Part Three became inevitable as infection rates in the state of Hawai’i and the county of Hawai’i declined to the point that a congregation could be gathered once more at Church of the Holy Cross. The steps required to reduce risk of virus transmission created new challenges for liturgy. The state still limits gatherings to less than fifty people, which also turned out to be the capacity of the church sanctuary when chairs replaced pews. Having a congregation meant that the sound system now needed to serve two groups: the worshipers in the space and the worshipers over the Internet – and they had different needs.
In many parts of the country, churches still worship exclusively over the Internet because infection risk is still too high in their area. On Hawai’i Island, we went some time with no new cases at all. We are now seeing new cases again, between zero and three a day. We are watching those reports carefully and will discontinue in-person worship if it continues to rise.
Chairs, Masks, Sinks, Books, and Screen
Church of the Holy Cross is blessed with pews that are not attached to the floor. Early on, we thought we might rearrange the pews themselves, but were confronted with the problem of sanitizing the furniture between services. Since four congregations worship in the room during the day, we needed a cleaning regimen. Rather than risk virus material settling into the cloth (and damage to fabric and wood from bleach-based cleansers), we stacked up the pews and replaced them with folding chairs. Those chairs also allow us to seat household groups of different sizes together while keeping space around single worshipers.
All the congregations clean twice: once as they enter the space, and again as they leave. While it seems redundant, it offers better protection and reinforces the sound practices of caring for yourself (cleaning before) and caring for others (cleaning afterward). Chairs, pulpit and lectern, microphones and stands, and window louver levers, and other touch areas get cleaned. All congregations take attendance so that contact tracing can be done if we become aware of someone with a positive test for COVID-19. Worshipers enter through a kitchen with sinks for hand-washing and sanitizer for those who prefer that. Everyone wears a mask (and we have more available). The walks have six foot tape marks to maintain distance. After service, everyone exits through a separate door.
Hymnals and Bibles have been removed. We only provide a large-print bulletin for those with vision challenges; everyone else relies upon the projector screen for worship. We do not sing hymns together. We do speak prayers together. There is singing, however: two musicians sing from near the back of the chancel while wearing masks. The closest seats in the congregation are twenty-five feet away.
The preacher and lay leader now speak from separate lecterns with separate mics (covered with disposable foam shields). And, of course, there is no greeting line at the close of service.
We’ve Got to Move
We discovered the first week that the lack of congregational singing made for a very still hour – too still. While there was a “movement prayer” at the beginning of the service, it was too short and in the wrong place. A church member offered to lead additional movement, so the two vocal performances now also serve to lead the congregation in motion. It’s not actually hula, but the gestures come from that tradition. In addition, I lead a brief prayer in movement immediately after the sermon.
Attendance has been in the forties, which is close to the capacity of the room. We can accommodate a few additional worshipers just outside the sanctuary in an area covered by the roof (and equipped with speakers). We may need to add a screen in our Building of Faith if more people begin to attend.
With the capacity of the room reduced, and knowing that people needed to continue to reduce contacts, we resolved to continue live streams into the future. We had to do things differently – again.
With the streaming-only format, we had to do very little camera movement. There were only two places that people ever stood – three on a Communion Sunday – so a single camera operator could manage it even though he was also acting as a musician. Now we have five (and added a sixth) plus seven on Communion Sunday: pulpit, lectern, piano, organ, chancel for vocal anthems, bell (rung before service), and communion table. That meant we needed camera operators throughout the service.
We also had to place the cameras differently. We wanted to reduce the distraction they would cause the worshipers who were present and we wanted to give the worshipers at home the best experience we could. The cameras aren’t really capable of a high-quality shot over a long distance. We also faced cable length limits.
Both cameras, therefore, needed to be toward the front (their tripods are visible in the photo at top). One camera stands against the wall to the right for a shot of the pulpit and organ. The other stands just left of center for the lectern, piano, and chancel.
These are the same Canon camcorders we have been using: a Vixia HF R52 and a Vixia HF R800. The one by the wall now has a much longer cable run. In addition to a fifteen foot HDMI cable with a mini-connector on one end, we use a coupler and a twenty-five foot HDMI cable to reach the switcher. This is close to the limit of an HDMI signal. The first time we set it up, we tried to get some more slack with another cable extension, and it simply would not work. The other camera is close enough that its fifteen foot cable suffices.
For the first couple weeks, we set up the Logitech webcam as a wide shot to provide the switcher with another source. She never used it, so we’ve retired that camera.
We have, however, added another video source. The church has used projected words and imagery for some years. That slide show can also be used as a video source via HDMI.
The first two weeks taught us something else about the video: it was really hard for the director to select a shot without a preview image of it. She needed to know whether a camera had settled – or was even on the right subject – before switching to it. One of the lacks of the Blackmagic Design ATEM Mini (though not its newer sibling, the ATEM Mini Pro) is a multi view of its sources.
How could we create that? I’ve seen some creative ideas, including using several splitters and a multi view converter, but then I saw someone using field monitors. These are small screens that are mostly used to provide videographers with a better view of their shot than provided by the built-in screen of the camera. Our two Timbrecod DC-80 7″ screens have an HDMI pass-through. We place them between the cameras and the switcher, and now the director can see what the camera sees before choosing it.
One immediate annoyance was that the field monitors could not be used with the ATEM’s first input. I’ve done some research, and apparently the ATEM misreads the frame rate with some active pass-throughs, but only on the first input. We use input one for the slides, and the cameras get two and three.
The church installed a new sound system just over two years ago which, frankly, makes the challenge of providing sound to both the sanctuary worshipers and the online worshipers even possible. The old system, well… best to avoid that nightmare.
Our sound mixer is a Soundcraft Ui24R, a completely digital device. It has no physical knobs or sliders, but can be controlled via a keyboard and mouse, a network connected computer, a tablet, or even a smart phone. Its USB connection bears a host of signals, not just the main mix. A connected computer can select individual channels or one of eight auxiliary outputs.
Each auxiliary output can have its own mix. This is a game-changer.
Why? Because there are things that people worshiping over the Internet need to hear through the sound system that people in the sanctuary should not. In particular, we have to be very careful about amplifying the organ. The potential for feedback through the sanctuary speakers is mostly manageable, but it has to be carefully monitored. The organ produces plenty of sound, and amplifying it isn’t particularly helpful.
People worshiping over the Internet, however, need to hear it. They also need to hear the piano. We added two microphones in the chancel area (a pair of MXL 990 condenser mics) to pick up those sounds – and they are not part of the main mix. We include them only in the auxiliary mix.
We confronted cable length limits again. Although we can control the Soundcraft via a tablet, we had to connect our streaming computer to it via USB, and it was twenty-five feet away. USB has a length limit of around fifteen feet. In this case, we were delighted to find that an active extension cable did the job. We also experimented with using an active USB hub in the chain, and found that it didn’t work.
We have been frustrated with a relatively weak signal from the Soundcraft Ui24R. It reaches OBS with relatively low volume. The basic mixing controls in OBS wouldn’t bring it to desired levels – but it turns out that there’s an Advanced Audio panel that allows one to boost the base volume of an audio source. We’ve currently set it to add 10 decibels, and I’m considering a boost to 12.
Catching My Breath
I keep hoping that we can find a “normal” once again, and not have to make too many more adaptations. We probably aren’t there. One of the signals for our worship service is the ringing of the church bell. We’re able to film it because we have lots of windows and the bell is just outside.
What we can’t do in the stream, however, is hear much of it. It’s too far away from any of the microphones. We also can’t hear much of the congregation’s responses. I’m not eager to take on the challenge of adding “house sound” microphones to the mix, but that may be coming.
It is a relief to have a congregation present. They do provide an energy that is missing in the one-way stream approach we chose. My Sundays include a certain amount of anxiety – I’m deeply concerned for the health of the worshipers – but I find I am less exhausted by the experience of worship than I had been.
In Part One, Gentle Reader, I explained how a mild mannered ordinary local church pastor with a somewhat strange skill set became a televangelist, and some of the tools he used to become one.
(I will now abandon the use of “Gentle Reader” references, since I’ve never much cared for that 19th century style of English prose.)
Two months later, we have seen marked improvements on the technical side and have made some changes to the experience of worship as well. We continue to use YouTube Live as the streaming method; we have not sought to expand to send streams to other services at the same time. We use email reminders (typically Friday afternoon and another on Sunday morning) to give our newsletter subscribers a quick way to find the links to the video and to the worship materials on our website.
The order of service has had one significant addition: a hymn for people to sing together at home. This came as a suggestion from a worshiper, and we implemented it in about two weeks once we were satisfied that the musicians could manage preparing two songs. We’ve had some very positive feedback on that addition, and we’ve tried to really support it by making the lyrics available with our worship materials and, more recently, including them in the video stream.
The worship leaders also changed their positions. Webcams, including the Logitech C922, are designed for a short distance between the lens and the subject. That put the two musicians closer together than physical distancing guidelines recommend – and sent the wrong message. For some weeks now the leaders have stood at music stands with a six foot table (our communion table) between them. The webcam serves as a wide shot that includes both participants and displays the distinctive cross above and behind.
The real technical achievement is moving to more than one camera.
The hardware video switcher, a Blackmagic Design ATEM Mini, arrived on April 27. The most basic function of this device is to switch between four different audio/visual signals arriving via HDMI. It has a USB connection, and a computer recognizes it as it would a webcam – an audio/video source. Once cabled to the laptop, the ATEM became another source OBS could use.
What about cameras with an HDMI out port? This developed into a rather frustrating exercise. I have owned a Canon Vixia HF R52 for some years. I’ve used it to shoot videos of lava, and it was the main camera for the What I’m Thinking video series for a long time. When I worked for the Connecticut Conference, we used a pair of identical cameras for studio recordings and for live streams. I knew its HDMI out would work.
I really wanted to have at least two cameras, though, and preferably three (three cameras is common on TV studio sets). I bought a pair of very inexpensive cameras, expecting they wouldn’t be great, but that they’d do. Well, they didn’t. They connected over HDMI just fine, but the HDMI output when in shooting mode displayed what was on the screen, which sounds good until you notice all the little icons about battery life, focus mode, and so on. There was no item in the camera’s menu that allowed me to turn off the little pictures that cluttered the picture. In addition, connecting the HDMI cable turned off the camera’s own display, so a camera operator couldn’t see what the camera saw.
I hoped I’d be able to use my own DSLR, but ran into the same problem (both of them, in fact). I couldn’t turn off the icons. The camera’s live display went dark.
This time when I went shopping I made a visit to the manufacturer’s websites and read the full user’s manual. The Canon Vixia HF R800 met the criteria, and with its older sibling has captured our worship service since.
But wait, there’s more! These cameras come with HDMI cables, but they’re about three feet long. That’s not long enough. They use a mini-HDMI connector, so that was something to check carefully in ordering. We chose to continue using the webcam for the wide shot, but now it had to be further away from the computer. That meant procuring a USB extension cable. I don’t even want to talk about tripods.
Well. We strive and we learn.
Our Current Configuration
We use three cameras. The Logitech webcam gives us a wide shot, which we do not move. The two Canon Vixia camera are both mounted on tripods with halfway decent fluid heads (as is the Logitech). They each provide a “one shot” (single individual) for those standing at the music stand lecterns. One of the team serves as camera operator – they are about eight feet apart.
The two Vixias feed their signals via HDMI to the ATEM Mini. The ATEM and the webcam connect to a laptop via USB, as does the Behringer mixing board. The laptop runs the OBS Studio software. We added another person to the team to handle the switching chores. I admit that it is a hodgepodge system. There are literally two devices performing video switching chores. It has, however, allowed us to significantly improve the worship’s video dimension.
We have become more proficient with OBS as well. We use more titling, particularly during the hymn for singing at home. We use recorded video of the worship space sometimes when people are moving back and forth to microphones.
I use all three cameras during the Wednesday song performances as well as the Community Concerts. I put the ATEM literally at my feet and change cameras with my big toe. I have not learned to sing and change cameras at the same time, so it mostly happens between songs.
Blackmagic released another version of the ATEM – the ATEM Mini Pro – just after I’d placed our order. Both products spent a lot of time in backorder (as I write this, they’re on backorder again). The Pro device includes a streaming encoder itself, allowing it to push out a stream without a laptop running OBS. It also includes a multiview feature that allows the operator to see the output of all connected cameras on a connected monitor.
Hardware and liturgy changes aside, the experience of leading these services online has remained pretty consistent. They take real effort to plan, although they are simpler in some ways. We select fewer pieces of music than our previous services. There is a prelude but not a postlude, one hymn rather than four, one anthem but no offertory. Only three musicians participate, and one records her performance in advance. The service is shorter. The combined story and sermon takes less time than the two individually.
The major difference between these experiences and a worshiping congregation is the absence of the worshiping congregation. The worship leaders do not experience the energy of the gathered people. Instead, we pour our efforts into an unresponsive camera lens. We cannot even see the live comments made on YouTube.
In retrospect, I wonder if a video conferencing solution might have provided some of that feedback, given us some of that missing energy. My experience of teleconferences does not give me a great deal of confidence that it would. Having held a few church board meetings in this way, I have found more discomfort with the technology than I had feared. Some weeks of experience could have helped with this, of course.
We have received appreciative notes from people about the services we are providing, and the viewer numbers are close to an in-person Sunday. At least half of the views happen at some time after Sunday. If nothing else, we have learned that people will engage in a worship experience at some time other than ten o’clock on Sunday morning – and that we should continue to make one available.
Church of the Holy Cross is now working on the ways we will hold in-person worship with due caution and care for the health of the worshipers. We will continue to stream our services. It introduces yet more technical challenges. We will need to use the sanctuary’s installed sound system, which fortunately can be piped to the computer as an audio source… via a long USB cable that will need to actively bolster the signal. The cameras will have to be further away from the switcher – more extension cables. The cameras will need operators. The operators will need instruction. And so on.
In some places in the world – Wuhan, northern Italy, New York City, to name three – the spread of COVID-19 has greatly resembled the impact of war. The virus has brought terrible suffering. It has taken lives. It has left thousands grieving. It has overwhelmed medical facilities and professionals. It has forced horrible decisions. It has exacted a stiff toll on the economic lives of cities, provinces, states, and nations.
Wars do that.
In response, governments have summoned organizational resources in a very similar manner to those required in war. They have issued orders restricting the freedoms of their citizens. They have sought to create supplies that had not previously existed, and direct them in unusual quantities to the places they are needed. They have recruited additional personnel to meet the needs. They have intervened in the economic processes of the world.
Wars do all that, too.
Further, governmental leaders have urged their citizens, out of a sense of patriotism and the good of the nation, to take on new tasks (while old ones cannot be done). Sewing masks for medical staff reminds me of the bandage preparation groups of the American Civil War. They have asked for sacrifices among the population for the good of all.
These things, too, happen in war.
It is not, however, a war, and there are steep costs to thinking about it as one.
This week, some business and political leaders came to the conclusion that the public health response to the spreading contagion came at too high a price. Dan Patrick, Lieutenant Governor of Texas, offered that he and those of his generation might offer to sacrifice their lives “in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren.” Fox News commentator Brit Hume endorsed the idea, saying, “The utter collapse of the country’s economy — which many think will happen if this goes on much longer — is an intolerable result.” The President of the United States, without any medical advice at all, suggested that Easter – April 12 – would be a good day to return to normal activity again.
It’s a war, they say, not on a virus, but in defense of an economy. They are summoning a patriotic fervor to defend the wealth of a nation, wealth that is held by a startlingly small portion of its population. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Saint Louis, in 2016 the richest 10% of Americans possessed 77% of its wealth, up from 67% in 1989. 1% of American assets were (unevenly) divided between fully half of the population.
In other words, the sacrifices of war are being urged on a generation of Americans who have not benefited from the wealth they are being called upon to defend. It is true, I’m afraid, that in war a generation, generally of young adults, is called upon to sacrifice itself in defense of rights and privileges they frequently have not enjoyed.
That is why we must not call it a “war.”
We are engaged in a massive effort, yes. We are trying to preserve the public health from a spreading pathogen which can cause terribly acute illness and has a high rate of mortality. That is not, however, a war. A virus does not select targets. It makes no decisions based on strategy or in keeping with some “law of war.” It jumps from host to host as best it can without regard for anything except opportunity. Admirals and generals have no tactics for this response. Those trained in public health do.
We are engaged in promoting the healing of those infected by the virus. The number of people who require advanced care because of COVID-19 disease is stunning. Our hospitals are built for the number of people who are usually sick, not for this. Mobilizing the equipment and the personnel to care for the acutely ill is a herculean task, but it is a task of healing, not of death.
We are also trying to maintain the daily life of human beings. Some of that gets measured and described by economists: growing things, transporting things, making things, selling things, bringing things home to continue the life of the household. Other things rarely get measured by economists: conversations between friends that lift the heart, the acknowledgement of the sales clerk’s shared humanity, the sweetness of common prayer. All of these things are being stressed by the pandemic, and all of them will need help and healing to recover.
None of them will be aided by the language of war.
None of them will be strengthened by the guiding assumptions of war. “War is cruelty,” said William Tecumseh Sherman, and he demonstrated it. Cruelty will not help us.
We face pain, anguish, illness, death, and loss.
We must face it without cruelty.
As for those summoning us to sacrifice our kupuna for the wealth of some: The answer has to be a firm and unequivocal, “No.” May they ashamed of their callousness. Let their cruelty find no place in policy, in the hearts of the people, and especially not in a rising tide of tears for the sick and the dead.