Live Stream, In Person, Holy Space

This blog post was written by Beverly Olsen, Senior Warden at St. Mark’s, Mystic

A month ago, I met with our priest, the Rev. Adam Thomas, to learn how to run the YouTube Live Streaming and OBS (Open Broadcaster Software) so that we can remain virtual even as our church moves back to in-person worship. Two weeks later, sitting next to the altar and hidden behind a TV screen, set to project the week’s readers for the in-person congregation, I felt a little bit like the Wizard of Oz – take no notice of the little woman behind the screen. That day the sanctuary and altar still looked like a recording studio to the in-person congregation – it was hard not to notice the electronics; the audience watching the Live Stream, however, saw no change at all. By the time you are reading this, that will have shifted; the electronics will still be there, but the altar will no longer look like a recording studio. Over the last year, we have all adapted our way of being together and praying, but we have been together often, and we have prayed fervently, sorrowfully, joyfully and with one another. We have learned much.

As senior warden as the world locked down, I was first person to stand in for the congregation on-line, providing responses, reading the prayers, and, in that first couple of weeks on the Facebook live broadcast, I also read the lessons. We had one camera, which we turned from one of us to the other. And back. We soon shifted to YouTube Live because an account wasn’t necessary to join the worship, opening the worship to all who wished to be there. With this and along with most of the churches in America, we brought the church out of the building into the homes of the people.

The longer the pandemic continued, the more the space in the building shifted and changed: the electronics moved to sanctuary and the altar, more cameras and a new computer monitor were added; plexi-glass was set between the priest and the pews as our priest also became our cantor; readers were enlisted, first to read live from home, and then to record the Sunday readings, expanding those who participate in the service – many new – to over 100; and most especially impressive, the choir and friends of the choir recorded the anthems each week – a task of electronic wizardry. (Want to see how it’s done? Watch Leah Thomas explain on this YouTube video: Audio Mixing Choir Anthem.) Last autumn, as we hoped for a return to building, a large TV screen and speaker were added to the sanctuary to project the readings and the anthems to the audience in the building.

During this time, Pastor Adam Thomas built an electronic framework for us to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship and in the prayers. The community was brought together in the chat box, where we greeted one another – the modern equivalent of the passing of the peace, and where we voiced our prayers – and this was our Prayers of the People. We faced one another, each a face in a box with a name – what a blessing. Each person in box listening to another, hearing and over-hearing conversations, and I learned more about many of the folks in the parish than might have happened in the coffee hour. Far away families joined us in worship and during the Zoom Coffee Hour (we got to know our priest’s parents). During these Zoom meetings, we all sat in each other’s living rooms. On Thursday mornings, during Morning Prayer, we began to light candles which could be seen on camera; the backdrop behind the priest shifted to reflect the holy space and the season; we met in studies and family rooms and decks and patios. These images became our holy space.

During all of this, Pastor Adam has run the technology. To do this, he has had to streamline the commands so that he can switch screens, play recordings of the lessons and the anthem, all while he is on camera, leading worship, and singing. He is amazing at multi-tasking! We give thanks daily for his many gifts and his generous use of those gifts.

And when things went awry, he told us to wait a moment, gave a wry grin, and fixed the problem, as we all watched and said a prayer that all could be righted, shouting out on chat that we could all wait. Only once did the electronics fail catastrophically, and even then one camera still worked and continued live streaming.  Living only a half mile a way, I went down to the church, and we reverted to the earliest system of turning the camera back and forth. Thank God I wasn’t in my pajamas that day.

These trials and the troubleshooting has created a system which makes learning to run the Live Stream quite simple; especially since I don’t have to be a priest and musician, too. Working from a script of the service, the tech can switch the camera/audio configuration simply by clicking a single number. The priest can now focus on the breaking of the bread and the prayers and preaching. “It is very different preaching to the people rather than a camera,” says Pastor Adam. Our first service back was emotional; we all choked up a little at that first Alleluia.

For two weeks now I have sat behind the computer screens. Over the last year, Pastor Adam has built a tech script from the week’s bulletin – until recently this script was in his head, and we are trying to create a template for the new ministry – the Worship Tech. This script attempts to let those at home see the worship and feel part of the worship alongside those in the building. I look out over the TV/monitor that hides me from the congregation in the church to check out who is there, recognizing and naming folks I have gotten to know on-line this past year. I read the chats as they appear during the service from the folks on-line, and I have learned to let the folks at home know my name – as it appears as St. Mark’s, Mystic in the chat, and to let them know someone sitting behind the screen and is still listening. Pastor Adam connects to the Live Stream to add the prayers from the chat to the Prayers of the People in the church. As we did in the before times, we ask the folks in the church to offer prayers aloud at the service, but sometimes those prayers still appear in the chat. In June, we will no longer record the readings, and I hope that those who read on screen will feel the call to read in the church.

I have had the gift and privilege to have a front row seat behind the scenes to all this change. As the electronics move off to the side of the sanctuary, as we move the people back into the church, we continue in prayer together wherever we are, hoping that more people are listening to God’s word in these holy spaces. Alleluia!

Interested in learning more about Virtual and In-Person worship at St. Mark’s, Mystic and across ECCT? Join us Thursday, June 3 at 6:30 p.m. via Zoom for our next Faithful Futures: Exploring the In-Person and Digital Space as Church.

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