Handshakes and hugs might have been replaced by virtual meetings and elbow bumps because of COVID-19, but pastors like the Rev. Amy Bradley have learned to take it all in stride.
This native of Gulfport, Mississippi, took over as rector at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Maryville on June 14, right in the middle of the pandemic. No receptions or dinner parties to welcome her were on the calendar. The congregation wasn’t even meeting in person until two weeks before she arrived.
So, Bradley came up with a clever way to get to know her parishioners and vice versa. She started a Facebook Live event she calls “Ask Amy (Almost) Anything.” She encourages her church family to submit questions via email or church website and she will answer and then post the video.
“I started doing these almost from the beginning,” Bradley said. “It was the first or second week after I got here. I thought it would be a way for the congregation to feel connected to me when we really couldn’t do any of the in-person things like receptions or small group dinner parties. They needed a way to connect with me and get to know me.”
And while it started off as a one-woman show, Bradley said the posts gradually began to also feature her 10-year-old daughter, Alice. The fifth grader was off-camera asking the questions initially, but is now front and center, providing banter with her mom.
In one recent episode, the submitted question centered on the Bradleys’ cat, Joaquin. Bradley asked the questions and Alice translated the family cat’s answers.
In fact, Alice did all of the editing for what has become a popular episode. This week’s post was even about her this time, called “Ask Alice (Almost) Anything.”
“She has gotten a lot of questions from people,” her mom said.
Now this duo has gotten into a groove. Bradley credits her daughter with making the posts both informative and entertaining. “Alice is a natural at this and just so funny,” Bradley said.
Over the course of the past few weeks, Bradley has answered questions from young parishioners, who wanted to know things like does she like tacos (yes), pizza (yes) and how she feels about potatoes (loves them). The rector shared about her first pet and her taste in music, which she described as eclectic, from pop and rock to country and even opera.
Gathering for morning prayer
Meanwhile, interim parish Administrator Adam Wilson also has found a way for this congregation to connect while in the safety of their own homes. Wilson leads a daily prayer at 8 a.m. Mondays through Fridays on Facebook Live. Parishioners can tune in for the live broadcast or watch them anytime.
He’s been doing this since March and had no expectations it would last longer than a week or two. That is, until members of the church asked him to keep it up.
“It has been good,” Wilson explained. “We have an older congregation, which is a population that is a bit more isolated. It is good to have something that is consistent.”
The morning ritual is something that also has helped this father of three get centered and ready for the day.
“I live in Knox County, so I don’t get to see everybody all the time,” Wilson said. “To have that connection every morning ... it’s nice to have this time with other adults where I can center myself.”
Living the dream
The road that led the Bradleys to Maryville began way before their June arrival. Although she’s originally from Mississippi and also lived in Mobile, Alabama, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Augusta, Georgia, Bradley said she had her sights set on this community for a long time.
“I had always wanted to live here,” she said. “This is my dream come true. This was my family’s vacation spot.”
She recalls summers camping at Cades Cove Campground in Great Smoky Mountains National Park as a young girl. She even remembers driving through Maryville and seeing Maryville College.
“My dad was a history professor,” Bradley said. “We talked about how great it would be if dad would get a job at Maryville College but he never did.”
Being in the mountains is a healing experience, Bradley explained. In these uncertain times, just getting out in nature can do a person good, she said. Her family finds time at least once per week to head for those hills.
“They are my medicine,” this pastor said. She and her husband, John, had their anniversary dinner in Cades Cove recently.
Saint Andrew’s has two Sunday morning services. The 8 a.m. service is held outdoors for social distancing. The 10:30 a.m. one is held inside the Parish Hall, which is larger than the church’s sanctuary. Attendees, limited to 30, are spaced out and required to wear masks, Bradley said. Services also are shortened.
Those who want to remain home can watch the services online. In addition to the Sunday services, there is also a Thursday vespers service that is exclusively online. The new rector said she had never even heard of the Zoom meeting app until she had an interview with Saint Andrew’s search committee using the online gathering place. That was back in January.
Seeing positive results
Bradley looks forward to a time when she can meet other church leaders in the community in person and get back to things being a little closer to normal. But, technology has certainly helped her feel a part of this community.
“I think because we have had to find different ways to get to know each other, it’s possible we have gotten to know each other better than if we had just done receptions or the small dinners,” she said. “I think there has been more opportunity for one-on-one engagement with Zoom and patio chats.”
Bradley said she has made herself available for those patio chats and hosts a Zoom drop-in from 2-4 p.m. Sundays. Anyone is invited to join in the conversation.
What has ended up happening is the people in the 8 a.m. service and the ones in the 10:30 a.m. service have come together for that drop-in space and now know each other better.
As for the future of “Ask Amy (Almost) Anything,” it is still going strong. Bradley said they will keep it up as long as congregation members have questions they want answered.
She and her parishioners are still trying to figure out how to hold the annual holiday bazaar that has become so widely popular in this community during November. They sell handmade crafts and baked goods to raise money for local charities. Bradley said it might turn into an online-only event. That is yet to be determined, however.
Bradley is confident they can make it work.
“We are learning new things and reaching a new set of people,” the pastor said.