Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic, Austin Choirs Seek Community Through Virtual Worship

Music remains an integral part of most religions, so what happens when the choir can't meet?


The outdoor amphitheatre at Life Austin Southwest on May 3 during its first in-person service (Courtesy of Life Austin)

"I don't know if you've ever tried to sing with a group of people all at the same time on Zoom, but it's horrible. It doesn't work."

St. David's Episcopal Church Rev. Chuck Treadwell bends over in hearty laughter thinking about virtual harmonization. He blames the digital lag, which throws everything out of sync. Seated in a cozy office surrounded by sturdy bookshelves, the Episcopal minister wears a white clerical collar and sleek black headphones when we meet on Zoom in late May to discuss how the coronavirus pandemic has altered reality for the oldest Protestant worship space in Austin.

"Instantly, we had to go from the 17th century, essentially, in the Episcopal Church, to the 21st century, and we had to do it in about 36 hours," he says.

Parishioners voiced few complaints although technical glitches required overcoming. The learning curve proved steep. Church spaces needed rearranging to achieve the optimal camera angle to record services, never mind the actual interconnectivity.

"We were unaware the wi-fi into our building was apparently run by horse and buggy," deadpans the priest.


St. David's Episcopal Church Rev. Chuck Treadwell (r) giving a virtual sermon to some of his younger parishioners (l) (Images courtesy of St. David's Episcopal Church)
From Georgian chants and psalms sung during the Reformation, to the hymns and spirituals of enslaved African Americans in the U.S., music delivers religious doctrine at every point, while focusing most services. It allows the listener to experience the depths of the presence of God.

Music, which Treadwell describes as a vital part of worship, changed dramatically. Before the pandemic, the voices of Parish Choir members filled the sanctuary as they sang Renaissance motets and Romantic athems. Now, three paid staffers and an organist assume their place and choir members meet virtually only for pastoral care.

Amid the process of adapting, a 40-year veteran of St. David's choir passed away. Her funeral took place outdoors, surrounded by fellow singers at a safe distance. From the second story of the church parking lot, Treadwell and the choir sang a capella, looking down at the mourners in the columbarium. Vines separating the outdoor memorial rendered the singers invisible, their voices sounding ethereal, angelic.

"This hurts," says Treadwell. "This is really making us sad, and we're grieving this. Let that be true until the day when we can come back together."

Valley of the Shadow

The deaths of choir members in Skagit County, Wash., sent shockwaves through the nation during early March. Sixty-one members of the Skagit Valley Chorale gathered for rehearsal on March 10. None of the choristers showed coronavirus symptoms during the practice according to the Centers for Disease Control. Days later, 53 of the members exhibited signs of the virus.

Three were hospitalized; two died.

That news did not fall on deaf ears. On Sunday, March 8, churches across Austin hosted in-person worship services. Friday, March 13, the city confirmed the first two presumptive positive cases of COVID-19 in Travis County. Two days later, local churches no longer met in person.

Through March and April, streets around town emptied, remembers Father Basil Agu­­zie, pastor at Holy Cross Catholic Church.

"'Where are the people?'" he recalls thinking. "[It] was deserted. I felt that emptiness in the church."

Nearly 3 million coronavirus cases have emerged across the U.S. since January. The virus has killed over 132,000 people. Travis County alone counts over 11,600 confirmed cases and 137 deaths as of July 6.

And the nation still rides the first wave only.

On June 26, the city of Austin issued an order banning gatherings of more than 100 people through August 15. According to an executive order issued by Gov. Greg Abbott on the same day, religious services are exempt from those restrictions and occupancy limits.

As of the first week of July, some local churches have reopened in downsized capacities. Others continue to hedge their bets while waiting for clear guidance from state officials. Out of two dozen congregations contacted, 10 agreed to talk, and affirmed worship music remains an integral part of their services.

Virtual meetings substitute for in-person gatherings, albeit poorly, many noted. Regardless of audiovisual quality, worship as an expression of adoration remains deeply lodged within church DNA. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, references to music as a faucet for devotion date back to the Old Testament:

"I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne and the train of this robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings ... and they were calling to one another: 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.'"

– Isaiah 6:1-3

A man after God's heart and majority composer of the Psalms, King David worshipped with exuberance. When the Ark of the Covenant returned to Jerusalem, he broke into full-body praise:

"David was dancing before the Lord with all his might, while he and all Israel were bringing up the ark of the Lord with shouts and the sound of trumpets."

– 2 Samuel 6: 14-15.

From Georgian chants and psalms sung during the Reformation, to the hymns and spirituals of enslaved African Americans in the U.S., music delivers religious doctrine at every point, while focusing most services. It allows the listener to experience the depths of the presence of God.

"Music is part of our worship," Aguzie stated. "When it is not there, something is missing."

Screen Adoration

Across Austin, church leaders agree that nothing compares to in-person prayer. Tech­nology thus becomes a means to an end during this time of physical separation, offers Dr. Benjamin Cox, director of music ministries at the University Catholic Center. In the days before the coronavirus, he managed a full choir and an 8-10 piece orchestra.

"It was a glorious sound, a wonderful, big, transporting experience that would happen during the worship services in the mass," enthuses Cox, adding that now two singers and a pianist try to fill the space once occupied by a crowd of musicians. "With it being on a smaller scale, I don't want to say that spiritually anything is lost. I'm fulfilling the requirements that need to be there. It just takes away some of the – I don't want to say beauty, but it takes away a little bit of the grandiose nature of some of the mass."

Given that, some churches created virtual choirs. Clips recorded in the comfort of individual choir members' homes are pieced together in post-production to create a unified sound. Weaving upward of 100 singing heads challenges even the most technically savvy.

Riverbend Church published one virtual choir video to YouTube on May 11 and none since. When the church's worship leaders spoke with the Chronicle on June 1, they expressed the desire to publish another by the end of the month. Their rendition of "God, You're So Good" received 141 views, six likes, and no comments.

Carlton Dillard, Riverbend pastor of music and worship, longs to reunite the 100-person choir he conducted before the pandemic. "We are not rehearsing right now, in any form," remarked Dillard. "We're hoping that it could come back by the fall. It's like all the sports and other stuff that are big gatherings. We're just not sure of anything right now."

Riverbend Worship Director Casey McPher­son believes virtual rituals allow parishioners to experience the presence of God. As a church leader, he strives to do more than simply perform for the camera. He attempts to communicate with the people on the other side of the screen.

Music can heal and bring hope to those experiencing loneliness and fear, emphasizes McPherson. When he leads worship, he doesn't want the congregation to feel like they need to pretend everything is okay.

"This is really hard to go through for everybody," he says. "With faith or not with faith, whatever you believe, this is hard to go through."

Although some churches began incorporating music into livestreamed services in mid-March, others took longer to adapt. No singing featured into Holy Cross Catholic Church's two initial online masses. Father Aguzie says the pandemic threw all of their plans "into cold water." Before COVID, Holy Cross hosted two singing groups: an African choir for 8 and 10am Sunday services, and a second group during masses for the Igbo community from Nigeria.

Aguzie recalls a feeling of solemnity hovered over mass during the first two virtual meetings without music. Quietness replaced the joys of singing, clapping, and dancing to jazzy gospel music. The energy of live praise evaporated like a circuit breaker flipped mid-party.

"At the back of my mind, I knew that something was missing," he says. "That's when we started thinking, 'What do we do now?'"

By the third mass, the music director reincorporated music into the service by performing a solo. Now, Aguzie said, the organist and guitarist are in charge of the singing during mass. Solemnity lifted, a renewed sense of joy invigorates their worship again.

Homecoming

Life and death hang in the balance as church leaders decide when to restart in-person services. For aging congregations in smaller spaces, choosing to reopen too soon could prove fatal. Yet large churches with sprawling campuses can accommodate social distancing.

Multi-campus megachurch Life Austin restarted worship in its outdoor amphitheatre at the group's southwest location on May 3.


Life Austin worship and creative arts pastor Kathleen Estes sings with drummer Aaron English during this year's virtual Easter Sunday service. (Courtesy of Life Austin)

"When the state decided that with guidelines they felt it would be okay for us to reopen, we were so excited we have an outdoor venue to be able to provide a bridge experience between what used to be and what could be," attested Kathleen Estes, Life Austin worship and creative arts pastor.

By early June, smaller services moved back into the sanctuary on an RSVP basis, yet most gathering still takes place online, Estes stated. A June 27 Facebook post did away with the reservations model, but congregants are encouraged to wear masks and practice social distancing. Families can sit together, but individuals must maintain six feet of distance.

Life Austin's large venue puts them in an enviable position compared to smaller churches across the city.

Located near the intersection of Highway 183 and North Lamar, Agape Baptist Church meets in a space that only fits 70 people. The pandemic forced the congregation out of the sanctuary and onto the GoToMeeting platform. In mid-June, Rev. H. Ed Calahan said their doors remain closed.

"We have a number of parishioners within our congregation who have compromised immune systems," he pointed out. "With COVID, they're a little hesitant about coming back to face-to-face. The online [model] allows them the opportunity to be in service."

Calahan looks forward to welcoming back the congregation, but only when the timing's right. And when reunification day arrives ...

"Your worship should not be the same," he insists. "When we come back together, your worship should be more joyous, more thankful, that He has allowed this to happen and allowed us to be able to come back together and worship and praise on one accord."

In Northeast Austin, the doors of Greater Calvary Bible Church also remain closed, but on Sundays the parking lot pops with live music. The first four weeks of the pandemic, the church relied on Facebook, Instagram, and Zoom to engage in worship. Now, it hosts drive-in services.


Greater Calvary Bible Church in January 2020: (l-r) Tamara Samuel, Sharell Scott, Minister Ladonna Tavernier, Bishop Richard Lands, Deaconess Sheila Robinson, and Deacon Nolan Coach (Courtesy of Greater Calvary Bible Church)
In Northeast Austin, the doors of Greater Calvary Bible Church also remain closed, but on Sundays the parking lot pops with live music. The first four weeks of the pandemic, the church relied on Facebook, Instagram, and Zoom to engage in worship. Now, it hosts drive-in services.

Sterling Lands II, Greater Calvary Bible Church senior pastor, explained that in charismatic Black churches, music and the audience response are integrated. Along with preaching, Lands plays lead guitar with the church band. Seeing members of the congregation get out of their cars and dance adds a liveliness to worship that did not exist online.

"There is no doubt in my mind that the audience response did fade for a while when we were doing the taping," affirmed Lands. "But since we've been doing the parking lot service, it's pretty much back to the way it was, maybe even heightened because we get neighbors who come over now and can join in with what's going on.

"So we're at a new high."

Ain't Got Time to Die

The question remains: Does God Zoom?

Does God tune in from the throne room on Sunday mornings, put on oversized blue-light glasses, crack open the lid of a ParadiseBook Pro, enter a six-digit passcode, and then realize heaven's wi-fi is also run by horse and buggy?

God can connect with anyone, anytime, anywhere, Lands said. No Zoom login required. "You can connect with God in a pasture, under a tree, on a beach, or out on the ocean," he says.

Worship should not depend on a building, Lands continues. Worship is fellowship. Coronavirus canceled services, canceled human touch, canceled corporeal worship, but it did not cancel the need to sing and praise. "It's inherently part of who and what we are, and what I am," he says.

Ara Carapetyan retired as music director at University Presbyterian Church on May 31. After 18 years with the congregation, he wanted to go out with a bang. During a spring concert, canceled by the coronavirus, he planned to sing the solo of a beloved spiritual during a surprise encore.


University Presbyterian Church Chancel Choir on August 18, 2019, for Rally Day, which marks the beginning of the church calendar year. (Photo by Laura Skelding / Courtesy of University Presbyterian Church)

"Cause it takes all of my time,

To praise my Jesus.

All of my time,

To praise my Lord.

If I don't praise Him, the rocks are gonna cry out.

Ain't got time to die."

– Hall Johnson, "Ain't Got Time to Die," 1956

The 91-year-old believes the song fits the times. Regardless of where worship takes place, be it in the physical house of God or onscreen, Carapetyan put forth that one idea remains: God is.

"Those of us who practice the worship of God, it seems appropriate that however we're constrained to do it, we're going to do it."

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