ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — She was old and frail and hadn’t been able to attend Sunday services for a year.
With COVID-19 shutting down much of the world, including churches, even the slimmest hope that she might one day feel strong enough to make it there was now gone, too.
She figured God would understand.
Pastor Sarah Tevis Townes did, even before the shutdown became official.
“We had heard about the virus when it was still in China and knew we had to prepare,” said Tevis Townes, in her seventh year as pastor of the Church of the Good Shepherd in northeast Albuquerque.
A lot of prescience, that.
But perhaps that isn’t surprising coming from a ministry that had the foresight in 1988 to build its church off Paseo del Norte and Tramway NE when the now-booming Sandia foothills nearby were not much more than sweeping swaths of sagebrush and sand.
Before the shutdown, Tevis Townes began taking videos of the church and its surroundings. She started working on sermons and recording them at different appropriate locations – a sermon on grief, for example, was filmed at a cemetery.
She learned how to use green screens to switch up backdrops for her sermons and Zoom, a videoconferencing app that lets participants hear and see each other.
Members of the church’s musical ministry began videotaping performances, using an app called Acapella to record each of their tracks and syncing them together.
And Tevis Townes had one more resource to bring her congregation together when getting together was no longer possible – though she didn’t realize the power of that resource at the time.
That resource’s name is Molly.
That’s Tevis Towne’s service dog. In March, the pastor started filming funny and occasionally educational bits featuring her dog and posting them on TikTok, an app for short videos.
The Moments with Molly videos went viral, attracting a million viewers in three weeks and initiating conversations from fans around the country.
“When people comment, I comment back, and a connection is formed,” she said. “Many of them are kids from all over the world. They start telling me about their lives, and I learn that some of them are really struggling with their own disabilities, with being closeted, with feeling safe, with just needing someone to talk to.”
Tevis Townes, whose voice is soothing and soft and whose compassion and openness easily flow through phones lines and online, seems the perfect person to talk to.
Sometimes, those who came for the dog stayed for the church.
“Our church is open and affirming and many of our members are LGBTQ,” said Kay Main, a church member.
Others came for the beautiful backdrop of the Sandias, visible in many of the videos and the church website.
“It’s a conversation starter,” Tevis Townes said. “And sometimes that leads to a desire to connect with the church, to find some spirituality and love in these strange times.”
Because of those connections, this bricks and mortar church with about 200 members before the COVID-19 shutdown saw its flock dramatically increase to thousands online from across the country.
“It was completely unexpected,” Tevis Townes said. “We have reached people with our online presence that we otherwise might have never served.”
Good Shepherd runs two Sunday services online, plus Sunday school for children, a virtual coffee hour, Bible study, a crafting hour (these days they’re sewing face masks) and time for smaller group chats.
The virtual church has been such a fruitful experience that Tevis Towne said she plans to continue the online offerings even after Good Shepherd opens its doors again once the pandemic safely passes.
“It’s a different feeling, but there is still the emphasis on connection, and I would argue that we are even more connected than we’ve ever been,” she said. “And it’s beautiful.”
Among those who are coming to church via Zoom, she said, is a couple isolated in a mobile home along the Colorado River, her brother’s family in Durango with special needs children whose disabilities make it hard for them to sit quietly through sermons, several residents of local locked-down assisted living facilities, people with social anxiety even in pandemic-free times, people looking for a spiritual connection but dubious of setting foot in a strange, new church.
And, yes, even the elderly woman who hasn’t been able to attend church for a year is there, too.
“The nice thing about using Zoom is seeing everybody’s faces, all your friends,” Tevis Townes said.
It is, she said, physical distancing, not social distancing. It is the Holy Spirit working in unusual ways in unusual times. It is connection in a time of great disconnect. It is church.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.