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Virtual church is still church: First Parish Unitarian of Northfield uses online platform to hold service

  • Homer “Tony” Stavely and his wife, Mary Mayshark-Stavely, demonstrate how they attended “virtual church” last Sunday on their laptop computer at their Northfield home. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS HARRIS

  • The Rev. Melissa Carvill-Ziemer, of First Parish Church in Northfield. Carvill-Ziemer led her congregation in a virtual church service using the Zoom online video conferencing platform. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 3/18/2020 7:24:46 PM

NORTHFIELD — In the age of COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church found a way to convene virtually on Sunday via the online video conferencing platform called Zoom.

Using Zoom, a hosting participant — in this case, the Rev. Melissa Carvill-Ziemer, of Easthampton — emails a link inviting members to join a live session from their cellphone, laptop or desktop computer. Participants connect in real time with one another.

Typically used by businesses to conduct meetings involving people in different locations, Zoom offered about 18 members of First Parish their first virtual church experience. Guest minister the Rev. Sarah Pirtle conducted the adult service. A separate Zoom link brought eight children together with Carvill-Ziemer for religious education during the service.

Participants each contributed from their own site. For example, church musician Lynne Walker played music from her grand piano at home while other participants watched and listened.

Carvill-Ziemer said, “I use Zoom for my full-time ministry every day, so I’m very experienced with Zoom. That definitely helped.”

To assist others through the learning curve, the church held two practice sessions the day before.

“That gave people a chance to learn the basics,” she explained. “We had a guest minister, so she came to one of the practice sessions as well — virtually.”

Jennifer Smith, of Northfield, chair of the board of trustees, helped to coordinate all the parts and Paul Bocco, who is also on the board, helped run tech and facilitated a “chat” function, which allows participants to type at the same time as other things are happening, and everybody can see what that person is typing, Carvill-Ziemer explained.

“Part of the training the day before,” Smith said, “was to learn how, when everyone’s microphone is on, it causes a lot of audio feedback, so you can’t sing together, you can’t do readings or prayers together. Everyone has to stay muted and take turns speaking.”

During unison prayers, for example, Bocco would use chat to put up the words of a reading that members would say together, with their microphones muted, as if in unison.

First Parish members Homer “Tony” Stavely and his wife, Mary Mayshark-Stavely, of Northfield, are in their 80s and are practicing social distancing.

“You’re face-to-face with your friends, so that’s a positive,” Stavely said. “The negative is that it’s software. Even now, 30 years into the modern internet, it’s kind of like the photographs you see of early 20th-century automobiles being pulled out of the mud by some farmer’s oxen. We’re still in that early era of virtual life and sometimes things don’t work real well. But to see smiling faces of familiar friends and to go through familiar rituals, and hearing some thoughts and inspiring words (made it worthwhile).”

During the adult service, the children exited as usual and Carvill-Ziemer conducted Sunday School through a separate Zoom link.

“I had invited the kids, ahead of time, to look around their house for something they love or that makes them feel loved and to show it on their computer,” she said. “That part worked really well.”

Smith said virtual church was a chance for the children to reconnect in a time when they’re isolated.

“It’s a video platform, so they can see each other all together and talk about what they’re feeling or the different topics that the religious educator brings,” she said.

However, “My two young children lost focus,” noted Carvill-Ziemer, “and I was the adult leader, so I was trying to parent and lead at the same time, which did not work. I think my lesson was, I cannot lead the children while I’m also caring for my own children.”

Smith said Zoom could be an option for any congregation.

“We will be posting on our Facebook page (First Parish of Northfield, Unitarian) and if other people want to link in, Zoom access is free,” she said. “You just click on the link that we will provide and it will just walk you through. It felt great to have this space, given what we’re all going through.”

“It’s not the same as meeting in person,” Carvill-Ziemer noted, “but it felt like it was a way for us to be connected and that really matters at a time when we all have to practice keeping our distance.”

Mayshark-Stavely said, “I was just so appreciative to be able to connect with the people in our caring community and to feel not so isolated, because we’re all having to isolate ourselves. The drawback is that we can’t really be in close connection with these people, but it certainly is the next best thing.”

Reach Chris Harris at
413-772-0261, ext. 265 or

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