Emily Landon understood the ramifications of COVID-19 before most people in the United States had even heard of the respiratory virus.
Landon, an adult infectious disease physician and executive medical director for infection prevention and control at University of Chicago Medicine, stood alongside Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on March 21, 2020, to announce the shutdown of the city.
She had known for weeks that the virus from Wuhan, China, was quickly becoming a pandemic.
“Back in January  … maybe even December, we knew there were a cluster of pneumonia cases in China,” Landon recalled. “I kept my eye on it. … [Martin Luther King] weekend, I was reading the news, and I thought, ‘This is not going [in] the right direction. We’re going to need to do something about this.’ It was concerning for me.”
Today, nearly two years after COVID-19 emerged, Landon sees the world continuing to ride out the pandemic in waves.
“Now that we know what we need to do in order to prevent the spread of this disease, we can do more of those things. I think we’ll be able to stretch out the lulls in between the waves and maybe make the waves less intense.”
“[ELCA churches] have, traditionally, a dedication to community, to doing what’s best and what’s right, even when it’s difficult to do.”
The first and biggest mistake of the pandemic, in Landon’s perspective, was the world’s inability to contain the virus. But in the U.S., a close second was lack of discourse regarding the nation’s values.
“We’re now looking to politicians to interpret science, and the problem with calling stuff ‘anti-science’ or ‘pro-science’ is there are multiple kinds of science: social science, medical science, mental health—and they’re all competing. Kids need to go to school for mental health, but they can’t go to school, because it’s not good for their [physical] health. I think people want to be able to choose their values. … [But] we never had any public discourse about what we’re going to prioritize.”
Landon said her values stem from growing up as a member of Bethany Lutheran Church in Crystal Lake, Ill.
“[Churches] have, traditionally—at least, in my experience of being ELCA Lutheran—a dedication to community, to doing what’s best and what’s right, even when it’s difficult to do,” she said. “Community matters; we care for our brother; you love your neighbor as yourself; making a small sacrifice for someone else is valuable, is meaningful. That’s not saying they need to lay down their life for another, that’s a different expectation. I’m saying it’s not too much to ask someone to wear a mask to protect someone else.”
Where we’ve been
In March and April 2020, 43 governors issued stay-at-home orders, mandating that residents stay put and nonessential businesses close.
Many congregations shuttered their doors then as well. A few never reopened, though they likely would have closed regardless of the pandemic, said John Weit, ELCA executive for worship.
Congregants waited for answers, and they came in myriad ways.
“At the point [of] the pandemic when we started having to be not in person, congregations reacted quickly, and therefore reacted very differently,” Weit said. “Everybody was … fending for themselves. But it also meant we learned very quickly from many different experiments happening.”
In rural South Dakota, in-person worship services came to a halt, said Erik Scott, who served as congregational president of Grand Valley Lutheran Church in Canton, S.D., when COVID-19 began. “We never missed a worship,” he said. “We started out with just doing Facebook Live right away. [Lance Lindgren, then pastor of Grand Valley] would come down every Sunday morning during our normal worship time [to record a service].”
Many congregations reacted similarly, quickly figuring out how to livestream a worship service, whether it was a live broadcast from the church or a rostered minister using Zoom or another platform from a cellphone in their living room.
“The technology of livestreaming and using Zoom to gather fully online is something the church will take well into the future.”
“That probably became the most prolific way folks gathered digitally,” Weit said. “The technology of livestreaming and using Zoom to gather fully online is something the church will take well into the future. Digital and online worship is not going away. I think it’s going to be a major complement to gathering in person.”
To fill in the gaps, for 16 months the ELCA worship team provided a weekly “Worship in the Home” blog post, including a lectionary, a set of prayers, readings and a reflection. “[It was meant as] encouragement to worship at home, especially at the worst times of the pandemic,” Weit said.
As time went on and states carried varied mandates for in-person gatherings, churches quickly brainstormed the safest ways to host in-person gatherings. The “drive-in church” model became popular, as congregants parked in their church parking lot, tuned in to an affiliated FM radio station and listened to the service as they “sat”—semi-together—for worship.
Some, like Grand Valley, even offered worshipers drive-thru communion.
“There was a sense of community in that you could see each other, but you couldn’t interact with each other,” Weit said, noting that some congregations, such as Holy Cross Lutheran in Libertyville, Ill., still host drive-in services.
In November 2020, the tight-knit congregation at Grand Valley suffered a huge loss—Lindgren’s death from COVID-19. “That was a tough deal because he was such a wonderful pastor,” Scott said. “We had confirmation, and the following week he was in the hospital, and three days later he passed away.”
What we lost
Chris Kasler, a funeral director at Sherman’s Flatbush Memorial Chapel in Brooklyn, N.Y., has seen more than his share of COVID-related deaths. “We were the first ones to get hit with the large volume of deaths,” said Kasler, a member of Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Brooklyn.
Pre-pandemic, a normal week at the funeral home meant roughly 40 funerals in 30 days, he said. At the beginning of April 2020, he and his colleagues prepared 402 funerals in six weeks—95% of which were for COVID-related deaths.
Then they had to start turning people away. “We were making arrangements over the telephone. We were turning down a lot of people. People were calling every funeral home they could, and everyone was turning them away.”
The death counts dropped off toward the end of May 2020, Kasler said, but cremations were backed up six to eight weeks. Because Sherman’s is a Jewish funeral home, bodies could not be embalmed. An extra refrigerator was set up in the garden. It still wasn’t enough.
“People didn’t have the opportunity to pay their respects; people couldn’t give others the emotional support people need at funerals. The importance of a wake—for some people, it’s important for closure.”
The last 21 months weigh heavily on “the forgotten essential worker.”
The normalcy everyone craved never came. Kasler still sprays his feet with alcohol before entering his house every evening, because he never knows if he’s picked up the virus from work.
“[Things] didn’t go back to normal,” he said. “It went back to a minimal height, but in October , things picked up again. We’ve been doing about 100 funerals a month—still 60 more than normal—for probably 10 months straight.”
The last 21 months weigh heavily on “the forgotten essential worker,” he said. Kasler believes everyone in his industry has been affected by post-traumatic stress disorder.
If essential workers are weary, so are rostered ministers—not from too many bodies but from too few.
“As worship leaders—pastors, deacons and others in worship positions—we all find our energy when we lead worship when there are people present,” said Weit, a deacon. “It’s hard to bring the same energy to a computer screen [rather] than a room full of people who are immediately projecting that energy back to you.”
Congregations also suffered additional losses: youth lost their confirmation classes; homebound people lost their pastoral visits; and congregations as a whole lost much of their ability to minister to people, who needed help more than ever.
What we gained
Despite the many losses to COVID, there were gains as well.
Grand Valley is a 127-year-old congregation made up mostly of farming families. Aside from pine trees and a cemetery off to the side, the small church building is surrounded by cornfields.
Pre-pandemic, about 45 people attended every week, Scott said. But when the church started using Facebook Live to broadcast its worship services, the statistics provided by the social media giant astounded him. Each week between 150 and 250 people were watching the service from beginning to end. There were also roughly 7,000 views from those who started the video but didn’t watch it to completion.
The church gained not only viewers but supporters. Once Grand Valley stopped meeting in person, the church removed collecting offerings from the order of worship. “There wasn’t anybody there, right?” he said. “So it didn’t seem like the right thing to do. Should we talk about it on Facebook? Tell them to mail in their offerings? We decided no. Even when we moved outside and did drive-in worship, we still didn’t do offerings.”
“Our giving not only grew but grew substantially during that time.”
Scott said it was “neat to see” what happened next.
“One of the things we were terribly worried about was, financially, how are we going to make it through this time? Our giving not only grew but grew substantially during that time,” he said.
In fact, the church was able to pay off its mortgage and build a cushion for the future.
“We learned—as leadership and as a congregation—if we continue to do things for the right reasons, not be selfish and not worry about ourselves, the Lord will just kind of take care of you, and that’s just how it worked,” he said.
What we can do
As time has passed, ELCA congregations have regained many things they had lost. Many ministries have reopened, and others have gained traction with new tweaks made due to COVID restrictions.
Grand Valley has long hosted a soup-and-pie supper to support Love in the Name of Christ (“Love INC”) of Greater Canton, a clearinghouse of sorts for congregations in the city that want to assist people with rent, food, housing and utilities.
Last year, Grand Valley refused to drop the fundraiser and instead held a drive-thru supper, asking patrons to call in advance with their order and receive a pickup time. The event was a big success, said Shelly Gehring, installed as pastor of Grand Valley in July, and it spurred the congregation to offer a hybrid event this year. Patrons could either dine in or call ahead and drive through.
“The thing about it is, the need people have for assistance didn’t go away because of COVID, and we still need to provide our support,” Gehring said. “This congregation was very concerned. It’s one of their biggest fundraisers to be able to support Love INC. If they didn’t do this fundraiser somehow, what would happen?
“I think it is just wonderful to watch, to be an observer of God’s work in the world in the midst of unprecedented times, because God is working in some great and amazing and new ways that wouldn’t have happened if COVID hadn’t been part of our reality.”
“God is working in some great and amazing and new ways that wouldn’t have happened if COVID hadn’t been part of our reality.”
The pandemic also forced the ELCA to work through the deeper theological pieces of the “digital-meeting puzzle,” said Weit, including what it means to be “together” in worship related to the sacraments of communion and baptism.
“We’re not all of one mind on that in the church,” he said. “That’s a yearslong conversation, not a weekslong conversation. It will take the church some time to really discern what will happen in the future.”
For Landon, prayer is what she can do, and she has a personal rule: she doesn’t pray for things in which she can influence the outcome. Instead of praying for a good grade, for example, she studied for a test.
“I think I had more fervent and deeply felt prayers around this pandemic than anything else because I couldn’t influence the outcome,” she said. “I can’t make everything OK on my own, and it was clear we didn’t have it figured out. And that strengthened my faith, that we needed more guidance and intervention.”
Most of the time, Landon prays for guidance so she doesn’t make a decision that could harm people. But she also prays for understanding—from everyone.
“I pray for God to show people a little spark of letting go of their own concerns long enough to put their mask on, stand 6 feet away when you’re supposed to, to not go to work when you’re sick and to get the vaccine,” she said. “I pray for people’s minds to know that that matters, to know that you are part of that chain of humanity, and we can’t be alone, that there is no way for us to live isolated. Everything we do affects everyone else. Then the pandemic will go away.”