Last summer, the national leadership of the Unitarian Universalist Association weighed the long-term impact of the pandemic and encouraged congregations to keep their buildings closed for a year.
“That seemed bold at the time,” said the Rev. Pam Wat, senior minister of First Unitarian Church in Brandywine Hundred. “Now it doesn’t. They were right.”
The local church, which traces its history back to 1866 and its Sharpley building to 1960, has decided to keep its building closed until at least June 30 for most activities and groups.
It still sounds like a bold stance. A search of websites of several North Wilmington houses of worship showed none that have announced a decision so far into the future.
“We want to send in part a clear message that safety is important,” Wat explained, and leaders of the congregation wanted to improve their digital offerings rather than devote time and energy toggling among open, closed and hybrid scenarios.
“We want to improve these avenues of connection, engagement, hope and inspiration at a time we need them more than ever,” Wat said.
So it is live-streaming its service at 10:30 a.m. Sundays.
It has converted as many of its 60 groups as possible to Zoom.
It has pivoted its food pantry to grocery store cards.
And Wat is conducting her pastoral support by phone, a move that especially helps those less technically savvy among the 350 adults who are members of the congregation.
Some essential support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, have been cleared to physically meet, with new protocols that are typical of indoor gatherings everywhere, like hand sanitizer, bigger rooms being used and chairs removed to encourage social distancing.
The church has also been opened for a few small weddings and memorials.
Hosting weddings and memorials virtually has allowed more people to mark the occasions. “Attendance is very high, and we’re reconnecting with people we haven’t seen in awhile,” she said. “We are grateful about technology.” After formal rites, they open up the Zoom room to participants to informally chat.
Members were at first disappointed but are now supportive of the physical closure and the move to make as much as possible virtual, she said.
Some members facing hardships have reduced their pledges, but others, such as those not spending money on travel, have increased them. Financially, “we’re even,” she said.