Thunder Bay

'The Church isn't just the building': Worshipping safely in a pandemic

The global COVID-19 pandemic has closed churches, temples and mosques, but people in Thunder Bay, Ont., are still finding a way to connect through worship, prayer and action.

Congregation reaching out to each other through Facebook, phone calls, community service and prayer

Pastor Matthew Diegel leading a worship service at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Thunder Bay. The church is closed so people can practise physical distancing and reduce the spread of the coronavirus. But Diegel says the congregation is still connecting through social media, telephone calls and worship. (Lucy Keetch)

April is a busy month for three of the world's major religions, with Jewish people marking Passover, Muslims observing Ramadan and Christians celebrating Easter.

Although the global COVID-19 pandemic has closed churches, temples and mosques, people in Thunder Bay, Ont., are still finding a way to connect through worship, prayer and action.

"We're finding out the Church isn't just the building," said Matthew Diegel, pastor at Our Saviour's Lutheran Church in the northwestern Ontario city. "We're collecting food for the food bank.. We had funds we collected to give to different local organizations and we've already given that out as quickly as we could."

He is busy working on setting up his church so he can stream services on Facebook but the system isn't quite ready yet.

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Thunder Bay, Ont., sits empty as people stay home to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But members of the congregation are reaching out to each other online, through phone calls and by volunteering in the community. (Matthew Diegel)

However, each week since March 22, Diegel has emailed his congregation a full service, complete with a sermon, call-and-response and hymns so people can still worship, but in the safety of their homes. Parishioners often help out by sharing the music links they've found online.  For those without internet access, Diegel delivers a printed copy to their mailbox.

'Appreciate being able to connect'

Response to the "do-it-yourself church service" has been very positive he said, with people commenting on how easy the services are to conduct and follow. One couple held their service while being quarantined in Portugal.

"They say they just appreciate being able to connect, if not in person, than with other people they know are doing the same thing," he said, adding. "because we're changing the services, and adapting them and speaking about what's happening in the world today, they feel connected in that way as well."

Diegel misses the one-on-one time with his congregation, whether it's sipping tea during the fellowship after the service, or visiting someone at home. He said it's also difficult to not be able to sit with people in hospital and administer spiritual end-of-life care.

Taking care of each other through social media, calls

But he and members of his congregation are reaching out to each other regularly through social media and telephone calls, with Diegel making a special effort to contact people in long-term care facilities. He said it makes it a goal to call between three and five households each day "just to see how they're doing."

"What I'm really happy about is when I call someone and they tell me 'oh so-and-so called me already' so that's nice to hear.,

Diegel said he's impressed by the creativity and efforts clergy across the city and the northwest are showing in trying to still minister to their flocks.

For instance, he noted an Anglican priest in Thunder Bay who is hosting a weekly chatgroup for young people. Several United Churches are streaming their services and at the request of several grandparents, Diegel is finding online Sunday School resources to help multiple generations share their faith.

Church 'still alive' in old and new ways

"We're also realizing, as we have taught throughout the years, the Church is more than just a gathering [of people]. The Church is God's people everywhere, so people are able to be the Church wherever they are," he said. "We're seeing the Church still being alive in ways it always has been but in ways maybe we hadn't thought before.

"The Church is finding new ways to be the Church, and it's using some of those old ways too."

You can hear the full interview with Pastor Matthew Diegel on CBC Superior Morning here.