It’s a different and challenging time, but Christmas continues
All photos taken in previous years Christmas services prior to COVID-19.
By Lindsay Peyton
Christmas has arrived in East Texas – and with strict safety measures in place, churches like Marvin UMC ensured that COVID-19 would not prevent its holiday traditions from continuing. Musical concerts and outreach efforts heralded in the season, and additional services were scheduled on Christmas Eve to accommodate smaller groups in the building. The church has long been a destination for Christmas in Tyler, opening its doors to the community for free weekday concerts and a Handel’s Messiah sing-along. While each event will be a little different this year to meet health and safety guidelines, the choir will still be singing, the orchestra playing and the handbells ringing in the season.
“Marvin is going to celebrate Christmas this year,” Lead Pastor, Dr. Doug Baker said. “Our world desperately needs the witness of the church and the reminder that Christ is with us.”
While this year has been challenging in a number of respects, he explained, there has also been spiritual, relational and missional growth. Even in the midst of loss and uncertainty, he witnessed creativity and resilience.
“Things can seem crazy, disorienting and emotionally upsetting in the world, but in the midst of them, we can experience God’s peace, especially as we worship, read Scripture, pray and serve in Christ’s name,” Baker said.
The innovative spirit has allowed Christmas celebrations to move forward, and all of the concerts this year will be live-streamed, music director Jim Broussard, added.
The Christmas season kicked off on Dec. 6 with Handel’s Messiah, normally a sing-along, which turned into a choral concert instead for a safer experience this year.
The 2020 Christmas Downtown concerts, held in the sanctuary at 12:05 p.m. on Wednesdays, began with the Tyler Junior College’s music department on Dec. 2 and continued with the church choir on Dec. 9. A final event, on Dec. 16, will feature the church’s ensemble Robinson Handbells.
Another Marvin tradition “Lessons and Carols” is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. in the church sanctuary on Sunday, Dec. 13. Bible readings, interspersed with Christmas carols and hymns, will be performed by the choir, bell choir and orchestra, as well as the children and youth choirs. Then, at 5 p.m. youth will gather for a live nativity.
Annual Party for foster children
Mission is also continuing at Marvin this Christmas. The church’s annual party for foster children at the Methodist Children’s Home begins at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 12. Members are invited to purchase gifts for the children or donate funds for the event.
This year, the occasion will be held in the gym instead of fellowship hall to provide additional space for social distancing, and each family will have their own table.
Christmas Joy, an annual event for underserved children in the community, is planned for Thursday, Dec. 17, Friday, Dec. 18 and Saturday, Dec. 19. Pastor Baker explained that the occasion is offered in partnership with Vida Abundante, the area’s UMC Hispanic worship community. Guests can “shop” for items to give for the holidays, while church volunteers stand by to gift wrap.
Already, the church collected new, unwrapped toys for children, from infants to teenagers for Christmas Joy. A member also made 300 stockings by hand, and Marvin volunteers wore gloves and masks, sitting at distanced tables, to stuff each with items and seal them.
“We made adjustments to each event,” Pastor Baker said. “Christmas at Marvin this year will be different than in the past, just as most of this pandemic year has been different. Though the programs are similar, there will be some changes.”
For instance, usually the Downtown Christmas concerts are followed by a meal. This year, organizers opted out of serving food to make the events safer. In addition, the performers all wore masks.
For the Messiah concert, the two trumpets were even placed in the halls to maintain a distance. The doors opened to them, instead of having the horns in the area with the rest of the orchestra.
Instead of canceling indoor services for Christmas Eve, Baker is making them smaller and added more, using a reservation system to limit capacity. Communion will be prepackaged and taken in the pews, instead of asking individuals to come to the altar.
Battery operated candles
Even the candle lighting experience during “Silent Night” will be different this year. Instead of using real candles that would be extinguished by everyone blowing them out, Marvin will distribute battery-operated lights that actually flicker.
“I am grateful that the staff has worked hard to address the COVID-19 challenges so that our services will be meaningful and safe for all in attendance,” Baker said.
Broussard added that each year, residents of the Tyler community eagerly anticipate coming to Marvin UMC to get in the holiday spirit, whether they are members of the church or not. “There’s a great wealth of talent here, and we have an extremely supportive congregation that just loves music,” he said.
Broussard, who graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, sang with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, before heading to Europe to perform with the Vienna State Opera, Zürich Opera and at other opera houses in Belgium, Holland and Italy.
He has also served on the voice faculties of Clemson University, North Greenville University and Charleston Southern University, as well as Minister of Music at Trinity Copley Square in Boston, the International Baptist Church of Zürich, the International Protestant Church of Zürich, St. Andrew’s Anglican Church in Detmold, Germany, Pendleton Street Baptist in Greenville, South Carolina and at Christ Episcopal Church in Greenville, South Carolina. He is also the founder of the Greenville Opera.
Broussard explained that during his professional career, he felt called to music ministry. “I felt more drawn to church music,” he said. “I wondered, ‘What is God trying to tell me?’ I prayed about it, and I realized that I need to use the talents that He offered to me to bring people closer to Him using music.”
He quoted St. Augustine, a bishop in the 5th Century, who said, “Those who sing pray twice . . . Song is the gift God has given us to unite our heads and our hearts in praise.”
The power of music for prayer and praise motivated Broussard to find a way that the church could continue its traditional concerts this Christmas. By distancing choir members and asking members to wear both masks and face shields, the ministry has been able to forge ahead.
“It’s a different and challenging time, but Christmas continues,” Broussard said. “Christmas is about this nostalgic feeling and about family, which is what everyone is missing right now. I think this will lift everyone’s spirits.”
Flexibility and patience are essential this holiday season, Pastor Baker added. He said that William Young’s book “The Shack” explains that there is a key difference between “expectancy” and “expectation.”
“With ‘expectancy,’ we bring ourselves fully to every encounter with the openness to receive the gift that the experience or the person will bring to us,” he explained.
Expectation, on the other hand, focuses on rules and requirements. “It is no longer about loving people; it becomes about what is supposed to happen,” Baker said. “This promotes performance and judgement rather than love, wonder and grace.”
This year, the pastor suggests adopting expectancy instead of expectation – and celebrating the light and wonder of Christ during Christmas.