Kansas church dances its way back to in-person worship
Returning to church in person will be like a dance: a little awkward at first, but fun once you get the feel of it.
That was the theory at Colonial Church in Prairie Village, Kan., this spring. And it proved true. People there literally did dance through the up-and-down emotions of getting back together after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Members practiced the globally popular “Jerusalema” dance all spring — then celebrated on Pentecost Sunday with a video camera rolling. Now they’re challenging others to do likewise.
‘Joy is a choice’
Colonial’s senior minister, the Rev. Aaron Roberts, was, metaphorically, the first out on the dance floor. “As Easter was coming, our church leadership was discussing how relaunching after the pandemic was not going back to normal,” he said. “So much had changed. All of us had experienced trauma.
“So, on Easter Sunday I likened it to learning to dance. There is apprehension and fear. We will step on each other’s toes. Yet, there is an Easter joy that transcends all of our fears.”
The “Jersualema” dance — a worldwide internet hit during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic — seemed a natural choice. The South African track features a catchy beat by DJ Master KG and vocals by the artist Nomcebo. A February 2020 video of an Angolan troupe dancing to the tune is credited with igniting similar posts from around the world. Today, social media hashtag searches like “#jerusalemachallenge” or “#jerusalemadance” reveal videos of students, firefighters, corporate teams, cardio teachers, priests and nuns — all kinds of people from everywhere dancing to the tune.
“My hope was that this dance could help us recover and reengage and have some fun,” Roberts said. “One lesson that I’ve taken from this pandemic is that joy is a choice that we have regardless of our circumstances.”
‘Holy Spirit showed up’
Two professional dancers in the congregation, Tamara Carson and Darren Carpenter, stepped up to teach the steps. “They took the original dance and created a more accessible video for people to practice with,” Roberts said. “Then each week during the Easter season we’d do a practice run with the instructional video following our Sunday worship.” Church member Jan Parkinson offered to shoot and edit a video of Colonial dancers — whenever they thought they would be ready. They settled on Pentecost Sunday, May 23.
Roberts’ prediction came true: after a year of physical separation and online-only gatherings, the return to in-person worship felt as strange as a new dance.
“For me, the Easter season felt like slowly coming out of the tomb. Our first Sunday together in person we celebrated a special Baptism, but the following weeks felt strange. Mother’s Day particularly felt weird. Most years, that is such a high energy time of worship; this year was quiet. Jan asked me how many people I expected to dance on Pentecost. I responded that given the way things were going, maybe six or eight.
“But the Holy Spirit showed up on Pentecost.”
Dancers filled the room for the videotaping, with Carson, Carpenter and the robed Roberts front and center. There was a role for non-dancers, too. They twirled rainbow-colored umbrellas, symbolizing the church’s extravagant welcome. “We had another Baptism that Sunday, and there was an energy to worship,” Roberts said. “We had a few dozen people come to dance, including a woman who was joining us for the first time ever.”
Now the church is encouraging others to get in on the act. On Monday, May 24, Colonial posted the video on Facebook with the message, “On Pentecost Sunday, WE DANCED! Take a look at our moves, and share with friends to do the #jersualemachallenge this summer.” It tagged other Prairie Village churches to encourage them.
And Roberts isn’t done. “I am thinking about challenging our local police department, where I am a volunteer chaplain,” he said. He’s even hoping to see hashtags from the wider UCC. “I’d love to see the national setting or the General Synod take up the challenge.”
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