Like many churches throughout the Conference, when Payson Park Church in Belmont, MA, made the difficult decision to close its doors, leadership looked for creative ways to keep people engaged from a distance. Pastor Eric Wefald and the talented team of ministry staff, musicians, and educators worked together to provide rich, meaningful opportunities to serve and celebrate God, and to keep their community whole, and adapted all their programming to an online format.
There was one offering in particular that could have been dropped because it is usually thought of as an in-person only event but has instead grown significantly: weekly meditation.
The Christian Education committee began meditation classes in December 2019, thinking it would be a helpful offering to get members through the cold, long nights of the winter season. The initial program ran for three sessions in the church and received enough enthusiasm that the committee decided to offer weekly meditations during the season of Lent. Then the pandemic hit, and because folks were looking for solace and connection during these troubling times, the instructor committed to offering meditation over Zoom at least until the church reopened its doors. Participation tripled and at the request of community members, a second weekly class was added at lunch time. Presently, meditation classes are offered twice a week; once during the day and once in the evening.
“I have been practicing meditation for 10 years,” said Katherine Ballas, who is both the instructor and the church’s Youth & Community Outreach Minister. “I am a dual degree student at Boston College completing a Masters in Theology & Ministry and Social Work,” she said. “I became interested in teaching meditation as a modality that integrates theology, pastoral care, and mental health. I've also received training in meditation, yoga, and social-emotional learning through Breathe for Change.”
Everyone is welcome to join the 30-minute meditation classes. The sessions are designed to introduce the practice of meditation. Some people have never meditated before, some have been meditating for decades. Basic skills for meditation are taught so that people can practice throughout their week. One benefit of meeting virtually is that folks can join from anywhere in the world. Another advantage is that one is able to turn off audio or video, which can create a more personal space.
Holly Bloomfield, a member who attends the Friday evening class, said that she finds the meditation guided by Katherine to be very relaxing, especially at the end of her work week. “Although the class is only a half-hour long, I always feel better at the end of that half hour. I feel more relaxed and more receptive to God. That is a great way to live every day, but starting the weekend refreshed in this way makes time off even better."
Every class opens with a passage from scripture which is meant to remind folks that they come to the practice with the intention of growing closer to God. Participants are reminded that they are not learning to sit quietly; they are learning to be calm within themselves. Background noises, interruptions, and speaker feedback are part of the learning. “I think this is an important reminder particularly during this time of discord and chaos.” said Ballas.
The meditations vary in style and technique, which allows people to experiment and find practices that are most beneficial to them. Every session ends by reading prayers from a community prayer list, and asking questions, and sharing wisdom.
One participant told Ballas that her sessions are just what is needed during these times – to be in community, hold each other in prayer while breathing in loving kindness and breathing out fears and grief. Another thanked her for the meditation based on the Scriptural message, "Be Not Afraid," since she had come to the Zoom meeting worried about her daughter-in-law's heath care job and possible exposure to her son and grandchildren. She said, "I felt myself calming down when your soothing voice reminded me of God's presence in the midst of this meditation group."
Chaplain Mandi Rice who has substituted for Ballas during a couple sessions, said that she was experiencing personally and professionally how invaluable it is to have someone teaching practices of tuning in and caring for our bodies and minds and spirits. “I really feel like right now the work of leading meditation is really the work of accompanying people's spirits."
There are some challenges, however, with holding this traditional in-person class online. Not all of community members have the same access to or the same level of comfort with technology. The staff and ministry team called every community member individually to invite and help them move to online worship and programs, but a few simply do not have access to the internet or the necessary technology. For those wanting to participate in meditation, Ballas has given the additional option of calling her personal cell phone so they can listen to the meditation.
A second challenge has been overcoming some misunderstandings about meditation. “I've heard some describe the meditation classes as our 'eclectic' offering, some indicate that it is not the way they prefer to relate to God, and others are a bit suspicious of the practice,” explained Ballas. “I learned meditation while interning at a Catholic Monastery in Northern Ireland. When meditation was introduced to me, it was introduced as a practice that was grounded in our Christian heritage and integral to the Christian experience. I'm glad that I've been able to share that experience with others.”
Ballas is also aware that there is a third challenge, which is uplifting the practice of Christian meditation and integrating what we have been taught about the practice by scientists, by yogis, by Buddhists, Hindus, and Jains, while not appropriating from other cultures or misrepresenting our intentions. “I draw from the wisdom of all of these faithful leaders, seekers, and researchers when writing the scripts for each meditation session,” she said. “As I do so, I am mindful of my place as a minister within a Protestant church in New England. I am careful to honor our history and to teach meditation in a way that promotes justice, clarity, and well-being.”
"Meditation has been practiced by many of the saints of the Christian church throughout the centuries. Plus the Bible records how Joshua meditated upon God's Law, David meditated upon the work of God's hands, in Colossians Paul tells us to meditate and set our minds on things above, and much more,” said Wefald. “Today when so much anxiety and fear pervade our society, we need meditation more than ever, to help us to take a pause, breathe in and out, and focus on things above, on becoming still and knowing we are enfolded in God's loving care."
You can contact Katherine Ballas and Eric Wefald at the church office at 617-484-1542 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow them on Facebook, and view their YouTube channel for meditation classes and other events.