PISEK, N.D. — “Perfect love drives out fear.”

It is a Bible verse from the first chapter of John that The Rev. Jason Lefor keeps close to heart for himself and his parishioners since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

“One of the petitions I have is, ‘Father, bring us to that perfect love to cast out fear,’” Lefor said. He includes that prayer in the petitions during the Prayer of the Faithful at each Saturday night vigil and Sunday Mass.

“You’re either going to take the principles of fear, and that’s going to guide you — or you live the principle of faith, which is that God the Father is behind all things and guides us through,” said Lefor, who leads the rural North Dakota parishes of St. Nepomucene in Pisek, St. Joseph in Lankin and Sts. Peter and Paul in Bechyne.

“Faith is the perfect response to fear. Faith is more important now than ever,” he said. “It doesn't mean you don’t get exhausted, but that your identity is secure.”

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Faith communities faced a unique struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020: Their group gatherings were discouraged by health officials, if not outright limited by state governments. They had to maintain a sense of congregation while protecting their most vulnerable members. They had to become adept at modern technology to find news ways of staying in communication.

And they had to maintain faith during a stressful, devastating pandemic.

For those such as Joe Miller, a member of St. John Nepomucene, hearing words of comfort at Sunday Mass and receiving the Eucharist, which Catholics believe is the body and blood of Christ, provide a source of strength. Surrounded by statues of saints and angels amid a shared faith community makes Miller feel part of something bigger.

“It’s all one unified community,” he said of the chorus of gathered voices.

When churches were closed during the spring, that longing to be at Mass became greater, according to Miller.

“When we weren’t in the church for a period of time, it was kind of an empty feeling,” he said.

Hallock, Minn., farmers Justin and Donna Dagen, who are members of the Evangelical Free Church of America, have been striving to bolster their faith by maintaining community, daily devotions and finding opportunities to help others who are struggling as a result of the pandemic.

“We still will have hard times, but Jesus is with us. He will never leave us,” said Donna Dagen, who takes comfort from Proverbs 1:33: “Whoever listens to me will dwell secure and will be at ease, without dread of disaster.”

“That’s a good promise, right there,” she said.

The Rev. Jason Lefor distributes the Holy Eucharist, which Catholics believe is the body of Christ, to a member of St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church in Pisek, ND, on Sunday Dec. 6, the Feast of St. Nicholas. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
The Rev. Jason Lefor distributes the Holy Eucharist, which Catholics believe is the body of Christ, to a member of St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church in Pisek, ND, on Sunday Dec. 6, the Feast of St. Nicholas. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

One of the ways the Dagens practice their faith is to attend worship services at Resurrection Community Church in Karlstad, Minn. During the early months of the pandemic, that meant watching services that were streamed online, then “gathering” virtually for fellowship time.

“Even during the video thing, we did have coffee afterward. We Zoomed, so there would be a good number of us having coffee afterward,” Justin Dagen said.

The desire for community worship was why he and his wife were eager for the church to re-open, and they started attending services in person as soon as it did in June.

“Since then, it's been largely a normal worship time for us,” Justin Dagen said. “What has changed is that we have, maybe, only half of the people.”

That means about 25 people who attended services before the pandemic are choosing to stay home, he said.

The Dagens have reached out to the people who have been unable to attend services during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“I think there's a lot of ways to love our neighbor. For us, just making little telephone calls, just call people and ask them how they’re doing,” Justin Dagen said.

Praying for people is another way they strive to stay strong in their faith and to show compassion.

“We can pray for our friends, our neighbors, our family. We all need help,” Donna Dagen said.

The Dagens also look at the extra time that has resulted from Gov. Tim Walz's shutdown orders. That pause in typical daily activities has been an opportunity to strengthen their faith lives.

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“We all have extra time on our hands. We aren’t going to ball games four nights a week. It’s a different focus right now,” said Justin Dagen, who describes time spent praying together before meals and individually spending time in devotion and reflection throughout the day.

Focusing on faith has helped the Dagens to weather not only the pandemic, but also the political unrest that has gripped the United States this year. Without that faith, life would look bleak and it would be easy to fall into despair, according to the Dagens.

“When we look to Jesus, he brings that hope right back,” said Donna Dagen. This fall Justin Dagen, who is a farmer, delivered some of his crop to neighbors unable to go to the grocery store because they were ill or quarantined.

In addition, the Dagens, two to three times a week, babysit their granddaughter whose mother is a health care worker.

For Donna Dagen, caring for her granddaughter is a way she can lend a hand to her daughter and son-in-law during a time when she is unable to lead the church youth group or do other volunteer work.

“I feel like I am helping them,” she said.

In Aberdeen, S.D., Kristin Tobin is another who has discovered the pandemic has provided her an opportunity to put her faith into action as she helps care for COVID-19 patients.

“Making them feel more comfortable and cared for,” Tobin, a nurse at Avera St. Luke’s Hospital, said of her focus.

As a member of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Aberdeen, she said that her church has used technology to reach out to members.

“That was kind of our goal, to become more visual on Facebook and other social media. The pandemic forced us to do it quicker,” she said.

About 40 people attend services in the church on Sunday. The pandemic has changed some of the dynamics of the service, according to Tobin.

“We were kind of a huggy church. We had a greeting time in the morning at worship services. We would go pretty much from front to back and hug everybody and say ‘Hey, how are you doing?’” she said.

In the absence of the normal, she and other parishioners have looked at other ways to minister to the faithful, such as sending a card or by responding to them on Facebook.

Amid the upheaval and isolation that’s resulted from the pandemic, Tobin said she believes the faith of the Plymouth Congregational United Church members hasn’t been shaken.

“I think a lot of our people at our church do have a deep faith that will sustain them. They have been through hard things before,” Tobin said.

Lefor, pastor of the three rural Catholic churches in North Dakota,also has turned to technology as an avenue to deliver comfort. Each day, he spends 45 minutes sending personalized texts along with a prayer.

“My main go-to is the Memorare,” Lefor said, noting the prayer was special to St. Teresa of Calcutta.

Meanwhile, he also crafts personalized prayers, if that’s what he believes the person receiving his texts prefers.

Lefor’s goal as a priest during the coronavirus pandemic is the same as it was before: To help people trust implicitly in God.

“During ordinary times, we’re not consciously aware of the need we have for God's help. In this world, there will be tribulations. Are you going to be a faithful Christian during them? It’s my job to help people get to that point,” he said. “Don’t let the pandemic steal your joy. A pandemic is not greater than Christ.”

This story is part of a 13-day series that looks at all the ways 2020 has changed us. From now until 2021, expect stories on workplace and education, sports, economics, politics and everything in between.