God Bless and Be Well
On the pulpit, directly in front of the camera, sat three new sacramental objects: a large bottle of Purell, a bar of Irish Spring soap, and an opened canister of Lysol disinfectant wipes. In the background sprawled the wood-paneled sanctuary of the Olin T. Binkley Memorial Baptist Church. For this, their first livestreamed service, on Sunday, March 22nd, wooden chairs were set up in three concentric rows. Five church leaders sat in these chairs, leaving plenty of empty seats between one another. Binkley is located less than five minutes’ drive from my home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on a shady lot just beyond the grocery store, but this was the first time I had seen the church’s interior.
Although I study American religious history, I have never been part of a religious community, and I have a pathological shyness about attending services. Near the end of March, North Carolina churches were beginning to enact social distancing measures, even though there was not yet a statewide shutdown. More and more services previously visible only to insiders became suddenly, awkwardly public. I wanted to see which of the Baptist churches in my town chose to move their in-person services online, and how they seemed to feel about it, before all this settled into what might just become the “new normal.” So I started watching.
Binkley’s pastor, Dale Osborne, seemed to be looking into the camera, directly at me. Pastor Dale, as everyone called him, had a special message for lurkers: “If this is your first time here, know that these walls are warm, and these people are generous and kind with the love of God.” It was easy to believe this from Pastor Dale, with his avuncular demeanor and vigorous rendition of the old hymn “How Can I Keep from Singing?” Binkley seemed equally determined to follow public health guidelines, and to not let doing so dampen their spirits.
This is not a story we are used to hearing about the religious response to the coronavirus. In the early days, churches were unwitting “super-spreaders” of the disease among worshippers. Even in full awareness of the danger, Jerry Falwell, Jr., infamously invited students at his Liberty University back to campus; at least a dozen had caught the virus by the end of March. Katharine Stewart has written that the religious right’s hostility to science has hampered the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic at every point.
In this context, any church willing to move services online in response to the pandemic might be considered part of the “religious left.” But the reality was that most churches recognized that going online was the only safe option, no matter their political orientation. How else would they keep from disappearing entirely? That did not mean, however, that the transition would be smooth or risk-free.
Among the Baptist churches worshipping online in Chapel Hill on March 22nd, Binkley most enthusiastically embraced the new technology in all its strangeness. Others were sincere but tentative. They had had to go online before most of their congregation had ever seen their website or Facebook page. They had no virtual donations, no online church programs or directories.
Pastor Rob Tennant of Hillside Church sat in a wooden chair in the lobby of his church, a potted fern to his right and to his left, just off camera, a music stand that held his sermon. He seemed nervous but genial as he welcomed all those who were “watching or worshipping—watch-shipping” from home. He prayed earnestly for healthcare workers, and for government officials both Democrat and Republican. But he did so facing diagonally to his right, toward the fern, never once looking straight ahead into the camera.
Pastor Tennant’s sermon focused on the story of Jesus healing a blind man by rubbing mud into his eyes. “Jesus didn’t practice good social distancing!” This was not, he emphasized, meant to be taken literally. The message of the story was caring for the outcast. This was also the message of Pastor Tennant’s announcements, in which he encouraged everyone to reach out to one other church member, be it by email, by phone, or by text. If you wanted to text him, though, “be sure and introduce yourself so I know who I’m talking to.”
The pastor of Journey Community Church sat at a round table in a corner of his home. Next to him was a small potted orchid, a device that looked like a laser pointer, and a tablet from which he read his sermon on the Good Samaritan, looking up frequently to the stationary camera. Beyond him, through the large windows on either side of the table, you could see passersby walking on tree-lined pathways, possibly the university quad. At one point, his earnest advice about how to be a good neighbor—by “obeying the rules and regulations” of social distancing as well as through “generosity and service”—was interrupted by the sound of children running on the floor above.
This was not the first livestream for Chapel Hill’s large Mount Carmel Baptist Church, and it was difficult to say how much social distancing was being practiced. A charismatic young pastor spoke into a standing microphone on the floor in front of a raised stage, on which a full band performed, unmasked. He announced that while everyone was “obsessing” about the coronavirus, they would stick to their planned sermon on the seven deadly sins: today’s focus was gluttony. But then the pastor turned over the mic to a lay reader whose prayers focused entirely on the pandemic. She asked God to take care of everyone, from first responders and the sick and dying, on down to “those of us who are so far only merely inconvenienced,” presumably including her own pastor. For them, she said, “we pray for empathy.” When she closed her eyes and began the Lord’s Prayer, voices from behind the camera joined in—how many, and how far apart they were sitting from one another, it was difficult to say.
Back at Olin T. Binkley Memorial Baptist Church, Pastor Dale called to the pulpit a special member of the congregation, who had been sitting several empty chairs away from the pastor, organist, singer, and associate minister. Dr. Eric Butler, a family physician with UNC Hospitals, appeared just as nervous speaking to a virtual audience as he might be to a church full of people. He placed his notes on the pulpit and began reinforcing the health advice he knew everyone had already heard: stay home, wash your hands, avoid touching your face. “If you have to cough or sneeze,” Dr. Butler said, turning his head in demonstration, “try to do it into your bent elbow.” “Remember to clean and disinfect everything,” he added, looking down at the Lysol cannister. “I’m glad we have these wipes here.”
But the more Dr. Butler spoke, the more emotional he became. “Please,” he implored, “if you have loved ones in the hospital, don’t go visit them. Have a plan for who is going to be a caregiver,” should anyone get sick. He paused, reached out his right hand, palm down, then gently raised and lowered it, as if he were pumping an invisible brake pedal to slow himself down. “Excuse me.” Older adults with health conditions should “please be extra cautious.” He swallowed quickly, again said “excuse me.” He paused, breathed in, then out. This did not have the intended calming effect, and Dr. Butler sounded like he might be about to cry.
He reached the last item on his list. “And then”—pause—“it’s good timing” to talk about “stress and coping.” Here was a medical professional, asked by his pastor to speak with authority to the congregation, but who felt the strange urgency of his position so acutely that he almost couldn’t do so. Reaching the end of his notes, Dr. Butler turned quickly from the pulpit with a “God bless and be well.”
It seems fair to guess that, were it not for the coronavirus, Binkley would have kept holding their services only in person, as they had for more than sixty years. They have a website and an email listserv, but as with most small churches, the bulk of their activities—building affordable housing, teaching Sunday School, running food banks—takes place offline. If not for the coronavirus, Dr. Butler may never have had to conquer his apparent fear of public speaking.
Then again, this abundance of caution was completely in character for Chapel Hill. It would be another week until the town, county, and state all issued stay-at-home orders closing non-essential businesses. But the section of central North Carolina known as the Research Triangle had seen some of the state’s earliest confirmed coronavirus cases—and the area was noticeably faster than the rest of the state to voluntarily implement social-distancing practices. Chapel Hill is a science town; congregations are full of healthcare providers.
Turning a crisis into an opportunity to embrace new ideas was also very much in character for Binkley. The church had been founded in 1958 in honor of Olin T. Binkley, a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest evangelical denomination in the U.S. But Reverend Binkley had always stood out among white Southern Baptists for his support of the civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War. Indeed, the youth movement that protested the war at the 1968 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Students Concerned, included Binkley members. In the 1980s, the SBC was strategically taken over by politically conservative leaders, a key moment in the consolidation of conservative Christians as a Republican voting bloc. The takeover had to be stealthy, however, because Baptists had for centuries been passionate defenders of the separation of church and state, and not all Baptists wanted that political independence to change.
After the conservative takeover, Binkley Memorial Church switched its affiliation to join American Baptist Churches USA, which affirms both evangelical theology and social progress. Membership in this smaller but more diverse organization makes Binkley unusual in Chapel Hill’s array of Baptist churches, the vast majority of which (including Hillside, Journey, and Mount Carmel) still belong to the SBC. Because of its size, the SBC is often seen by the media as a barometer of what “conservative evangelicals” are thinking. But even the SBC had cancelled their annual meeting for the first time in 75 years, amid fears of coronavirus spread.
The current president of the Southern Baptist Convention, J.D. Greear, also preaches in the Triangle, at a church that could not be more different from Binkley. For years, Summit Church had been livestreaming every week. On Sundays, you could go to their main sanctuary in Raleigh for the live service, or to various “satellite churches,” including Chapel Hill’s high school, to watch it on a big screen. You could also stay home and use their app to watch on your phone. Summit did not have to repeatedly give out the pastor’s phone number on the air; they did not have to make awkward jokes about passing the “virtual collection plate”; all of that was already happening online.
But on March 22nd, Summit still seemed at pains to demonstrate that it was taking public health seriously. The four-person “worship team” still opened the smoothly filmed service with music, but they played in the church hallway, under a stairwell. Rather than pacing across the church stage in his famously fancy sneakers, Pastor Greear sat behind a round table in the bookshelf-lined corner of what appeared to be his home, a gilt-edged Bible open in front of him. His sermons were still peppered with speedy Scripture citations. “How,” he asked, “should the church respond to this upside-down world?”
First, the practical. “Our disposition as a church is to follow the guidelines of the CDC, our state and federal government.” Elided here of course was the fact that the CDC, the federal government, and the North Carolina state government were at the time saying three different things. “We believe this is why God gave us governing officials,” said Greear, citing Romans 13. He prayed for healthcare workers, counseled against panic and hoarding, and advised “redeeming the time” of quarantine to develop good family habits.
But he also acknowledged that the practical could only go so far. Of course, responses like containment and developing vaccinations were “reasonable.” Individuals, businesses, and nations could follow the CDC’s “protective measures,” but ultimately, “all earthly solutions will fail.” Nothing can “deliver us from the sentence of death that we all live under.” In other words, be reasonable, but know that death is coming. It was left to the keyboardist of the worship team, in their closing hymn, to express what Greear did not: “God,” he pleaded, “I just pray that you would stop this pandemic.”
Over at Olin T. Binkley Baptist Church, the first service to be livestreamed was also the last service to be presided over by Pastor Dale Osborne, who, after 27 years, was off on “a new holy adventure.” The associate minister said that the church had planned to “party like it’s 1992, the year Dale came to Binkley.” Now that celebration, like so many others, would have to wait. In the meantime, perhaps, Pastor Tennant would learn to preach into the camera; Journey Community Church members would get used to the sounds of the pastor’s children. Mount Carmel might decide to fit the pandemic into their annual preaching schedule.
Pastor Dale did not expect to have to give his final sermon to an empty church, but he was determined to make the best of it, calling on “God of mountains and microbes,” of “disease and dis-ease,” calling on people to “care for friend and stranger through social distancing,” and bidding the four other people in the room to stand up and join him in singing “It Is Well With My Soul.” As they sat down, Pastor Dale settled into the pulpit and told the story of Horatio Spofford,—“great name!”—a nineteenth-century evangelist who had written “It Is Well With My Soul” after suffering the loss of his family in a shipwreck. It was a song of defiance in the face of tragedy, of “staying strong and opening your vulnerabilities to god’s grace.”
Like many on March 22nd, Pastor Dale preached about “darkness and light.” It was so important, he preached, not to “shed darkness” on this pandemic, but to “shed light.” Yes, the pandemic was unique—when else had there been Lysol wipes on the pulpit? But Pastor Dale had felt this darkness before, during the AIDS crisis. The “dark valley occurred for me personally around 1984,” when, “as many of you know, my family said goodbye to my brother, John Craig Osborne.”
He brought this up not to draw attention to his own grief—“I am so grateful to have known my brother and his wonderful partner”—but to draw a connection between past and present. When he heard people call the coronavirus “the Chinese disease,” he remembered when people called AIDS “that gay disease.” When he saw the federal government repeatedly delay responding to the coronavirus, he remembered how long the Reagan administration had waited to begin distributing AIDS treatments.
Then and now, that kind of willful ignorance, misinformation, “shedding darkness,” had cost lives, especially the lives of the most marginalized. Pastor Dale wanted his church to know that “each one of us is a human being, capable of being affected” by the pandemic. “I say this to you to emphasize how important it is that we cast light only upon this virus.” He then began to explain some simple ways his congregation could do that.
Pastor Dale knew that the work of the church he had given so much of his life to would continue. At the sanctuary earlier that week to clean out his office, he and his wife had been surprised to find the place busy, church members getting what they needed to hold youth programs and recovery groups remotely.
But this was still the last service anyone would have in that storied sanctuary for the foreseeable future. The next Sunday, the Binkley pastors performed the service remotely from their homes. When they tried to broadcast their remote Easter services live, they had trouble with the audio and ending up posting video later that afternoon. On Easter, they also announced “the good news” of a redesigned website. Two months later, although North Carolina churches were allowed to reopen with some restrictions, Binkley’s services remain entirely virtual as of May 22, and the building itself remains closed. The church made one exception, though, holding a masked, socially distant protest of the murder of George Floyd on June 5th.
At their first online service, Pastor Dale remained joyful as he stepped away from the pulpit, turned both palms upwards, and led the small group in one final song, “Go now in peace; may the love of God be with you; everywhere you may go.” The organist, the singer, the minister, the doctor, and the pastor all stood up, and, singing in a round, made their way off-camera and away.
For the first time in the hourlong service, you could no longer see the Purell, Irish Spring, and Lysol; Pastor Dale’s face had come between the camera and the pulpit. He furrowed his eyebrows, and peered through his glasses at the machine, looking for the “off” button. For a moment, the camera’s-eye view seemed less like a window into the sanctuary and more like a wall. But then the retiring pastor, suddenly remembering there were people on the other side of this piece of glass, grinned and whispered a quick “bye,” before the screen went dark.