SEMINOLE — The sanctuary was dark and a trifle too warm for comfort as Pastor Avis Smith walked through the room that could seat 600 worshipers at any given time.
Of course, the sanctuary at Seminole United Methodist Church has been empty of congregants for the last 12 weeks, as the country has been in varying degrees of quarantine since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year.
Faced with a flock that could she could no longer shepherd in person, Smith said she was forced to turn to 21st century technology.
“We are creatures of habit; we like to congregate,” Smith said. “For the first several weeks we struggled. It was a challenge for me. I do social media, but I’m not someone who likes to be in front of the camera.”
Smith said she and her staff spent weeks researching how to move worship services to a digital platform, finally deciding that Facebook was the perfect option.
“Ministry is not a solo act. We now feel that we are a part of a greater body,” Smith said, adding that church services have been viewed by people from all across the country.
“Coronavirus pushed us beyond our state of comfort to the point we understand we have to reach people outside of our walls,” she said.
Smith, who has been the pastor at the church since November of 2018, said the use of social media has transformed how she thinks about ministry.
“Social media has really been an asset for us,” she said. “We’ve connected with people … folks that have been members or who have family members here — they follow us on social media.
“Social media is the way to go,” she continued.
For the more conventional members of her congregation, Smith said the sanctuary doors will soon be open for traditional services.
“Tentatively right now, we are thinking about (opening) the first Sunday in July,” she said. “But as we have conversations … that may change. If the plan doesn’t fall into place, we’re OK with it.”
Smith said she and her staff will put protocols in place to keep congregants as safe as possible, including sanitation stations, virtual bulletins, and limited egress points.
For those congregants who are uncomfortable with returning to in-person services, Smith said online services through Facebook would still be available.
“It’s surprises me that we have a lot of our elderly members who are on Facebook,” she said. “I just took it for granted that social media was for a young population.”
It’s not just coronavirus the world is facing, Smith said, remarking on the recent protests that have put a spotlight on racism in America.
Smith, an African American, said her post to the Seminole church is the first time she has pastored to a congregation not of her own race.
“This unrest is really frustrating for me,” she said. “It’s hard for me — not as a black person but just as a person — to know that we are so much at odds with each other. We can’t look at people and respect them for who they are.”
But Smith said the welcome she has felt by her congregation gives her hope for the future.
“For me to be in a cross-racial appointment, my congregation values me, respects me, they encourage me, they pray for me,” she said. “That’s a testament that we can cross a racial barrier.
“We are still one in the eyes of God,” she said.