BLOOMFIELD, NJ — Despite upheavals caused by the pandemic, the Rev. Susan Dorward of the Brookdale Reformed Church was certain about one thing.
“I didn’t want the pandemic to close the church,” she said in a telephone interview the last week of December.
The pandemic, she said, made her a better listener. But another change was more consequential for her and the 40-member congregation. Exchanging phone calls, emails, texts and cards more frequently than normal, they determined to keep the church open by keeping communications open.
“We kept this going,” she said. “We stepped it up.”
At the beginning of 2020, with the shutdown, services were conducted virtually via Zoom. Local residents and even people from other states and countries — including England, Australia and Canada — watched and listened from home. Later in 2020, worship was brought outside onto church grounds. This lasted several months. Services returned inside, using Zoom to create a hybrid service, increasing BRC attendance.
“Some people came because their own church may have closed,” Dorward said, “or they felt more fearful and needed God. But some people blame God for COVID.”
The people watching via Zoom saw the altar, pulpit, lectern and Dorward. To display the faces of parishioners watching from home, a screen facing the congregation would have had to be used but was not. Dorward said it would probably not work well in a church setting.
“We would like a screen,” she said, “but maybe it’s too distracting.”
Likewise, the sound was not two way. Otherwise, the services would have had to contend with the noise of dishes being cleared from the table and dogs barking.
“We had about 10 people, not local, joining in,” Dorward said. “But Zoom was getting hacked, so we had to do it by invitation only. People just couldn’t come on.”
The change to invitation only pretty much eliminated out-of-state and foreign visitors. But as life returned to normal, so did people to their own churches and habits. Dorward had other thoughts, too.
“People think church is so passe,” she continued. “They think it’s something their parents and grandparents did. In the past, when people moved into a new community, the first thing they did was find a church.”
She said that, at the beginning of 2021, a woman called her just to talk. She invited the woman to a service.
“Oh, no,” the woman told her. “You church people are perfect.”
“It’s funny what people think,” Dorward said. “We don’t want to intimidate people. We all have human faults.”
Still, every once in a while, the woman does call back.
Established in 1795 as the Reformed Dutch Church at Stone House Plains, the Bloomfield church held its first service in a barn. Completed in 1808, the original building was destroyed by fire in 1910. Funds to rebuild were raised by melting down the tower bell and recasting it into hand bells. The church is located at 16 Bellevue Ave.
One BRC activity that has expanded during the pandemic is the neighborhood prayer walk. Dorward, who has been leading the church since 2014, began as a solitary prayer, walking the neighborhood streets, stopping to pray outside random homes. One time, a woman driving by stopped and approached to ask what she was doing. When she explained, the woman joined her in prayer before driving off. Since 2020, a handful of BRC members now walk and pray.
“We’re just trying to bathe the house in prayer,” Dorward said.
There have been other activities propelling the congregation forward as well.
The Bloomfield church received a $30,000 grant last year from the Reformed Church of America, its national governing body, for upkeep of the church building and nearby mission house. The parking lot and driveway were paved.
“Now we can roller-skate,” Dorward joked.
The church also joined the Northeast Earth Coalition in October with the installation of a free food pantry outside. The coalition will be planting a pollinator garden in the spring.
The church, which for some time has partnered with the Bessie Green Community Inc., a charitable organization, “really revved-up” its commitment during the pandemic, according to Dorward. The church used to contribute only money, but now collects clothing and diapers, too.
“Something for us to consider is, how do we respond to God and the church during COVID,” said the Bloomfield pastor, whose church remains open.