Virtual worship clicks at First Parish; ‘connections’ hailed in a time of virus

Lucas Gonzalez Milliken, First Parish Dorchester's director of Religious Education.

A letter from future times to a 2020 newborn

Across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic is changing the way people worship, forcing many religious gatherings and observations to online platforms. This past Sunday, in lieu of its normal worship service, First Parish Dorchester held a virtual service via Zoom, a group conferencing/video chat app. 

In place of gathering in the church on Meetinghouse Hill, which has been closed to the public, Rev. Terry Sweetser and other First Parish personnel shared cyberspace for the abbreviated service, with parishioners tuning in from home on their devices. 

While the format was different, the community nature of the service was effectively replicated: a family lit a ceremonial candle set on their dining room table; the director of music and the cantor played piano and sang hymns from their respective homes; and parishioners used the app’s chat feature to chime in with prayers and messages of support.

Following is the text of a homily delivered by Director of Religious Education Lucas Gonzalez Milliken near the end of the service:

“My sister gave birth to my nephew a few weeks ago, and she sent me a tongue-in-cheek photo of him surrounded by three rolls of toilet paper, a tube of disinfectant wipes, and a sign that said “Baby’s first pandemic.” We will get through this, and we will get through this together. As a spiritual community, and as human beings.

“One of the things that we are stubborn about is staying connected. In the last few weeks we have seen truly creative ways of making sure that we stay connected. We are gathering in ways that we have not gathered before, finding ways to reach each other, and express love and hope for each other, and since we will get through this together, we will tell stories of this time.

“My nephew will not remember this time, but he will ask about it, and when he does, I want to be able to tell him this story:

“ ‘In those days, people came together in incredible ways. We were told to keep physical distance from each other, but we found other ways to stay close. Some of us hung our artwork out on porches for our neighbors to see. Some of us put on concerts on our sidewalks, and we all sang from the top of our lungs in 30-part harmony.

‘In those days we started to realize that the technology we had at our fingertips could connect us across thousands of miles. And we started reconnecting to people that we hadn’t spoken to in far too long a time. We sent photos and videos of our children to each other. We read books to each other every day. We held virtual talent shows and we put on plays for the world in our own living room. We started teaching each other in ways that we hadn’t considered.

‘We exercised and prayed and worshipped and sang right next to people who before we had thought were so far away. We knew that people were singing the same song that we were, at the same time as we were, from entirely different parts of the globe. 

‘But most importantly, we didn’t forget. When the virus passed, and we no longer had to keep social distancing, or shelters in place, we didn’t forget the lessons we had learned. We didn’t forget that it was possible to quickly and effectively shut down business as usual. We learned ways to help each other when business as usual got shut down, and we kept using those tools long after the virus left. We learned more and more ways to make sure that services were accessible to all people, especially those who were most at-risk and vulnerable.

‘We kept staying connected to our neighbors, singing with them across the way. We kept sharing our art with each other. We kept teaching each other and learning from each other. We didn’t forget that we need each other to survive. 

‘Which is why, dear nephew, we are singing with you now. Which is why, dear child, we do story time every day with someone who lives far away, but whom we love. Which is why we are right now writing this letter to our family from out of town, and why we are knocking on our neighbors’ doors to check in with them to see if there is anything they need, or if they would like to get together for a paper airplane-flying contest later. 

‘We learned so much in that time. Yes, it was painful and scary, but in our pain and fear, we leaned into our deep connections and we leaned into our love, and we remembered how to do that, and we never forgot it.’ ”