St. Agnes' Church in Dalton has been livestreaming Masses.
In all the despair and isolation and anxiety that has come with the COVID-19 pandemic, one small ray of hope has emerged.
And it comes from the change of perspective necessitated by social distancing.
"Most who Zoom with us on Sunday morning look well and comfortable in their homes and enjoy coming to church with a cup of coffee," the Rev. Cara Davis of Pittsfield's First Church of Christ said of the video conferencing service employed by her congregation. "They particularly like seeing each others' faces instead of the backs of heads — which is what you see when sitting in pews."
No one is filling the pews of Davis' church or other houses of worship this spring, a point that hits home in particular during the holiest time of the year for the world's major monotheistic religions. Wednesday evening was the beginning of Passover. Thursday is Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday, the beginning of the most sacred four-day period in Christendom that ends on Easter Sunday. Later in the month, Muslims will mark Ramadan.
Throughout Berkshire County, ministers of all faiths and denominations have been developing new ways to stay in touch with their congregants.
Davis, like many others, is making the most of a bad situation.
"Obviously Zoom loses a lot," she said. "The music does not convey as well. Hymn singing together does not work because of lags between computers and the piano. But it's been a wonderful way of connecting even if only in cyberspace.
"Live streaming would, of course, be better quality, but it is even more passive ... and requires participants to all be in one place — something we are not meant to be doing. So we have chosen Zoom. I am sure there are unlimited ways of doing worship on Zoom — but I, for one, am technologically challenged … so we keep it simple."
And there is the side benefit that all participants in a video conference — unlike all attendees at a traditional service — can see the faces of their fellow faithful.
That is an observation also shared by the Rev. Elizabeth Wade, the interim minister at Williamstown's St. John's Episcopal.
"It's difficult losing interpersonal connections," she said. "On the other hand, I participated [Tuesday] morning in a service. Every year, our Episcopal diocese holds a renewal of vows for clergy. Usually, it's at the cathedral in Springfield. This year, it was a Zoom conference.
"There was a time after the service when the mics were unmuted, and someone said in a way this was more of a feeling of connection than being in the same church room together. When in the service at the cathedral, we're all looking toward the front at the bishop and seeing each other's backs. Today, we were seeing each other's faces, and it's a different kind of connection.
"Certainly, I cherish the thought of being back in the same room with people, but there are surprising pluses of the forms of communication we're being forced into right now."
Wade is in the curious position of beginning her interim ministry in Williamstown after the start of the state mandate curtailing large gatherings because of a planned paternity leave for St. John's regular minister.
Fortunately, she said, she had the benefit of serving in an interim capacity at St. John's once before.
"I can't imagine what it would have been like to have started in a place where you couldn't be with more than two or three people at a time," she said. "I really feel blessed that I was here once before and it feels like home in a way."
Still, it was a different kind of homecoming and a very different Holy Week than any in Davis' experience.
Since coming back, she has helped the community develop a new way of providing its Sunday services. At first, it considered a livestream on Sunday morning, but it discovered that St. John's lacked the bandwidth to pull that off. Instead, she has been videotaping a service on Saturday and it is uploaded to YouTube.
"Every Sunday, we learn a little more about how to do it effectively, and every Sunday there are fewer people involved in being there," Wade said. "Last Saturday, it was the camera person, myself, the organist and one other musician."
At Dalton's St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church, they were a little ahead of the curve when it came to facilitating remote worship.
"The interesting thing for us is maybe two or three years ago I put in a live-streaming system really as a means to reach out to shut-ins," the Rev. Christopher Malatesta said. "And we already televise our Saturday afternoon Mass on cable TV. We've done that for years and years before my coming to this parish. We've done that for 25 years.
"A few years ago, we upgraded the equipment so we could live stream on the Internet. Basically, every weekend, we've got 40 people who tune in to our live stream. Then the pandemic comes, and the first weekend we had 900 people. The next weekend, we had about 2,000 people. Now, it's over 2,500 people tuning in to our services online."
Wade also has been happy with the interest she has seen in the online attendance.
"Our YouTube video last Saturday showed 233 views," she said. "I'm not naive enough to believe that all 233 listened to the whole hour. But in many cases, there also would have been more than one person there viewing, and all 233 listened for at least a while. And that's probably 100 more than would have normally been in the church on Palm Sunday."
There are other options for faithful who want to commune with their faith from their home. For Catholics, the Eternal Word Television Network has been offering regular telecasts of the Mass for decades. Wade herself is directing the St. John's community to follow the live stream of the Easter service at the National Cathedral in Washington — in addition to a taped message that she will deliver for the holiday.
Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski of Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield has asked all Catholic churches with bells to ring them on Easter morning at 10. This would be the time many would normally be attending various Easter Masses.
"Hopefully the ringing of our church bells will serve as a reminder that even in this most difficult time, there is reason for joy as we mark the Resurrection of our Lord," Rozanski said.
The bishop will celebrate the televised "Chalice of Salvation" Mass on Sunday morning at 10 on WWLP Channel 22, which is now back on in the Berkshires on Channel 14 or 16.
Malatesta said that while these national — or even regional — services are an option, the connection to a local parish also has value.
"The Springfield Diocese' 'Chalice of Salvation' is very well done, but when you watch that or EWTN, it feels like you're tuning in to something that's not local," he said. "Here, it's the parish Mass that everyone is used to. It's not like a studio where something is being filmed.
"It's definitely not a studio, and it's volunteers doing it so it's not perfect, but that's like the Mass every week normally. It's not perfect."
And, speaking of imperfection, there are elements of the Catholic faith that Malatesta cannot give his parishioners this Holy Week.
"There is an Easter duty to go to confession and receive communion," he said. "It's instilled in people to want that sacrament this time of year. Missing that, especially at this time of year, is hard for people. I've been trying to tell people: You can't have what's not available. … I'm telling people, as soon as it's available, take advantage of it. But if you're not in danger of death, wait."
Of course, not all of a congregation's work is sacramental — or even scriptural. Much of the ministry done by Berkshire County churches involves serving the corporal needs of believers and non-believers alike. That work continues, though it too has required adjustments.
"We have a lot of programs we do in terms of food and nutrition for the community," said the Rev. Ralph Howe of Pittsfield's First United Methodist Church. "We've been able to continue serving the food needs of people in slightly different ways."
Instead of welcoming recipients into the church and serving them meals, First United Methodist's volunteers prepare the meals in packages that are distributed at the door, Howe said.
"We have over 100 on Tuesday night for dinner, and we have 30 or 40 [recipients] for breakfast three days a week," he said. "A couple of times a month, we do a Saturday lunch. Also, our folks prepare a meal for the Cathedral of the Beloved, which meets outside in the summer and at Zion Lutheran Church in the winter.
"We're still getting quite a bit of business for the meals."
Like other ministers, Howe is tailoring his message to meet his congregants' needs during the COVID-19 crisis.
"It is different," he said, noting that his services can be seen on Pittsfield Community Television and YouTube. "There's something about coming together and celebrating Easter Sunday that we're all going to miss. It's certainly strange for me on a Sunday morning to not be going to church.
"Change can either be threatening, or it can be a stimulus to look deeper, to reassess the foundation of our lives and how we approach things. If we're not in total extremis — if we're not without food or in danger of being foreclosed upon or evicted — it gives us another sense of reassessing what's really important."
Malatesta said the Easter scriptures can hold a special significance during the pandemic.
"The last couple of weeks and heading into this week, people needed a message of hope," he said. "Like on Palm Sunday, we talk about Jesus entering into what surely was going to be his death, and he did it anyway for us. He had courage. He's a model of what it means for us to be courageous.
"Even though it really seems dark right now, we have to have hope."
"The Easter story is one of fear, anxiety and uncertainty," she said. "It's the women going to the tomb that morning. It was a fear-filled time, but out of that comes the hope of resurrection and the ongoing nature of a new life in Christ.
"Fear and anxiety are normal and an important way of protecting ourselves and others. But even in that, we know God is with us and walking with us in whatever is to come and brings hope for the future."
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Local Schools Receive Olmsted Grants from Williams College
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Williams College has awarded the 2020 Bicentennial Olmsted Awards for Faculty and Curricular Development to nine area schools.
Each entity will receive $5,000 for professional and curricular development projects.
The schools and districts are Hoosac Valley Regional School District in Cheshire, the Berkshire Arts and Technology Charter Public School in Adams, Lanesborough Elementary School, McCann Technical School in North Adams, North Adams Public Schools, Pownal (Vt.) Elementary School, and Mount Greylock Regional School, Williamstown Elementary and Pine Cobble School, all in Williamstown.
Hoosac Valley will expand its practices of guiding and intervening in students' development of social-emotional skills. Focusing on uniformity and consistency in its practices throughout the district, it will establish universal expectations and implement a consistent professional development plan to support students' social-emotional learning. The remaining funds will be allocated toward the materials and groups that aid the work of the district's student support centers.
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Pollack was joined by Gov. Charlie Baker on Wednesday morning at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority's Maverick Station to talk about the soon-to-be-completed work at the East Boston rapid transit station.
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Hugh Daley asked his colleagues to make such a statement, arguing that the board had an obligation to do what it can to preserve a fund intended to protect local taxpayers against future expenses at the recently renovated and rebuilt school.
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