Natalie Brown: Why Latter-day Saint services should always make room for Zoom

It would help plenty of “active” members who simply can’t attend in person.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Family members in Johannesburg, South Africa, gathers to observe the Sabbath Day within their home and to video chat with extended members of their family to discuss the “Come, Follow Me” curriculum, July 19, 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s not easy attending church over Zoom. Despite rumors that we were staying home because we preferred chilling in our pajamas, maintaining the Sabbath after deciding that our family would not attend in person until our children had access to the COVID-19 vaccine was a large effort.

By the time our congregation reopened to in-person attendance, I was desperate for a break from my boys, the oldest of which was entering kindergarten. I had spent weeks doing activities with them in isolation. I would become a de facto uncompensated kindergarten aide later that fall when our schools opened remotely.

People said I should feel grateful to be in lockdown with my children rather than alone. I cannot imagine spending the pandemic without human contact. But endless days of living without respite from young children take a toll as well. You are never alone.

Still, we chose to continue attending meetings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints remotely after they reopened because our children would not have access to COVID vaccines for many more months. I ultimately assisted my child through an entire year of remote kindergarten. People might disagree with our decisions, which we made based on our own facts and circumstances. That’s not the point. What I want to say is that attending church remotely requires effort.

Each Sunday, we roused our kids to watch over Zoom. It was harder than incentivizing them to go to the building, because Zoom has no friends and frequent technical issues. They found it difficult to listen to the services because they were distracted by items around the house. The lack of boundaries between home and church frustrated us all.

I tried to establish a routine. Each Sunday, I prepared a lesson. This was painful rather than restorative when I had also become my children’s “teacher” on weekdays. I joined virtual singing times that I found online since our ward didn’t offer one. On other days, I put on scripture study and home evenings. We were luckier than other friends who were also attending remotely. My spouse at least could prepare the sacrament; whereas many friends did not have a male priesthood holder in their homes to do so.

I felt enormous gratitude when the church introduced its first Friend to Friend broadcast. I wrote leadership hoping they would create a weekly television show to reach children without access to Primary. I never received a response. My ward never introduced a remote Primary option.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Ten-year-old Payson Inkle and 7-year-old Brianna Villsnil host the Friend to Friend program on the rotating set at the church’s motion pictures studio in Provo.

The work of preparing for church each Sunday was, however, the comparatively easy part. Far harder was the feeling that the ward had decided we didn’t matter. I know this judgment was unfair. People are busy. Leaders try their best. Nevertheless, I felt forgotten as those attending in person moved on with activities and spoke about their happiness that they could all gather again. My family, though, wasn’t there.

As months went on, I heard rumors that my family was “inactive.” These hurt when I was working hard to keep my family connected to church. I survived by repeatedly reading the church’s signature scripture, the Book of Mormon, focusing on the accounts of prophets and members who experienced discipleship as decidedly lonely. I rededicated myself to ministering and showed up for those who had been dealing with isolation and marginalization for far longer than me. What I was experiencing, after all, was their permanent reality.

We returned to in-person church once our children were vaccinated. The friendships there nourished me. Happiness returned. Exhaustion receded.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf and his wife, Harriet, greet missionaries remotely from a recording studio on Temple Square during a devotional in February 2021.

However, not everyone had the luxury of returning to in-person church. On Sundays, when I am home with a sick child, I think about the members I don’t see at church because they are disabled or married to a nonmember or traveling or nursing newborns or working or being treated for cancer or … you name the circumstance.

I wonder about the members who I don’t even know exist or who have been labeled inactive simply because they cannot attend meetings in person. I am ashamed that it took a pandemic for me to understand that many members are routinely excluded from participation. The struggle I experienced to connect with the church during the height of the coronavirus is their unending experience.

These members deserve our support and fellowship, and we should take steps to better include them. At a minimum, every ward should offer a permanent online option for those who cannot attend in-person services. We must also do our utmost to ensure that they receive in-person contact with members through actions like assigning them dedicated ministers, aligning ward boundaries to permit better transportation, and understanding and addressing their barriers to attendance. Christ did not come only for the rich and nondisabled.

(Courtesy) Natalie Brown, Salt Lake Tribune guest columnist

Natalie Brown is a writer, scholar, lawyer, mother and Latter-day Saint based in Boulder, Colo. She is writing in her personal capacity. Her views do not reflect those of the church or her employer.