This story also appears on The Weekly Challenger, the most comprehensive news source to the African-American communities of Tampa Bay.
By Annalise Anderson, Kristen Boehm, Julia Gennocro, Aliah Farley, Jessica Stewart, Malique Ferrette and Hannah Simpson
Like many aspects of daily life, the COVID-19 pandemic has altered the way congregations in Midtown gather, worship and nurture their spirituality. Following CDC guidelines, some parishioners have returned to socially distanced services in familiar sanctuaries while others are hearing the word from their cars in drive-in like worship. And still, others are watching live-streamed services from home. While similar in many ways, each church has its own personality, driven by music, pastoral leadership and the congregation.
There are dozens of churches in Midtown, some of them historic and grand. Others have opened more recently and hold services in small storefront spaces in strip malls. On March 7, journalism students in the Neighborhood News Bureau class at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg campus, attended services at seven Midtown churches. The vignettes they have written provide a glimpse into a typical Sunday morning there, made atypical by the pandemic. Despite that, resourceful church leaders have pivoted to continue leading the way forward.
Pinellas Community Church: In Masks, They Gathered Together
Pinellas Community Church showed no signs of slowing down just before the 9 a.m. service started. Cars filled the grassy parking lot, masked church staff pleasantly greeted guests and the surprisingly large congregation filed into a socially distanced space of worship.
A small crowd grew around a concession window for complimentary hot coffee or tea to sip on during the hour-long service. Some returning and first-time PCC members mingled while masked in the sunlit courtyard.
Temperatures were checked at the door, where automatic sanitizer dispensers stood at the ready. Churchgoers were required to wear face masks upon entry; once seated, they were permitted to remove them.
Chairs were divided into sets of twos and fours, with each set placed six feet apart from the next. Most families occupied their respective sets, but some individuals shared seating areas due to the size of the congregation that morning.
Jeff Countryman, PCC’s worship experience pastor, walked the sanctuary, fist bumping returning members and introducing himself to new faces.
The service began promptly. High-tech cameras on tripods sat at the back of the room, towering over the chairs and capturing every moment for those attending Sunday service virtually.
Both in-person and virtual congregations were reminded that the day’s sermon was available for read-along via the official PCC mobile app. Prayer requests and offerings to the church were also available through the app.
Then, the room went dark and a multi-piece band played energetic modern worship music. Colored lights, smoke machines and an animated background made for lively praise as members of the congregation sang, swayed and stood with palms to the sky.
Once the room was filled with a heightened energy, Lead Pastor Mark Canfield took to the stage to deliver the sermon. Between colloquial anecdotes, Canfield’s talking points included “practicing Jesus’s way,” learning to silence life’s noise and caring for one’s spiritual health in 2021.
At the end of Canfield’s sermon, PCC staff dismissed the seated congregation by sections to avoid unsafe crowding. Visitors wished a blessed week ahead and were welcomed to return again next Sunday.
— Annalise Anderson
St. Mark’s Missionary Baptist Church: Finding the Strength to Start Over
It was a new day, the first Sunday in a new month. An opportunity for change, for choices and for starting over.
It began not in the pews, but in the parking lot.
At 9 a.m., the Rev. Pastor Brian K. Brown stood outside the front doors of St. Mark’s Missionary Baptist Church. He held a microphone and spoke to his gathered congregation. Some were able to join him physically, parked in their cars, socially-distanced and safe. About 200 more were watching online.
Brown smiled as he led everyone through communion. St. Mark’s staff of deacons, dressed sharply in suits, masks and gloves, handed prepackaged communion cups (including wafers) out to the folks who were attending in their cars. Brown invited everyone to partake together.
“Can we say amen or blow the horn?”
Like voices rising up, horns echoed around the lot.
Around 11 a.m., the Sunday service began inside the church. Much fewer were in attendance live, but nearly 100 more were watching online. On this first Sunday, people greeted each other in the chat of the YouTube livestream.
“Good morning, family.”
“Good morning again my beautiful St. Mark Family. It is a blessing to virtually worship with you today.”
St. Mark’s Praise Team, which consisted of a three-woman choir accompanied by live piano and drums, stirred up scattered clapping and hollers from the few in live attendance, and ‘hallelujahs’ and emoji from the chat. Brown’s head bobbed to the beat in the background, just visible from where he sat behind his pulpit.
When Brown stood and delivered his word for the St. Mark’s family that day, he was continuing a series of sermons titled “Starting Over.”
He acknowledged that everyone listening has had a start-over this past year. He spoke of how in Exodus, the Israelites were given the choice between fear and faith. He encouraged his listeners to choose faith, to embrace change and to look for the sweetness in every day.
“The bitterness called COVID-19 has made things very distasteful to us,” Brown said.
Among the amens in the chat, one message read, “I thank God for changing me from sour to sweet. Thanks, Pastor Brown, for a reminder message this morning.”
— Kristen Boehm
Historic Bethel AME Church: “You’ve Got The Power”
The singing voices of two men rang through the computer speakers of the more than 260 people who remotely attended Historic Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church’s Sunday service through Facebook Live.
At 9:16 a.m., the camera flashed on. Distanced across the room from each other, Gregory Porter and Ryan Kendrick led the morning worship on the piano, organ and drums.
Behind them sat three rows of red chairs where a vibrant choir once sang in union.
The video’s comment section was lively as the virtual churchgoers left warm welcomes and noted lyrics to the hymns that played as their way of singing along.
“Good morning Rev. Irby, Bethel family and friends,” Lolita Brown commented.
“Good Morning Historic Bethel,” the Rev. Dr. Patricia Smith Wallace wrote.
At 9:30 a.m., the Rev. Kenneth Irby entered the frame. He carefully removed his face mask before greeting the few in live attendance and those watching at home.
After a brief introduction and a few hymns, Irby stepped out of the frame and the Rev. Dr. Kevin Wardlaw, Alba Osborne and Linnell Baker each entered to deliver invocation prayers and readings from the Bible.
Irby’s sermon, “You’ve Got the Power,” centered around the importance of COVID-19 vaccinations, encouraging members of Historic Bethel AME to get vaccinated themselves.
“I’m telling everybody who will listen ‘take the shot,’ and if that doesn’t work for you, get the shot,” Irby said.
“It is a step of affirmation that you do have some authority, some power over your destiny. You have the power to preserve your health and to protect your life and the lives of so many others.”
The comment section flooded with “amens” and “hallelujahs” in response.
Irby moved on to talk about how “there is power in the unity of the community” and that it is especially present in Pinellas County.
He stated that people across all denominations have banded together under the common goal of getting community members vaccinated.
— Julia Gennocro
St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church: Innovation Mixed with Tradition
St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Pinellas County’s oldest church, has turned to YouTube in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic to provide its congregation with safe worship.
Every Sunday, following the live recorded service, St. Bartholomew posts to their YouTube channel, giving members the chance to find salvation from the safety of home. The weekly videos have created a digital haven that leaves those tuning in feeling transported and reconnected to their spiritual community.
Opening with a long shot down the center aisle, the empty but brightly lit, heart pine-constructed nave filled the online browser as if to welcome virtual viewers to find their seat within the pews. The church bells tolled, and the service commenced cutting to a closer view from the third pew. The camera was strategically placed behind members to cultivate an immersed experience.
The background echo of the socially distanced, masked congregation reciting the chosen readings in unison transformed personal living rooms into an intimate sermon. Now focused directly on Father William Burkett as he stood behind a tall sheet of plexiglass to protect those attending in person, he preached his Lent service.
“This has been a great idea. Informative and nicely done,” commented Edie and Jay Racine on YouTube.
Alongside sermons, a weekly hymn was posted by organist and choirmaster Anita Bona, giving an in-depth explanation on the history and importance of each song. Following the brief introduction, Bona played the instrumental adoration in the empty church with the organ’s majestic harmonies cascading through the church’s Florida Gothic style arches.
Beyond taking an innovative approach to Sunday service, St. Bartholomew’s has continued to serve the local community during the pandemic with its food bank and thrift store.
— Aliah Farley
Circle of Faith: Connecting Through Love
The service at Circle of Faith began at 9:30 a.m. with peaceful hymns and a powerful message. Lead pastor Adam Gray spoke about the importance of unity within our communities and how we can transform change.
The Circle of Faith ministry promises to be, “a welcoming, affirming, diverse, progressive, nonjudgmental community of Christian discipleship and Service.” Located in the heart of Midtown, Circle of Faith aims to connect the community through love.
Gray spoke that morning as he usually would, preaching to those who attended in person the same to those online. His message rang true for unity, “the society of god,” as he put it, is how we all relate to one another, no matter where they were attending from.
“I have here flour, sugar, and water, all the ingredients to make bread– but they will never become bread until action is taken by the yeast,” he said, “the intentional action of adding yeast can create a beautiful change, a transformation from three separate ingredients into one delicious bread.”
His words brought out the heart of the Circle of Faith. “As separate members of a community, man or woman, gay or straight, black or white, doctor or GED student, these people would not typically mix in a society, but here they do,” he said.
He encouraged all walks of life to be the yeast, to work together with intent, so that as a society, we can stop separating one another and transform. Gray said, “we all need to catch this vision of making bread, then we will have the potential for all of our relationships to be changed.”
The service ran flawlessly, from the beautiful hymns sung to the extended prayers made for those in need, both virtually and present. The Circle of Faith invites people to come together on Sunday mornings, as they are, however they feel comfortable.
— Jessica Stewart
Pentecostal Temple Church of God in Christ: “A Fresh Start”
At first glance, all seemed more normal than not as the Pentecostal Temple Church of God in Christ service was live streamed and watched from the comfort of a TV screen at home.
The program, despite being carried out digitally, made for an easy transition into worship led by Elder Kieth Ash and then into the “word” preached by Pastor William E. Anderson.
Skepticism became a reassured comfort as the mood was set through the fervent affirmations of the praise team that “it’s shifting.” This, a reference to anything that may be going wrong in life right now. Ash asserted that, “God has given us the power to speak to mountains and tell them to move,” as he went on to pray and declare this change.
One comment on the Facebook live feed read, “late night in the midnight hour. God’s gonna work in our favor!” Another; “Hallelujah thank you Lord!” And yet another; “Victory is mine!” Despite their attendance as virtual, people were moved. Worship was charged and lively.
Those presenting, singing or praying did not wear masks as they were socially distanced however, everso often other members who appeared on screen did have masks or facial coverings.
With a focus on the subject of “a fresh start,” Anderson reflected on a gentleman he met earlier in the week whose mask was dirty, and who needed food and complained that he had no money. Though he had helped by giving a few dollars to the man, he still felt “convicted” because he failed to offer the man an opportunity for a fresh start by introducing him to Jesus.
The sermon continued with references to characters in the Bible who found themselves in need of a reset and were eventually given one.
“God is more concerned with our future than he is with our past,” Anderson asserted as someone commented, “Preach the word pastor!” His point was to shift people’s focus on what God couldn do for them even now.
S.T.A.R.T was the acronym shared as the formula for a new start; S — stop making excuses based on the past, T — take an inventory of our lives, A — act in faith, R — refocus, and T — trust in God.
It was an immersive experience as their Holy Communion was taken after the sermon, final remarks were made and an overall invitation was given for membership in closing.
— Malique Ferrette
Campbell Park Community Church: We Are Not Alone
Campbell Park Community Church has been conducting their services virtually each Sunday for the last year. Before the pandemic, recorded in-person services were posted on Facebook so anyone who had missed church could go back and watch.
Service began with a prayer from Pastor James Smith followed by Trust In You, a gospel song that rang out with themes of community and reliance. “You did not create me to worry, you did not create me to fear.” These words fell heavy because of the ways the pandemic has frightened us.
Smith started praying over specific people of the congregation calling out the names of those suffering from cancer and others who were sick. “We lift up all those who are sick right now before you,” Smith said.
After another song of praise, it was time for the sermon. The entirety of the sermon was intertwined with prayer intended to hand over worries to God. The congregants were reminded that they could not carry the weight of everything that has been happening in the world.
Minister Walter Brady highlighted scripture concerning the idea of predestination. He talked about what that means for Christians and used quotes from the Bible to point the congregation back to what predestination means for believers.
Brady also spoke on growth in a Christian’s faith and intimate relationship with God. He highlighted virtues that a Christian should be striving for and practicing in order to grow in their faith.
— Hannah Simpson