'Your Name is Higher Than Covid-19!'

'Your Name is Higher Than Covid-19!'

Kelly Davis | kwd2111@columbia.edu

Danita Delimont/Getty Images

WICHITA, KS. – Seemingly undaunted by an empty church, the worship leader stands at the altar and belts out gospel classics, enthusiastically encouraging the congregation to clap and sing along. His audience, watching at home on Facebook Live, politely obliges.

This has become standard practice for Sunday services at Heart of Christ, a United Methodist Church, in Wichita. For the last two Sundays, in the midst of the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus across the nation, services have moved exclusively online, shaking up church infrastructure and many other houses of worship along the way.

On March 22, Heart of Christ began streaming services online. The church’s Facebook page shared an announcement from the Great Plains United Methodists, which represents parts of Kansas and Nebraska, citing that they would be following CDC guidelines and moving to a digital platform. The statement also says that despite the fear around COVID-19, specifically around the negative financial impact that the virus has had, the bible tells us to “fear not.”

The head pastor of Heart of Christ, the Rev. Ronda Kingwood, put out her own statement, encouraging the church that although the congregation would not be meeting inside church walls, ministry would still continue.

“We will be ministering to our elderly, our single parents, the nursing homes in our community and others that may need help in this time,” Kingwood wrote on March 20.

On March 29, after the worship leader finished his song, Kingwood’s sermon from the church sanctuary seemed fitting for the times. She started off her message with a prayer, encouraging viewers that God is doing a great thing in the midst of the chaos and turmoil in the world. With her emphatic voice, Kingwood said that the origins of the pandemic came straight from the pits of hell and pleaded the blood of Jesus over the virus.

“Your name is higher than Covid-19!” Kingwood proclaimed.

She lifted up in prayer healthcare workers across the globe on the front lines fighting the virus, as well as those suffering from physical ailments.

“Let healing flow through hospital hallways,” Kingwood pleaded.

She prayed that the families of the sick would be strong in this time and asked that people would use common sense to practice social distancing and take the CDC guidelines seriously. She ended the prayer by giving glory and praise to God in the midst of it all.

Kingwood then jumped into the book of Ezekiel, citing the passage in chapter 37 where God brings Ezekiel to the valley of dry bones. Despite the death and decay all around him, Ezekiel still remembers that God is sovereign and that He can “breathe life into these dry bones.” Kingwood related this scripture back to what is happening across the world today. She reminded her congregation that although it may seem like we are all in a dark valley of anxiousness and uncertainty of the future, God’s people should use Ezekiel as an example that He can turn around any situation, no matter how bleak it seems.

Just like Ezekiel, God is showing us that He got this thing,” Kingwood declared. “God can use any situation and then turn it around. There is nothing impossible for our God.”


Sometimes the Body of Christ is a Chocolate Chip Pancake

Sometimes the Body of Christ is a Chocolate Chip Pancake

Madeline Simpson | mms2331@columbia.edu


Jill Brady/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Associate Pastor David Gungor opens Trinity Grace Church’s service with worship songs. He plays an acoustic guitar, his wife plays the violin, and three other people sing harmony. They all stand at least six feet apart from each other.

After worship, Pastor Michael Rudzena enters the stage and gives a sermon about the biblical character Lazarus, who Jesus raised from the dead. Rudzena speaks of Jesus’ intellectual depth, his emotional intelligence and his hopeful courage as he learns about and mourns his friend’s death. Rudzena addresses an empty chapel.

The service flows from sermon to Eucharist, the Christian tradition of eating bread and drinking wine to honor Jesus’ body and blood. On a typical Sunday, the congregation would approach the front of the church to receive Eucharist from the pastor or church member.

But I know that today is different. I am not in Good Shepherd Chapel, where Trinity Grace holds service—I’m in my parent’s living room in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, watching Rudzena on a flat-screen TV. Instead of wine and bread, I have coffee and a piece of a chocolate chip pancake.

“Last week we said this is the weirdest Eucharist we’ve ever done,” Rudzena says. “But here we are again. Communion is about our connection to each other. Though we are not in the same room, we are deeply connected, not only by God’s spirit but by our love for each other.”

Trinity Grace is one of thousands of houses of worship in the United States and around the world impacted by the coronavirus. On March 21, the White House issued an ordinance for Americans to avoid gatherings of 10 or more people. Most evangelical church services fall in this category, and churches around the nation scrambled to set up technology that would allow the community to continue to meet.

It is the second Sunday in a row that I am attending “virtual church”—a result of social distancing and the “stay-at-home” orders to protect from the COVID-19 virus. The service is aired live on Trinity Grace’s YouTube channel, with a chat capability where congregants can talk in real-time throughout the sermon. I learn that I am not the only one watching out of town.

“Greetings from Baltimore!”

“Hello from two blocks away in Tribeca!”

“Grace and peace, everybody.”

For my church-going family, spending a Sunday morning at home usually meant a snowstorm had shut roads down. Raised in a conservative evangelical home, I grew up going to church a few times a week, including every Sunday morning. Skipping church was not allowed.

But now, we have no choice. My parents’ local church in Minnesota closed in the same way that the churches in New York did. There is nowhere to go on Sunday mornings except YouTube.

We adjust as the world adjusts.

“Let’s let this table move us towards unity in a time of strife,” Rudzena says, leading the online congregation in the Eucharist liturgy. “Let’s join in prayer, and start with gratitude. The Lord is here. His Spirit is with us... We lift our hearts to the Lord… It is right to give thanks and praise.”

And then, around the country, we eat our chocolate chip pancake, our cracker, our sourdough bread, and drink our wine, our coffee, our juice. We recite, separately but together, “Jesus Christ is holy. Jesus Christ is Lord. To the glory of God the Father. Amen.”


Preaching in the times of Corona

Preaching in the Times of Corona

Zoé Chevalier | zc2504@columbia.edu

picture alliance / Getty Images Contributor

This Sunday is not like any other. There is no singing and dancing, no coming together and hugging at the United Pentecostal Church in Harlem. Instead, Pastor Michael Grattan is alone in his office, preaching on Facebook Live, while comments pour in: “I’m watching from Wisconsin,” says one, many just send “Amen,” another one just says “I made it!”

It was not easy to connect to the Pastor’s sermon this morning. There were technical glitches, and the video stopped in the middle, leaving only a 7-minute segment available. These are the realities of preaching in the times of Corona.

The Church on 125th closed its doors on March 22nd for Sunday services but remains open for weekly prayer and Bible study on Wednesdays and Fridays. There, the few congregants sit on different benches and avoid getting close to each other.

If Bible study became online, the pastor fears that he would lose the back-and-forth conversations that are at the heart of the experience. He also fears that he will have to simplify his lessons because he thinks it is harder to explain complicated concepts online: “I see these TV evangelists,” he says, “they have 10,000 people in one room, but everything they say is so basic.” Especially now in this time of crisis, Grattan says he wants to focus his next lessons on the book of Revelations. “There is a hunger for it,” he says.

The Book of Revelation is the last book of the Christian Bible, written by an unidentified “John”. According to Pastor Grattan, the book recounts how the Antichrist will come down to earth and tempt humans to follow him, those who do will be stained by the “mark of the beast” and have their soul destroyed. This apocalyptic tale fascinates believers according to Grattan, as all try to find resemblances between the text and modern-day life. The virus is only intensifying a question that Christians have been asking themselves for hundreds of years: “Are we in the end times?”

Grattan’s Sunday sermon focused on a more positive message, one of hope: “Once we overcome the fear of death, we are able to overcome all anxieties in life,” he says on the screen, adding: “If we do what we can, God will do what we cannot.”

The cancellation of Sunday service came as a relief to some according to Iris Grattan, the daughter of the pastor. She says that worshippers were worried about sinning by not going to Church to protect themselves from the virus. “[They thought] am I being fearful and not believing in God? Iris says.

Grattan worries about his ability to connect with less technically-savvy members of the community, like those who do not have access to Facebook. Some older members have only an old flip phone, others do not even have a cellphone. Grattan tries to stay connected with them through texting and calling, but he does not know how he will keep the connection strong in the future. “I don’t have answers yet,” he says, “I have never been faced with this before.”


Blessed are the Top 10

Blessed are the Top 10

Kelly Davis | kwd2111@columbia.edu

Photo by Kelly Davis

It’s Oscar Sunday, and in a Gothic-style church in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx, people of all ages and races sit patiently in the quiet sanctuary. Reverend Krystin Granberg rests her arms comfortably on the pulpit as she begins her sermon for the 10:30 a.m. service at Riverdale Presbyterian Church, located at 4765 Henry Hudson Parkway. Her topic is not a Bible verse. Her message is not fire and brimstone. 

“I love Oscar Sunday even more than Super bowl Sunday,” Granberg begins. Church-goers respond with a chuckle and the solemn faces in the room seem to be at ease a little bit.

Much to my surprise, Granberg’s message is centered around today’s pop culture. She speaks about the trend of “top 10” lists. 

Top 10 movies of 2019

Top 10 vegan restaurants in NYC

Top 10 ways to get fit in the new year

But religion isn’t far behind. “Jesus has a top 10 list, too,” she remarks. 

She proceeds to introduce a familiar passage from the bible most commonly known as the beatitudes.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

Matthew 5: 3-5

She compares the beatitudes with the to do lists that modern-day culture sets for us to be successful. Granberg explains that the bible verses and other similar scriptural references are not the top 10 lists like the world gives us, but rather a list of things that have already been done. 

When Jesus recites the beatitudes, he is not saying what believers must do in order to be good Christians. Rather, he is explaining what the kingdom of God presents, as gifts, to those who believe in Him and his message of salvation. 

Tying her message back to the Oscars, she recalls one of her favorite movies, “Monty Python’s Life of Brian.” While the movie offered her powerful lessons that she still holds today, Brian, the farcical main character, was just as persecuted as Jesus was for spreading the message of salvation. Brian’s struggles in various scenes of the movie reflect Jesus’ own challenges. 

Granberg reminds the congregation that they should not ask God what to do to be worthy of His love, instead to know that any shackles of anxiety, fear, depression and worry have already been broken. The kingdom God is about being rather than doing, she says. We are already blessed, and there is nothing more that we need to do to be approved. She adds that the only thing the Lord requires of us is to, in the words of the Prophet Isaiah, do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with the Lord. 

She also says that if she had the chance, she would write additional beatitudes and include things like:

Blessed are the truthtellers

Blessed are the caretakers

Blessed are the peacemakers

And above them all: Blessed are the rulebreakers, who advocate for the most destitute of society.

She says that she was perplexed that so many people are confused with what others are not doing. This creates a culture of people that are so anxious about what they are or not doing, they end up projecting their feelings of failure onto others. Referring back to the to do list, Granberg points out that church gives everyone an opportunity to be critical. 

As the sermon wears on, she goes back to the phrase of what the bible requires of us: to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with the Lord. She cites biblical figures that ministered to lepers and preached to them about the love of God. 

Closing her sermon, Granberg says that in trying to make a difference in this world, we can start by impacting each and every person we meet. She pleads that in this world of chaos and turmoil, her congregation preaches cheerfulness and radical love. 


The Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit

Zoé Chevalier | zc2504@columbia.edu

Photo by Zoe Chevalier

The congregation slowly gathers inside the prayer hall at the United Pentecostal Church on 125th Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam. Sunday school ran a little late, but that’s ok, there are no formal hours here. The prayer service will last for about two and a half hours, but none of it will be passive: Worshippers will stand, move, dance, and sing. 

Rows of chairs face a stage, where microphones and instruments—an electric piano, drums and a tambourine—signal the singing to come. No crosses, stain-glass windows or icons of saints can be seen here. Although Pentecostals believe in Christ, the traditional crucifix found in Catholic churches is replaced with a large statue representing the earth and a collection of flags from different countries. In front of the pastors console is a wide communion table, covered by a white veil. “It’s to make it look religious,” says Pastor Michael Grattan.

Patrice Martin has come all the way by bus from Philadelphia to be here today. Grattan witnessed to her 40 years ago, when she was a college student. “He saved me,” says Martin. But she feels directionless, and came to the Church to reconnect with the one who once helped her. Martin does not want to bother him, and so she sits in a corner. When the pastor comes to say hi, she introduces herself as Sister Patrice Martin. He thinks about it and says, “That’s strange. I witnessed to a Sister Patrice many years ago.” They fall into each other’s arms.

One of the singers, dressed in all white comes up to the audience, arms opened. “Let’s have a group hug,” she says. Slowly, she walks away into a corner of the room, where worshippers gather. A circle is formed. At first quiet, the circle soon comes to life. The Holy Spirit is about to arrive. Worshippers are moving their hips and raising their hands, opening their mouths wide. The rumble of their feet on the ground creates vibrations, which are growing throughout the church.

A symphony of different languages is spoken all at once: English, French, Spanish and many other languages that I do not recognize. Most of it is unintelligible, with a repetition of “Amen” and “Hallelujah,” creating a rhythm, and growing faster, louder, more passionate.

Another singer is brought into the middle of the circle. Surrounded by her peers, she bangs her chest right above her heart and moves her hands to the rhythm of her words. They are praying for her. Some are smiling, looking up at the heavens, at times letting out a powerful laugh.

Others give out painful moans, bow their heads.

Brother Philippe comes up to me and explains in French. “They are letting the Holy Spirit speak through them. They just open their mouths and let him speak.” Like many people here, Philippe was once a Catholic, but he grew tired of needing intermediaries to speak with God. Pentecostals do not believe in the Virgin Mary as the first interlocutor. “It’s like parents with their children,” explains Philippe. “You do not need to have your mother always intervene on behalf of you to your father, you have to go directly.”

Pentecostals believe in a direct approach to the Lord. No Saints, no Virgin Mary is needed as intermediary. Once a person has been “saved,” the previous “sinner” becomes a saint. All baptized members of the church are saints. They can speak directly to God, and let the Holy Spirit speak through them. They are also called to “witness” to other “sinners,” and transmit the word of the Lord.

This ritual is rooted in the day of the Pentecost, a passage in the Bible’s Book of Acts, the fifth book in the New Testament. According to Acts 2:4, the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus’ apostles, baptizing them in the Holy Spirit, “and there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” Pentecostals believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible, and see speaking in tongues as an act that can happen at any time, to anyone who has been saved.

This speaking in tongues continues throughout the service. Sometimes, as Grattan is preaching, someone will start laughing uncontrollably, someone else will speak in a different language. Once some people started making snake-like noises in the back of the room, the hissing sounds growing louder. When the Holy Spirit wants to speak, you let him in. As the service progressed, Grattan’s sermon grows more passionate:

“Don’t waste your alone time and your suffering, praise the Lord and nothing should offend you. If you can’t run, walk, and if you can’t walk, roll, but keep following God. We are the chosen people, the Second Testament says so! We are like the Jews.”

Suddenly, he stops, and the voices in the crowd go silent. One by one, some worshippers go up in front of the stage and kneel in front of the pastor, waiting to be blessed. A pregnant woman bows with difficulty. Children run up to the stage.

The adults wait patiently as Grattan slowly kneels to their level, holds their head and whispers “In the name of Jesus Christ.” Slowly they go back to their seats, calmer, blessed. Sister Patrice stayed in her seat the whole time, her eyes closed, praying. At times, she called out “Amen, Halleluyah.” A glorious smile was spread across her face.