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Dear God: Kansas City Clergy Adapt to New Realities of Pandemic

Mixed Blessings

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Above image credit: Rev. William Rose-Heim, regional minister and president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Greater Kansas City. (Contributed | William Rose-Heim)

In many ways, the coronavirus pandemic has been brutal for Kansas City area clergy.

They’ve been forced to lead worship online, if at all. They couldn’t be with some dying parishioners. They’ve been kept out of some nursing homes where congregants live. People demand that they explain where God is in this mess. Their houses of worship were essentially shuttered, their congregational budgets bashed.

But all that darkness isn’t the whole story. They’ve also found surprising joy and unexpected insight in this crisis.

For instance, the Rev. Justin Hoye, priest at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Kansas City, says this:

“One of things that has been afforded me — and the staff — during the pandemic is the opportunity to be creative. Before, it was hard to initiate something new with so many routines and schedules already built into parish life. Suddenly, a wide-open canvas was presented to us. It has been energizing for me as a pastor to brainstorm — with some urgency — on how to minister in new ways.

Rev. Justin Hoye, priest at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Kansas City.
Rev. Justin Hoye, priest at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Kansas City. (Contributed | Justin Hoye)

“One other bright spot has been moments when we heard from folks who we understood to be ‘inactive.’ Seeing them re-emerge in a tangible way has been heartening. It means that we quite possibly reached someone only because we had to pivot, and that has encouraged us to continue being creative.”

Rabbi Doug Alpert of Congregation Kol Ami has noticed something similar: “There are two very positive dynamics that have arisen from the challenges we now face,” he said. “One is the access now given to our worship and study opportunities for folks who, even prior to COVID-19, could not be present in person due to health challenges. Now, with virtual worship they are a constant presence… In a sense it has leveled the playing field for participation and sharing in community.”

And the Rev. Cassandra Wainwright, a pastor with Heaven Sent Outreach Ministries and president of Concerned Clergy Coalition of Kansas City, agrees that “with the use of technology, we have been able to reach far more people than we could through regular church attendance.”

Rev. Cassandra Wainwright is a pastor with Heaven Sent Outreach Ministries.
Rev. Cassandra Wainwright is a pastor with Heaven Sent Outreach Ministries. (Contributed | Calvon (CQ) Wainwright)

Beyond that, she notes, “Clergy have become creative on how to share the Gospel even though there was a great deal of hesitancy and fear about the unfamiliar or unknown. One of my greatest joys is seeing clergy consider ways to still provide outreach ministry to those in need while dealing with this crisis.”

None of this has come without struggle. In fact, the Easter online service at my own congregation, Second Presbyterian Church of Kansas City, had so many tech mishaps that the staff decided to make this 11-minute bloopers video about it for a good laugh.

Some clergy also have been grateful for a little more “me time” in the crisis. For instance, the Rev. Scott Myers of Westport Presbyterian Church tells me that “it is as though I received a gift of time. I can focus more on the spiritual practices of worship, preaching, prayer, contemplation and the healing of souls. I can focus on my own inner spiritual and psychological work.”

Early in the lockdown, Elder Nick Pickrell, who oversees a dinner church called The Open Table, says something good happened at his congregation’s first online gathering: “We had one-on-one spiritual care available for folks, we had a discussion group for folks wanting to discuss a theological topic and we had a large group check-in available for folks wanting to process all the change that was happening.

“When we began our video call, the energy was palpable. It was clear that folks were craving connection in the midst of the isolation. Folks were able to grieve and be comforted… I didn’t expect to be able to sense the energy of those who gathered virtually that Sunday, but it was clear that God was present.”

Nick Pickrell oversees a dinner church called The Open Table.
Elder Nick Pickrell oversees a dinner church called The Open Table. (Bill Tammeus | Flatland)

For the Rev. William Rose-Heim, regional minister and president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Greater Kansas City, a cause for joy was seeing a “bi-lingual partnership formed among three dozen people and two organizations that had never before worked together.”

He said Rodolfo Acosta, pastor of Alfa y Omega Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which meets at the Liberty Christian Church, announced that he was working on a plan to help Spanish-speaking neighbors get access to basic ingredients to make meals.

So Acosta asked the board of the regional church body for $4,000 to buy food in bulk, repackage it in bundles and give it away to 100 families. In response, the Rev. Mark Willis, pastor of the Merriam Christian Church, offered to help buy the food. The board quickly approved the grant, and by the next week volunteers had repackaged bundles of ingredients that would feed a family for a week and were handling them out for distribution. Now that work continues through a newly formed organization, Somos Uno (We Are One).

Even a Trappist monk, who is used to lots of alone time, has found added joy in this crisis. The Rev. W. Paul Jones is also a Catholic priest connected to Assumption Abbey monastery in Ava, Missouri, and is resident director of the Hermitage Spiritual Retreat Center at Lake Pomme de Terre, used by many Kansas Citians.

Jones and the retreat center’s associate director, Cathleen Burnett, planned to spend Holy Week (Palm Sunday to Easter) at the abbey, but it was closed for quarantine.

“Taking the Catholic liturgy as our framework,” he recalls, “we enriched each day of our enforced hermit life with scripture, drama and poetry — using the processions to bless our buildings and places into an organic whole. This was perhaps our finest Holy Week ever.”

Rev. W. Paul Jones
Rev. W. Paul Jones is a Catholic priest connected to Assumption Abbey monastery in Ava, Missouri. (Contributed | W. Paul Jones)

The Rev. Geneva McAuley, the recently hired director of children, youth and family ministries at Second Presbyterian Church, says she at first “was originally hesitant about how moving to virtual worship and gathering would go.” But, she says: “I have been pleasantly surprised by the outcomes. In fact, some of my most joy-filled moments have been found in these virtual gatherings. With the youth especially, I have found the opportunity to dive into getting to know them. They share about their lives, families and feelings — both difficult and happy. As they share about the fun they are having during the week, they have continually expressed that things are not as bad as they thought they may be — and that is really filling me with hope right now.”

Similarly, the Rev. Michael E. Brooks, a former City Council member in Kansas City and senior pastor of the Oasis Church (formerly Zion Grove Baptist), said he found that an “encouraging surprise was how well our youth just rolled with the change. They all missed being in school and with their friends, but very few were struggling to adjust. Their resilience has been encouraging to some adults. Personally, I’ve been blessed and encouraged by how my 14-year-old freshman son has shown the ability to adjust and even thrive during all this. He has maintained straight A’s despite the online courses and seems to be unshaken by this new normal.”

So not all has been gloomy for people of faith and their leaders, but as Scott Myers made clear: “I’m not at all happy that I and those I care about and love are at risk of dying of this highly contagious disease. The daily grind and the constant rise in ‘the butcher’s bill’ is depressing, grim.”

Can I get a, well, joyful “amen”?

Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and former award-winning Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website and columns for The Presbyterian Outlook and formerly for The National Catholic Reporter. His latest book is The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. Email him at wtammeus@gmail.com.

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