The Rev. Greg Kroger had to smile about the new ground being broken early Sunday morning in First United Methodist Church in Pierre during the COVID-19 outbreak.
“I’ll literally be preaching to the choir.”
He meant that, in person, it would be the choir of three and not many more.
It was a rare moment in church life played out in many congregations across the land as churchgoers found ways to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic that has shut down much of American society. Several other churches in Pierre planned similar low-attendance services to avoid crowds and use the internet.
Others held services, inviting parishioners to come if they were comfortable.
The two Catholic dioceses in South Dakota canceled all public Masses for at least several weeks.
In the vast old sanctuary of First United Methodist with huge stained glass windows that holds 350, there were only nine present to sit for Kroger’s sermon, (not counting a reporter), for the 8:30 a.m. service.
Behind Kroger were Jay Mickelson, Elizabeth DeTample and Eileen Bertsch: the choir. Bev Mickelson was the organist and pianist. Sue Bourk sang a solo, accompanying herself on guitar.
Upstairs in one corner of the balcony, Kevin and Jo Anne Hipple ran the technical equipment, with a soundboard and other things involved in livestreaming a video of the service over the internet and recording it for broadcast on a local radio station at 11 a.m. They were assisted by Tim Lors, who regularly attends New Life Assembly of God Church but is a consultant contracted to make sure the recording went well at First United Methodist. The acoustics are different when the church is empty, they all agreed.
The only person in the pews on the main floor was Ron Smith, who sometimes plays organ and piano at the church and regularly plays at First Baptist across town. His mellifluous voice carried the hymns well from the pews for the broadcast.
Save the reporter guest, the group came in at the limit of 10 people recommended by government officials for any gathering in “this time of great challenge,” as Kroger put it in a prayer.
As most churches have done in recent days, First United Methodist officials did the opposite of the usual Christian practice, as they told people they were not welcome in the house of the Lord, for now.
It's a matter of life and death, civic, state and national leaders say, as the pandemic can spread faster where people congregate, including in congregations.
On Sunday, this small group came out in a sort of vicarious atonement for so many absences, perhaps. With Smith alone among 11 rows of long, arcing pews that could hold 299 more, they sang, “O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing.”
Perhaps too apt for this Sunday, the hymn was written two centuries ago by Charles Wesley, the founder of Methodism, the evangelical Christian movement marked by its eagerness to bring more people into church.
“We are in new waters,” Kroger said more than once on Sunday.
Concern about the COVID-19 pandemic said to be capable of killing many thousands has stopped most public meetings, including most church services.
A similar concern hit hard a century ago when the Spanish influenza swept across nations and closed down what was called First Methodist Episcopal Church in the same place, the same building that dates back to 1910.
At that time, there was no radio, no internet and no worship services at all for weeks in 1918 and early 1919, according to Methodist archives. However, there were far too many funeral services, including three in one family in one week in Sioux Falls. Four children in one family in Faith, South Dakota, dead of the flu, according to a 2005 essay by Matthew Reitzel of the South Dakota Historical Society. A total of about 1,883 South Dakotans died of the influenza pandemic in 1918, most of them in the last three months of the year. That was 28 percent of all deaths in the state that year. The dying continued on for two more years.
Then it seemed to go away and nothing quite like that has been seen in America since.
However, a worship service with hardly anyone present isn’t brand new here.
“We did the same thing in 1976, I think it was,” Jay Mickelson said. “ We had two of the biggest blizzards.”
Mickelson retired last year from teaching at Riggs High School since 1971. In 1976, there wasn’t any internet, but First United Methodist was broadcasting its worship service on radio every Sunday.
So when only the pastor and the Mickelsons and a few others who lived within a block or two of the church could get to church on Sunday, they put on a service for a virtually empty sanctuary just for the radio audience, Mickelson said.
On Sunday, Kroger preached on Jesus’ visit with the Samaritan woman at the well, from the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel. He and Jay Mickelson and DeTample read the scripture in parts, like a play.
The Samaritan woman was of a people seen by Jewish people of Jesus’ day as not very respectable, as unclean, Kroger said. It was part of the same prejudice seen today, perhaps, in the way this pandemic is blamed by some on the Chinese, Kroger said.
“We need to remember that 1.4 billion people live (in China), each of them created by God,” Kroger said.
At times he turned from his pulpit to preach, as he said, to the choir behind him. Otherwise, he could have been preaching to hundreds who weren’t there, his voice carrying well into the balcony. There maybe was a bit of an echo.
Jesus expects Christians to confront prejudice and to reach out to people who need help the most, especially in this time of fear of the unknown, Kroger said.
Throughout the scriptures, whenever God appears, His message usually is “Fear not,” Kroger said. Christians, then, should fear not to reach out to people with “a reckless love” and listen to what they have to say and what they need, he said.
Jo Anne Hipple said usually when a worship service is livestreamed each Sunday, only five to 10 people watch the service that way. But on Sunday, 45 or so livestreamed the service. Meanwhile, 276 had registered “views” on Facebook, far more than a usual Sunday, she said.
After the service, Hipple and Kroger and others spent several minutes discussing what kind of changes to make to improve the livestreaming and recording of the service next Sunday.
Kroger had prayed during the service that the congregation, in the house and on the radio and on the internet, would be open to “the possibilities of seeing the miraculous in these extraordinary times.”