‘Churches will stay empty until it's safe’: Martin Co. pastor adjusts ministry amid coronavirus

A man preaches at the front of an empty church.
The Rev. John Henry records a sermon on Thursday in an empty sanctuary so that members can have access to messages during the COVID-19 pandemic. Henry is creating sermon in light of Holy Week, starting off with Palm Sunday. The church is found in Martin County, which has the highest per capita of positive cases in Minnesota.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

The wooden pews of St. James Lutheran Church in the tiny town of Northrop sat empty Friday as the Rev. John Henry raised his hands and prayed for the health of his congregation.

A bit of sunlight filtered through the stained-glass windows on both sides of the sanctuary and two small bunches of palm branches were arranged behind the altar. The church would typically be filled to capacity during services like this, but the vacant pews exaggerated the silence of the empty sanctuary.

“Give us faith ... to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go,” Henry prayed.

Gary Luhmann recorded St. James’ Palm Sunday service through cameras installed in the church’s ceiling Friday. He passed the footage along to fellow parishioner Hayley Luther, who would edit and post it to the church’s Facebook page over the weekend.

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Many Christian churches across Minnesota entered their holiest week of the year Sunday, typically a busy time in the liturgical calendar that stretches from Palm Sunday to Good Friday to Easter Sunday and beyond.

But this year, Holy Week comes almost exactly a month after Minnesota confirmed its first case of COVID-19, and several weeks into subsequent social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders. For St. James and many congregations, a time of reunion has become a time of separation.

“We’re used to understanding who we are as a church and as a congregation by gathering around, by hearing [the] Word together, and by culminating that experience of hearing that gospel ... in receiving Holy Communion,” Henry said. “And we haven’t been able to do that.”

Northrop, Minn.

It’s been a long, tiring few weeks in Northrop, a small rural town of about 230 people just north of Fairmont in southern Minnesota’s Martin County.

For Henry, that all started with one, then a cascade, of text messages and phone calls. He learned, one by one, that nine members of his congregation — from the combined parishes of Zion Lutheran Church in Fraser and St. James in Northrop — had tested positive for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the highly contagious novel coronavirus.

Martin County officials have said they don’t know a lot about how the coronavirus has spread through the region. As of Monday, the county still had the highest number of confirmed cases per capita in the state.

Local officials say they think those cases are primarily the result of community transmission, which happens when a person is infected with the highly contagious virus, but can’t pinpoint how or when they picked it up.

Moving services online

As the daily numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases rise and people across the state enter into their second week of a statewide stay-at-home order, the typically quiet town of Northrop has gotten even quieter.

It’s the kind of place, residents say, where in normal times it’s unlikely to see two cars at the same intersection at the same time — but now, even the playgrounds are eerily still.

A woman wearing a pink hoodie.
Heidi Koeritz is the music director for St. James Lutheran and has depended on the church community to get her through the pandemic.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

The noise is what Heidi Koeritz, who has lived in Northrop for almost four decades, misses the most.

“I always whine about how noisy our gym was,” Koeritz said. “It’s like being in an empty grain bin [now] — and I would give anything to plug my ears in that gym again.”

Koeritz is the music director for the parish and the school next door. The past few weeks, she said, have been tough.

“You want to shake your fist at the sky and ask God, ‘why?’” she said. “God, are you sure you know what you’re doing? But I don’t find my faith faltering. I don’t find it weakening, actually, I find it all being strengthened. Yes, I won’t be able to attend church physically, but I’ll find other ways.”

The last month has been a blur for St. James’ pastor, too.

As the virus spread and public health officials urged Minnesotans to distance themselves from each other, Henry sought guidance from fellow church leaders about how to minister to his community from afar. He contacted the local sheriff for additional advice on how to work through executive orders Gov. Tim Walz had enacted, closing schools and restricting gatherings.

He couldn’t do it alone, he said — but parishioners and volunteers were ready to find ways to help him make church happen, despite the circumstances.

He now ministers to both parishes through videos posted on Facebook, with the help of Luhmann and Luther.

The church’s Facebook page was created out of another challenging time: St. James’ original church building burned down not long after Easter four years ago. Luther created the page as a way to communicate with members, families and past members who had scattered across the country.

Moving services online has helped parishioners find some comfort amid the uncertainty of this moment.

“The timing was meant to be — because, in a way, I had a practice run on how all of this worked,” Luther said. “I also didn’t have to create something while panicking or rushing. Since the virus, Pastor [Henry] and I have switched focus to how we can improve what we’re doing and how we can reach those that aren’t being reached by Facebook.”

Every week, Luther and other volunteers burn CDs and DVDs of the service to be delivered to members who don’t have internet access. Church elders have started calling members for mental health checks, and to let them know that services are being held online.

They’re reaching out to the church’s organists and other musicians, who are making recordings from home, which Luther will include in this week’s videos. It’s allowed the church to continue to incorporate music in its services, even from a distance.

“For Palm Sunday, we had a prelude, hymn and postlude,” Luther said. “So, it’s figuring out how to make services as complete and normal as possible with the fewest amount of people.”

The last two Sunday services were on Facebook Live, and members were able to see each other as they watched, and send messages to one another in real time. Luther said she hoped it helped the congregation feel less isolated and more like a community.

A Lutheran service book in a church.
The Rev. John Henry finishes recording his Palm Sunday sermon on Thursday to be streamed via Facebook for his parishioners.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

Ministry at a distance

Admittedly, the new arrangement is not ideal. As a pastor, Henry said he would prefer to minister to his congregation in person, rather than offering prayers over the phone. He’s new to the parish — he took the helm in January — and is still getting to know its community and its rhythms.

But even at a distance, he’s busier than ever.

He’s comforted congregation members who’ve tested positive for the virus, and others who decided to self-isolate.

“He was very calm and reassuring and present,” said Annette Bremer, one congregation member who, along with her husband, Larry, tested positive for COVID-19 last month. “We knew he was available to us as needed. Pastor Henry stayed in touch by phone, prayed with me. It was very comforting.”

The Bremers have since recovered, and Annette Bremer is now returning to work.

Henry has tried to navigate congregants’ questions about when the church can be together again. But he can’t answer that. He’s living the uncertainty, too. And it’s uncomfortable.

“I have finally admitted to myself [that] I do not know when things will go back toward any semblance of normal,” Henry said. “This will be a Holy Week and an Easter like none in living memory. The churches will be empty and they will stay empty until it is safe again to fill them.”

A man sitting in a pew.
The Rev. John Henry started as the new pastor of St. James Lutheran Church in Northrop in January. He now has to lead his parishes virtually.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

And while few things are certain, Henry said he’s turned to the promise of his faith, which keeps him hopeful.

“Now is the time when we need to be reminding each other of that more than ever — and that’s not exactly an answer,” he said.

“But maybe, we can live without having answers right now, because we have these promises.”

Henry has been working with church elders to help the congregation maintain a sense of community for as long as this period of isolation continues. The church’s Easter service next Sunday will be streamed live on Facebook.

And while he would typically be visiting parishioners in nursing homes or hospitals, he’s had to shift many of those visits to phone calls.

“Up until now, [that] has never been a favorite pastoral tool of mine,” he said. “But now it has to be. So, calling people as a pastoral visit over the phone has been part of the new emerging normal.”

Part of that new normal is grieving remotely, too. Henry has held two funerals since the coronavirus outbreak hit Minnesota — one of them for a victim of the virus itself.

“In a sense, all the essentials are there, and nothing has changed,” he said, “but I suppose in another sense, everything’s changed.”

He’s already planning for the day — whenever it might be — when the congregation is back in the sanctuary, just off Northrop’s Main Street, celebrating in person.

“We’re going to celebrate that death doesn’t define us,” he said. “We’re going to celebrate the promise of a better tomorrow of resurrection. We’re going to celebrate that life emerges again after we step out from under the shadow of death. We’re going to remind ourselves that we know how this story ends.”

Correction (April 7, 2020): An earlier version of this story included a photo caption that misspelled Heidi Koeritz's name. The story has been updated.