'I didn't want to take any chances': After briefly opening, Utah Baptist church goes virtual to slow spread of COVID-19

'I didn't want to take any chances': After briefly opening, Utah Baptist church goes virtual to slow spread of COVID-19

(Liesl Nielsen, KSL.com File)



SALT LAKE CITY — On a typical Sunday at church, the Rev. Oscar Moses, who leads Salt Lake's Calvary Baptist Church, is used to hearing several amens or other audible responses from congregants — sermons in the African American Baptist community are more of a dialogue than a monologue, he explained.

But as COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths began to rise in the state, he decided it just wasn't safe to continue holding in-person church — leading the pastor to learn on his feet, adapt worship, and become an expert of sorts in video production.

After taking over for the legendary Pastor France Davis, who retired in 2019 after 46 years of service as the church's pastor, Pastor Moses was excited to continue the legacy and bring faith to the people of Salt Lake City.

He felt a calling to the area after leading the Mt. Hermon Missionary Baptist Church of Chicago for 17 years. With hopeful excitement, he and his family embarked on a journey to Salt Lake City where they were welcomed with open arms.

Three months into his ministry, the COVID-19 pandemic hit Utah and brought with it a dramatic change of lifestyle for Utahns across the state as everyone stayed home to prevent spreading the deadly disease. The Calvary Church quickly moved services online and, for a few months, the Rev. Moses gave virtual sermons from his home in Chicago; his family was still in the process of moving to Salt Lake City at the time.

After months of virtual worship, the church ventured back into in-person service with a soft opening in mid-September with health guidelines in place, like social distancing and wearing face coverings.

Welcoming congregants back during those few weeks was an experience the pastor cherishes.

"When I did get back and we did softly open, it was so warm and welcome to me to hear some response that someone was there live listening to the sermon," he said.

But as Utah began to see a massive surge in COVID-19 cases and with the holiday season approaching, the Rev. Moses knew the church needed to again suspend in-person worship to prioritize safety.

"The rise in coronavirus cases in Utah cannot be understated, and with the approaching Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, we must be overly cautious, and to ensure overall safety, social distancing must be practiced," a message on the church's website reads. "Therefore, Calvary will temporarily suspend all in-person worship services and activities until further notice."

The decision was made about five weeks ago, back when Utah was breaking records daily for new cases, hospitalizations and deaths. It was also right around the time Gov. Gary Herbert issued new restrictions for the state, implemented a statewide mask mandate, and issued a two-week order asking individuals to only socialize with those living in their household.

"I just wanted to err on the side of caution. I didn't want to take any chances with someone perhaps even contracting the virus," the Rev. Moses said.

Since then, he has been conducting virtual sermons that are broadcast from the church building with just a handful of people there to help set up the stream, and occasionally a few musicians or choir members to sing — all with social distancing and other precautions in place.

"It has really shifted my skill set," he said.

"During the time I was in Chicago, I became a movie producer," the pastor joked, noting he had to edit his own sermons and figure out how to bring the weekly service into people's homes.

One of the biggest changes with virtual church was getting used to not having those responses from people as he preached, the Rev. Moses said.

"There's a call and response. So, you miss the people, the amens, and things of that nature," he said. "And so it's been a challenge, but it's been a good challenge."

It has taken some time, but the Rev. Moses said he has now gotten used to preaching into a camera rather than seeing and hearing the congregation in front of him. But knowing who's listening on the other side of the camera reminds him of how important his calling is as their pastor.

"I enter into the sermon with a sense of humility," he said.

While he misses seeing his congregants face to face each week, the Rev. Moses said he views the adaptations to his ministry as a divine assignment from God.

"Even when I was at home, I went into that assignment with a sense of awe towards God and respect towards the assignment that was before me," he said. "And so I approached each sermon as though it was a holy duty."

Worship services are livestreamed every Sunday at 11 a.m. and later posted to the church's YouTube page. Some videos have reached people they never could have before, with a few viewers tuning in from around the globe.

"Virtual has opened up a lot of opportunity," he said. "We even now probably have reached probably more people virtually than we did prior to the pandemic. … There has been an opportunity in it, from that standpoint; it's allowed us to reach a wider audience. And so, even in the pandemic there's that thread of hope."

If the videos continue to attract viewers from different areas, the pastor thinks it could be a great opportunity to utilize technology and reach more people — even after the pandemic ends.

Thankfully, during the first three months of his service, the Rev. Moses was able to meet most of the congregation, if not all of them. Since worship has shifted online, he's instead made an effort to reach out to members of the congregation either with a phone or a Zoom call to stay connected.

While it seems virtual ministering will be the way forward for the unforeseeable future, news of a vaccine being widley available in coming months is a light at the end of the tunnel. The pastor hopes to safely bring back in-person church sometime in 2021.

Until then, he is committed to spreading faith and joy — all through a computer screen.

"If we believe in (God's) word and his word is true — and I do — that's a promise that if we acknowledge him in everything that we do, that he will direct our path. He will lead us, and he will guide us that we're trusting God to lead us all the way."

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