively and by getting life-giving messages of God’s unconditional love out there. I think people who are not connected to the church can be inspired by seeing joyful Christians working together practicing shalom."
An hour down the road, outside the bustling city of Charlotte, NC, another rector has found joy in creating fun videos for his parishioners. In fact, for Shawn Griffith, rector at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Gastonia, NC, the pandemic has only brought out his inner tech-whiz. From puppet shows to stop-motion, green-screen technology to animation, Griffith has faced the challenges of going virtual head-on, and embraced his inner video producer as a result.
"We had no idea what to do when we first started," Griffith said. "At first the puppet stage was nothing more than some PCB pipes thrown together and we just stood there with puppets on our hand! We have moved from that over time to using a green-screen so now we can put pictures behind the puppets."
As for learning how to use all this technology? Griffith said he had some ideas and ran with them, spending many nights browsing the web for tutorials, instructions, and ideas. While his creativity inspired him, he said it was the support of staff and parishioners that allowed him to shape these ideas into realities.
"I would say any church can do a variety of different things, even if you only start with an idea," Griffith said. "Have your idea, study how to do it, but then get a group of people around it who are passionate about doing it. We have a group of people on our staff and a couple parishioners who come in every Saturday morning and we walk through the puppet shows and make changes. We have the greatest time putting this together with a lot of laughter and a lot of fellowship. So you need people with a passion, people who are willing to go out and learn how to do it, and everything else will fall into place."
For Griffith, much of his creativity is inspired by his passion for children's ministry, and his goal to help bring children and families to the church.
"I think this is the future of the church, even once we come back into church," Griffith said. "We've had 7-8 families join this year without ever stepping foot in the church! They're totally active in the church and yet they've never worshipped in this space, but we have to digitally keep connected to the outside world. Even if people don't come and join the message is still getting out."
The next steps for St. Mark's? Griffith has been adding stop-motion elements to his children's services, and has recently begun dabbling in computer animation. While he says he still has a lot to learn, he has enjoyed the process of learning new skills and collaborating with his parishioners.
"The stop-motion started when I had gone to Hobby Lobby to purchase something and I saw these little Biblical finger puppets," Griffith said. "So I bought them not knowing what I was going to do with them and eventually thought of stop-motion. So Brenda [the archdeacon] reads the Gospel lesson from a book and we have a stop-motion video with her reading the Gospel. I've taken over a bedroom to be a studio where I have this flat table with a bunch of felt to represent the lakes and the deserts and the sky. A lot of the staging is built out of styrofoam, like a mountain from a distance."
For Griffith, experimenting with different techniques and making these creative videos has brought him great joy, and he hopes, above all else, that the videos he creates with his staff and parishioners will bring the same joy to the children who watch.
"I think probably if someone knows me they know that children are an important part of the community for me," Griffith said. "I've found that if you can connect with the kids and get them excited the family will follow. That's the way to grow a church and use ministry. Children's ministry is more important to me than probably anything else that I do, and for that reason many of the things we've created at St. Mark's are all around the kids."
While this year challenged us all to change our habits and adjust our lifestyles, there has undoubtably been great creativity in ministry, and alongside it great joy. From puppets to phone calls, as we continue to grow and expand as the church, we are reminded of the many ways in which ministry presents itself, and the many ways in which the church is much larger than a building.
Want to share a unique way your parish has continued ministry throughout the pandemic? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org