The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is perhaps one of the lesser known religious communities in Australia. Sometimes incorrectly referred to as the Mormon Church, they believe the Holy Bible is the word of God and use other scriptures, including the Book of Mormon, which serves as another witness to the ministry of Christ and his divinity. There are approximately 151,000 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Australia, divided into approximately 41 stakes—groups of congregations or wards. The Wyndham Stake, which extends from Melbourne to Warrnambool and includes the City of Geelong, has approximately 1500 active members and its overseen by Emmanuel Richards, the stake’s president, and his group of councillors. Many of the congregants are young families with children, although they have a number of elderly members as well. The stake is ethnically diverse, with many members from Tonga and Samoa, as well as from New Zealand, South America, and even as far away as Africa.
Before COVID 19, churches in the stake held one or two services a week and met for religious education classes, youth seminary classes, camps, stake conferences, leadership training and ministering, which involved visits to members of the church community. Most of these activities have now moved online. Emmanuel says they have achieved a remarkable level of online engagement, with about 80 percent of members still actively participating in church activities. He says, “They love the fact they can still see other people.” But many are still struggling with the social distance. He notes the youth are starting to feel ‘Zoomed out’. On the other hand, some of the elderly feel they just “can’t do it” when it comes to using the online technology.
Emmanuel and the other councillors have been working tirelessly over the past five months to ensure people remain connected to each other and to the church, as best they can. The young people are involved in their educational classes but they have been exploring other platforms to keep them connected with each other, such as online gaming, where they can interact over a common interest and “be in a virtual world with others.” They have also created a virtual choir and talent shows, activities to lift people’s spirits. For the stake, the elderly are their biggest concern. Many are very lonely. They miss their grandchildren. They miss their families. Emmanuel admits they are very concerned about their spiritual, physical and mental welfare and are constantly looking to find the best way to reach out to them.
For the Wyndham Stake, there is a realisation that church will no longer be the same as it was before. Emmanuel feels the virtual element of church practice will remain, long after the restrictions are lifted. As the lockdown draws to an end, the stake is grappling with all the requirements of operating a place of worship in the new COVID-aware environment. There is sanitising to do and attendance records to keep and there are consequences for getting it wrong. The biggest issue is how to accommodate the size of their congregations in chapels that were built for community and intimacy, not for social distancing. In a room that previously held many hundreds, only a small number of people can now be accommodated while implementing the 1.5 metre distance rule. This worries Emmanuel. “Who will be the policeman who tells the 101st person they cannot attend because the chapel is now at capacity.” “Church isn’t supposed to be a place where you tell someone to go away.”
However, Emmanuel’s outlook is positive. This has been a time of change, a time of learning, a time of growth, but some things stay the same. He reminds us “Your faith is not quarantined; your resilience and your hope are not quarantined. Circumstances have changed but your relationship with God remains. The future won’t be the same but you will find hope and joy in these circumstances and be sustained.”