Reader’s voice: How I found spiritual connection on my couch through a virtual religious service

  • A virtual Sunday service with the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence. LAURIE LOISEL

  • Minister Janet Bush, during a virtual Sunday service with the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence. LAURIE LOISEL

  • A virtual Sunday service with the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence. LAURIE LOISEL

  • At right, when it was time for the children’s story, Jessica Harwood, director of faith development and community engagement, read aloud “Pete The Cat: I Love My White Shoes,” by Eric Litwin. LAURIE LOISEL

For the Gazette
Published: 3/19/2020 6:54:41 AM

Editor’s note: Recently, a former Gazette staffer, Laurie Loisel, wrote in with a suggestion for our coronavirus coverage: “What if you were to put out a call to the Gazette staff diaspora to see who might want to write a piece about how their normal lives have been upended?” She continued: “For example, I could write about what it’s like to attend a virtual religious service, which I did on Sunday, and it was amazing.”

Her essay is below, and you may see more familiar bylines in the near future. But we also want to extend the invitation to other readers in the community. Many of you already have written in to share your experiences: your struggles, challenges, hardships and even unexpected surprises and joys. We will include some of these submissions online and print what space allows; essays, which should be under 750 words, may be edited for clarity and space. Please send your submissions to opinion@gazettenet.com, with the subject line “Reader’s voice.”

Sunday morning, about the time I expected to be sitting on a cushioned pew at 220 Main St., the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence, I was instead still in pajamas, sitting on my couch.

Nevertheless, I was participating in our Sunday service, complete with songs, meditation, story time, readings and reflections, a sermon and even community greetings. And from my couch, I still saw the beloved faces of many others from the Unitarian Society community, where I’ve been a member for more than two decades.

It was a mere few days prior to that day that the Rev. Janet Bush, minister of the Unitarian Society, made the wise decision to hold the service via Zoom. It would not be held in the Great Hall, where USNF services normally are, but from the parlor, with only a few helpers on hand maintaining distances of 6 feet from one another.

I didn’t know what to expect when I logged into the Zoom meeting link that our minister sent out, but I was curious — and also craving a bit of normalcy and spiritual sustenance in these strange, scary and surreal times.

I clicked the link a few minutes before the service was to begin, and what popped up was a screen with thumbnail images of more than a dozen others who logged on early. 

One by one, people said hello, some shyly, others boldly. There was some awkwardness, with people accidentally speaking over each other as can happen in Zoom meetings, but everyone was patient, forgiving and in good spirits.

Janet welcomed people, some by name (reminding me of the long-running children’s TV show “Romper Room”) into this virtual, yet intimate, connection. That was the first time, though not the last, that I would be brought nearly to tears. 

When the service was about to start, we all muted ourselves, enabling the service to continue without interference or a potential slowdown. 

At that point, it could have felt like I was only watching television, as if the service were not the participatory experience it is in person. Believe me when I say it did not feel like I was only watching.

When it came time for the Unitarian version of “Old Hundredth,” which is sung at every service, I sang out loud just as if I were in the Great Hall. When we sang one of my favorite hymns, “Spirit of Life,” there I was sitting on my couch in my pajamas singing along, the second time I felt tears. I happened to have been home alone at the moment, so I joined in freely, as usual singing out of key.

When it was time for the children’s story, Jessica Harwoood, director of faith development and community engagement, read aloud and showed us all the pictures, just like usual. She read “Pete The Cat: I Love My White Shoes,” by Eric Litwin, about a sneaker-wearing cat whose white sneakers change colors every time he steps in something different: strawberries turn them red, blueberries make them blue and mud brown. But Pete rolls with the changes, singing a verse each time proclaiming that he loves whatever color shoes he has in the moment.

The story’s final page: “The moral of Pete’s story is no matter what you step in, keep walking along and singing your songs.” It is a beautiful allegory for our time.

Usually, Sunday services include a time for community greeting — when people walk around the Great Hall welcoming each other — with a special invitation to say hello to someone we don’t know. I assumed we’d need to skip community greeting in our virtual worship service, but we did not.

We greeted each other using the chat feature of Zoom meetings, in which participants type messages that scroll down their computer screens. I was trying to read them all, but there were dozens rolling too fast to read. 

Janet read some aloud for all to hear: “Happy to be here!” “Great to stay connected! Hello from Holyoke.” “We’re coming to you from Maine.” “We’re making as much noise as we do in the Great Hall!” “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

So many others craved connection and normalcy, just like me — suddenly, I didn’t feel so alone on my couch. More than 100 computers had logged into the service — and from each computer, there likely were two, three or four people participating.

The service had been planned well before the coronavirus catastrophe upended all of our lives, but the title chosen by David Caruso, an ordained  Zen Buddhist priest and the day’s guest sermon-giver, “Wisdom and Compassion in Zen Buddhism,” seemed made for the public health crisis of our time.

“We’re frightened, we’re worried for ourselves, for our families, for our neighbors. We have no idea how long this is going to go on,”  Janet had said at the beginning of the service. “We can create a map, and we can walk some of its paths together in the weeks to come.” 

I was reminded, sitting on my couch that morning, of the poignant, hopeful quote from Fred Rogers: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ ”

Without even realizing it, I had logged onto the service Sunday looking for the helpers. And I found them.

Oddly, with this virtual worship service, I felt closer to everyone, not farther apart. 

Despite social distancing, we are each other’s helpers — now more than ever.




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