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WUSF Public Media is honored to host the Florida edition of NPR’s Next Generation Radio, a workshop for college students and new journalists. Here we highlight their work — audio and digital stories about the experiences of Floridians affected by issues ranging from the COVID-19 pandemic to climate change. These stories were produced in partnership with NPR and WUSF Public Media. Our reporters are students and recent graduates in Florida.

Rebuilding The Faith: How This Reverend Keeps Her Community Socially Connected While Physically Distant

Faith illustration
Illustrated by Emily Whang

Reverend Crystal Muldrow’s dedication to supporting the congregants of Unity Fort Myers during the coronavirus pandemic demonstrates how this church is more than just the building.

“It was literally doing church in a new way overnight,” said Reverend Crystal Muldrow. “When we first heard about COVID, there was just so much information, as well as a lack of knowledge. And so people were trying to proceed. And then all of a sudden everything closed.”

Reverend Muldrow’s 15 years’ experience didn’t prepare her for ministering amid a pandemic. Adding to that challenge, Muldrow moved from Michigan in November 2020 to start a new role as senior minister at Unity Church in Fort Myers.

Karina Cashman reports for NPR's Next Generation Radio

Other churches in the area, and other branches of the Unity church had already re-opened, so the pushback to get back to ‘normal’ among the Unity congregation was strong.

“Second day I got here, there was this huge pressure of opening up,” said Muldrow. “It was a culture shock coming here because everything was shut down in Michigan. There [were] no ifs, ands or buts about it.”

Reverend Crystal Muldrow demonstrates her Zoom setup
Karina Cashman
Reverend Crystal Muldrow demonstrates her Zoom setup for Sunday sermons at Unity of Fort Myers on Monday, Jan 4, 2020. Sermons take place virtually every Sunday and are streamed on social media.

However, according to Muldrow, it wasn’t currently possible to get back to exactly how things were before the coronavirus. She set into action working with other staff, as well as the leaders of other ministries to determine how to keep the spirit of the organization alive.

“I’m a team player, you know, so I believe in engaging in the strengths of everyone, knowing that God’s presence and wisdom is in everyone and everyone has their own talents,” said Muldrow. “I find people who know what they’re doing and go, ‘Okay great.’”

One of the chaplains came up with wearing latex gloves if people meeting in person for prayers want to hold hands. Congregants are also able to visit remote areas of the church to pray as long as the area is disinfected after.

“If you want to meet here, we could open up the buildings for you,” said Muldrow. “You have to disinfect and make sure it’s clean. That’s a part of the contract. We just choose not to as a church to open.”

Face masks and gloves on a table
Karina Cashman
Unity of Fort Myers church requires mandatory face masks, and offers gloves for participants who would like to hold hands during private prayer services. This is one of many disinfecting stations placed throughout the buildings, which are only in use on occasion and by request.
Loaves of bread in a box
Karina Cashman
Volunteers from Unity of Fort Myers will pick up this box of bread to donate to people in need, including a group of foster children.

Between virtual and drive-thru events, mandatory masks, sanitizing stations, social distancing and rigorous disinfecting, the church has been working to ensure it implements coronavirus precautions and keeps members as safe as possible. The main building has been closed, but the church still functions virtually with a few outdoor events.

“We’re still participating even outside of the church as actively as possible,” said Muldrow. “Yeah, the buildings of the church are still closed, but the church is not closed because the church is not the building.”

Unity offers virtual meditations Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, as well as coffee talks, and a food distribution service in which volunteers donate bread and pastries to people who need it. Food can be picked up at the church and some is sent home with foster kids who come for distanced group services. Additionally, an on-site chaplain is available for distanced praying with participants wearing face masks.

Muldrow also uses Facebook and Zoom to produce a mix of pre-recorded and live-streamed sermons for her congregation weekly. The church held a small, outdoor, physically distanced service for Christmas that was also broadcast virtually, but there is hope that it can start transitioning to more socially distant, in-person events by Easter.

“The vaccines are coming out,” said Muldrow. “And I know several of our members have already been vaccinated since it’s a more elderly population. So we’ll see if it opens up any earlier than Easter.”

While every day is another step towards overcoming the challenges that the pandemic has presented, Reverend Muldrow is still optimistic that the world will be stronger for all that we have suffered.

Christmas Eve service at Unity of Fort Myers church

For now, her deepest concern is keeping up the morale of her church congregants.

“Our world, our thoughts of what the world is like and what it should be, is gone,” said Muldrow. “And as much as we say, ‘let’s get back to normal,’ what was, is in the past. So now we have this opportunity of going, ‘So how are we going to proceed now?’”

Despite having to keep a congregation desperate for connection at bay, and continuing to pay for employee salaries in addition to the management of grounds and buildings that are no longer in use, Reverend Muldrow sees light on the other side of this pandemic.

“That’s the interesting thing about devastation,” said Muldrow. “I mean, you look at history, some of the most incredible inventions or things that we have found out about are in times of despair. And I don’t think this is going to lack in that.”

In balancing the realities of the pandemic with the needs of her congregants, Reverend Muldrow has fostered a community separated by circumstance.

“This community has been a blessing,” said Muldrow. “What my faith did was to show me once this is all over with, what a wonderful time we’re going to have to create.”

View of Peace Pond
Karina Cashman
Peace Pond is part of the sprawling campus of Unity Fort Myers. The grounds and buildings continue to be maintained even though the church is not holding regular in-person services.

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