High Country United Church of Christ (UCC), located in the beautiful western region of North Carolina, has been a member of the PHW Collaborative for about two years now.
The Rev. Tamara Franks, pastor at High Country UCC, shared with us some of the reflections on the challenges and opportunities that have arisen for their congregation during this season of COVID: “March 15th will be one of those dates etched in my memory as a Worship Leader within a small church. This first Sunday, of #StayHome due to COVID-19, we met on Facebook Live. This meant rigging up a way to prop a tablet for broadcasting a message out to “our” people. Sitting on our covered porch while my partner sat on a ladder propping the tablet on a box for stability, the whole idea was to offer a face, a voice and some sense of togetherness without the screen shaking! Because, I had returned the day previous from a service mission trip to Ocracoke Island, we returned to a self-imposed 14-day quarantine. Our Pianist and Minister to Young Adults were in our Sanctuary with another tablet propped up for a “live” prelude, a welcome, a song and a spoken prayer time. They would begin the “live” Facebook broadcast. Then, we all attempted to “pop” onto my livestream from my home. Needless to say, we lost people in the transition from one “live” window to another.
Very soon, we went to recorded clips edited together into one video for a Facebook “Premier” to
get the live feel with the opportunity for live, active comments. Those recorded clips were made quietly in the confines of our own spaces for the next few weeks with Easter on the horizon. For me, hearing the Easter message of coming up out of the tombs, imagining a life beyond death, and moving towards the Pentecostal message of the gathered diverse body of many voices, the “talking head” recorded sermon didn’t fit in my theology.
I know that my theology is community centered. I hear that we are in one incredibly divisive time in our humanity. I watch us struggle to talk to one another beyond the weather and cursory greetings. Organically, the idea of “wrestling with the text in context” with another began to enter my consciousness. Who would I trust enough for dialogue exposed and on the internet for all to see? And, who would trust me enough, to sit at a table, unscripted to pour out our vulnerabilities of living in a pandemic, seeking to make sense out of our biblical stories and wanting to search and name the meaning and purpose of our contextual lives? This felt daunting; but, important enough to take the risk.
Our congregation, High Country UCC, is mostly white. Privileged. Safe. Without many physical
needs. Mostly over the age of 50. And, we want to cross the lines of theology, politics, values,
and beliefs to engage one another. How do we engage each other in truth, with respect and
integrity? Can we regain a civility where we can have conversations of openness, allowing
ourselves to “hear” all of our human connections deeper within our heart spaces? This was and
has been the intention: to demonstrate that theological conversation can be practical,
respectful, offer meaning and create connections that widen and deepen our spiritualities.
We began with just us – two theologically trained holders of a Master of Divinity. Then, we
included our church lay leadership to discuss our choices not to meet in person – even when the state’s governing bodies said we could – through a theological lens. Here, is where the world opened up to the expansive nature of online meetings that could be recorded. We can bring in diverse voices from all over without travel arrangements nor increasing our carbon footprint.
My colleague named these as “porch conversation worship services” I think because we evolved after a month into me often recording on my deck. Using the gifts and resources of the Worship Design Studio founded and led by Rev. Dr. Marcia McFee, the next series “Beguiled by Beauty: Cultivating a Life of Contemplation & Compassion” made even more sense to film outside in nature as much as possible. We live in the gorgeous Appalachian Mountains. We believe in and seek to be a Creation Justice church. Nature, for many in our context, grounds our theology as we hear that we are all one: we are a part of creation and creation is a part of us. The gift of videos allows easily for various locations, settings, and backdrops full of sounds and sights that go beyond the walls of our sanctuary.
The theological conversations sometimes were recorded in a 18-22 minutes segment which easily fit into a “regular” sermon slot. Those conversations that continued on into the 30- to 45-
minute category were cut into shorter segments for the worship video and then posted separately in their entirety after worship.
Upon reflecting back, I believe the Holy Spirit was offering her guidance. The diversity of partners brought a diversity of theology. We are ‘that’ church that seeks to be open and affirming of questions, beliefs and values that might not always line up with our own; so that, transformation and new life will continue to emerge. We call it resurrection.
Resurrection expands our world into being willing to tell our stories to strangers on the road to Emmaus. Remember in this post-resurrection story found in Luke’s gospel, that, even though a stranger, this One who appeared, seemed to be known to them. Our worship conversations have expanded outside our worship into Zoom “Deep Dive” conversations on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings. On Tuesdays, the lens is the cultural notice of race and the privilege that
comes with lite skin hues. On Wednesdays, the lens is the mental health and illness spectrum as intersection with our faith. Conversations opening all of our senses to the dreadful truth of our infliction of racial oppression finds a measure of healing done within circles of grace. Exposing our secrets of mental illness from depression to autism to living in a manic state of bipolar disorder creates empathy, awe and mercy hearing our neighbor’s story.
We are overjoyed with the collaborative efforts within the Partners in Health and Wholeness Collaborative. Jessica Stokes and Elizabeth Brewington will join us in our mental health Deep Dive conversations. Breaking open the Word, I believe, is most effective and meaningful within community. Something happens when two or more are gathered together in honest, respectful, caring relationships that seek the truth. The rough edges are smoothed out a bit. Hearts are opened. Liberation and freedom seem to emerge. The intention to engage in theological conversation for the practical purpose to live truthfully within our context has offered meaning and created connections that are widening and deepening our spirituality.
When someone a few weeks ago asked, ‘When are you going to start offering sermons again?’ I
could only chuckle and wonder.“*
We are grateful to High Country UCC for sharing their faith community’s experience with us. We understand “church” looks a lot different this season, but we also know faith communities are still hard at work. If your faith community is working on COVID-19 efforts, please email us at PHWinfo@ncchurches.org so we can lift up this important work.
*Follow-up/side note from High Country Ucc: Talking head reflections are again being recorded occasionally. However, the conversation will continue to be a viable and constant participant in worship. YouTube channel to find our Worship Videos with the ‘Porch Conversation’