Echo Park - There is this much to be said for conducting church services online, according to Pastor Frank Wulf at Echo Park United Methodist Church on Alvarado Street: Technically, attendance has about tripled.
“We used to have 32 to 33 people here. Now 100 people are online every week,” Wulf said. “There’s the difficulty of traveling on a Sunday morning, and the lack of parking in the Echo Park area. So people made the decision not to come to worship in person.”
But since services are recorded and posted from Facebook Live, people can now watch from home, and even watch it later.
So there is that.
Forced to shut its doors to parishioners during the pandemic, the 114-year-old church has found new ways to stay connected to its congregation, feed the homeless and mourn the passing of its members.
United Methodist first started live-streaming in mid-March - while also still welcoming congregants into the building. For about two weeks, congregants had a choice of services on the web or in person. But at the end of March, United Methodist went exclusively online. For Bible study and meetings, they began using Zoom.
It’s meant working around the technical problems, such as when the sound goes out, Wulf said. But a problem more particular to the church is the number of older parishioners, who may not have access to the web. For them, Wolf may have to call them on the phone and patch them from there into the services or meetings.
“We’re lucky they even know the Internet exists,” Wulf said.
And then, there are the more common problems of any organization mired in an international crisis. Two members of the church have died from the coronavirus - an elderly woman who was hit during the early wave of fatalities at convalescent hospitals, and a man in his 40s whose cough went from annoying to fatal in a mere couple of weeks, Wulf said.
Fourteen other members of the church have also fallen ill but recovered - most of them from the same extended family, Wulf said. Two members of that family had been deemed essential workers, and had continued working.
Less tragic than these illnesses and fatalities - but nonetheless crucial to the church’s continued existence - is money. Even with a spiritual organization, that which is Caesar’s must eventually be rendered unto Caesar, at least before penalty fees begin accumulating.
Fortunately, monetary pledges from church members have held steady, Wulf said. But church has also largely depended on rental income - from people using the building.
“That’s dropped precipitously,” Pastor Wulf said. "They’ve lived off a PPP loan, he said - but that won’t carry them forever.
“We’re kind of on the edge as it is,” Wulf said.
But in other ways, the church’s work still moves forward. Meals for the homeless (in conjunction with the SELAH Neighborhood Homeless Coalition) are now grab-and-go in the parking lot instead of being a sit-down affair in the church. The shower truck from Urban Alchemy still operates out of the church parking lot.
And the refugee center that the church has been planning for the last year - well, they’re still planning it, Wulf said. They want a health clinic, of course, and a legal clinic to help refugees from places such as Central America and the Philippines work through the tangled immigration system in this country. Now, it’s all got to be done online.
“It’s still happening,” Wulf said, “We just have to figure out how to do it differently.”
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