I have always loved the idea of going to church in my pajamas. My mom would always dispute this, dressing me up in the big dress, white ruffled socks and patent leather shoes every Sunday. My hair would be yanked back into puffs until I had a headache and I would sit in the church pews struggling to stay awake. These are my earliest memories of church, but young children nowadays are experiencing something completely different. They can stay in their pajamas and watch church services through livestreams. This is one of the ways that churches have been staying up and running in the midst of a worldwide pandemic.
Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church in Miami is the church home of 3,000 members. Their sanctuary for worship, which usually holds 1,700 people, is now empty due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has shut their church down. Now, live streamed services have become the new normal.
“It has forced us to have a virtual platform,” Pastor Bruce Riley said. “We didn't have a virtual platform beforehand. If you wanted to experience church, you had to come to church. Now that we started this virtual church, we have a whole ‘nother group of people following that aren't even able to make it to the church.”
Changes have been made to accommodate this shift to what I like to call ‘Bedside Baptist’ services. Their choir is now a small praise team with a group of about nine singers. Sweet Home has up to 400 viewers worldwide every Sunday attending their live stream services. The worldwide viewers give the church a broader outreach and platform to connect to media. Through this lens, they have been learning how to build engagement and are improving with each day. As their impact virtually grows, however, Sweet Home recognizes it will become harder to stay in sync with the community that they so dearly miss. The best way that they have remained connected to the community is through Zoom with young adult meetings and bible study.
UM students are quite familiar with Sweet Home. There was a shuttle, organized by student Reina Mitchom, taking students from UM to the church’s location on Sundays. This was a fairly popular experience among Black students that helped students worship in the comfort of a church experience that felt safe to them. However, this collaboration has come to an end due to the pandemic, unfortunately. Pastor Bruce says that he is hopeful to rebuild this relationship with UM students once again.
If Black students aren’t going to Sweet Home anymore, where are they going? Abigail Adeleke, SG president and senior journalism major, says that she has continued to attend her church home VOUS in Miami.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, I had a hard time connecting religiously,” said Adeleke. “Churches were closed and I missed the feeling of worshiping with other people. My church was able to pivot to an online format quickly after. Through Zoom rooms, Facebook watch parties, and Youtube I was able to connect with my church family outside of Miami.”
Adeleke also helped to organize in-person socially distant watch parties with other students that watch the service. “We have the ability to connect almost like we are fully in-person. My crew (bible study group) connects our computer to a TV and speaker right outside of the Architecture school on-campus. It's an amazing experience and has helped me get used to connecting with God again.” Through this experience, she says she has leaned on God more than ever in the midst of all of the turbulence.
In these troubling times, Pastor Bruce has also been maintaining faith in the midst of so much grief in the world right now: “I always tell people—the heart that you have for God determines how well you're able to handle life’s circumstances… I know God enough to believe that this pandemic won’t just break me down.”
If you would like to attend a service at Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church, you can visit this link to watch: https://www.sweethome.org. You can catch them Sunday mornings at 10 a.m. and Wednesday Bible Study on Wednesdays at 7 p.m.
REPORTER: Jayda Graham
THE CITY, Gravity Magazine, 2020