Okay—so you’ve probably gotten used to seeing that brick wall behind me throughout worship. If not the wall, then, perhaps a garden. Neither of those backgrounds are what I imagined, when I first reached out to Nancy last spring about working at Old South Church as my field placement site. I’d imagined walking as part of the procession of clergy and choir, standing at the pulpit with the organ behind me, and gathering with many of you after each service. Obviously, that was not to be. The pandemic has erected a number of barriers between me and my “ideal experience.” So, like many of you, I’ve had to adjust.
Some of those adjustments have been learning new skills, like ensuring that there’s enough space between my head and the top of the frame on camera. Or being able to look into a camera and not feel awkward or weird about it. I’ve also adjusted to the reality that I won’t have a live audience. Accepting that has been difficult, as so much of ministry is movement, presence, tone, position, etc. I’m learning all of that on a camera, and the only real “live” feedback is what folks say in the chat box. It’s weird. At times, it’s rough. Like many people, I thrive on being in community. So, it’s hard that that physical community must be replaced by a virtual one.
Nonetheless, I have found the virtual community to be just as special as the physical one. The Jazz Coffee and Social Hour has quickly become one of the highlights of my week. It’s a great space to reflect and reset for the week ahead, while also continuing to build relationships with the folks who regularly attend. It’s also given me a lens into the type of community that so many of you have found, or are finding, at Old South Church. It helps explain why, despite so much being different, there are still dozens of people who attend Jazz each week, and why dozens of you attend the community hours on Sundays. In writing all of this, it has become clear that while my “ideal experience” would have never taken place in a virtual world, perhaps it is the experience I needed most. Although it will always be true that the procession and pulpit can’t place online, the other parts of ministry can. There’s still a method to creating authentic presence, hit the right tone, and in the right place that can be transferred from the computer screen to a physical space in front of someone. And something as important as physical community can still be formed in a virtual world. None of our present circumstance may be what any of imagined, but it is our reality, so we should be open to doing old things in new ways, and experiencing new things for exactly what they are.
Thomas Mitchell is Old South's Seminarian, and a 2nd year M.Div Candidate at Harvard Divinity School.