It’s Sunday morning, a little after 10 a.m., and the church service is underway at St. Mark Lutheran Church in Chesterland, Ohio.
In some ways, it’s the normal, weekly routine at the church.
The fifth Sunday of Lent, the ceremony begins with a hymn delivered by two members at the front, one on keyboard, another on guitar, the pair standing a few feet apart. The Vicar then begins the service with Confession and Absolution, followed by Service of the Word. Following this, Senior Pastor Mark Matzke walks to the front of the sanctuary and delivers the week’s message, “Making Your Days Count,” based on Psalm 90:12.
It’s exactly what one would expect to find in a small, northeast Ohio town of around 2,500 people. Except for one crucial element: the pews are empty. For the third Sunday in a row, Matzke is providing spiritual guidance remotely to his congregation of 200 or so members via Facebook Live.
As COVID-19 has disrupted schools, businesses, and lives in general on a global scale, so has it done with churches, synagogues, mosques, and other places of worship. The situation faced by Matzke and his flock is the new normal across all religions, and he’s doing his best to meet the challenge.
On top of the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on his duties as pastor, there’s also the repercussions its dealt to Small Town Monsters, the independent film company he’s involved with, as well as the Monsteropolis podcast he cohosts with that company’s founder, Seth Breedlove. Fortunately, there’s always Godzilla and his Kaiju pals to provide a little distraction from it all.
But more on that later.
Spiritual Shelter In Place
“The part that’s irreplaceable in all of this is the fellowship,” Matzke said earlier this week via Skype, discussing how ministering has changed recently. “That community spirit is just so important. During a service, there are so many things going on, so many little interactions I rely on to do my best, and those are completely gone. It’s the strangest thing … such a dramatic rethinking of how we communicate.”
Matzke’s experience is a microcosm of what many are experiencing as society transitions from classrooms, offices, restaurants, and, yes, places of worship to remote interaction online. Body language, slight glances, and other subtle social cues are lost as we migrate most of our time together to social media, meeting platforms such as Zoom and Skype, and even a semi-forgotten form of communication known as the telephone.
This expands beyond Sunday morning for Matzke and his work as a pastor. A couple of hours one day a week doesn’t keep a church running, nor does it meet the needs of its parishioners.
“During a typical week, I’m at the church Monday through Thursday from around 9 to noon. There are lots of people checking in during that time to see what needs to be done,” he said. “Of course, that has evaporated in all of this, out of necessity.”
Which puts a hefty load of needs on Matzke’s shoulders. And while seminary and 22 previous years of pastorship didn’t provide clear-cut training for shepherding a flock through a worldwide pandemic, he stands ready for the challenge with the experience he’s garnered over time.
“My emotions have been all over the place in a given day,” Matzke said. “It does fall on me in many situations to keep a level head and be a strong foundation for people … People are looking to me for hope, and I want to provide that … but then I also have my own private freak-out time.”
Matzke said that even in simpler times, it was important for him to seek supervision from others within Lutheran Church leadership, and it’s even more of a priority now.
When he hits a particularly rough patch, he reaches out to an old friend.
“There’s a pastor I mentored with who is sort of my sounding board for especially tough times,” Matzke said. “That’s my personal method, and I’ve learned to reach out to him … I’m fortunate that when I’ve reached out, there have been people there.”
Looking to the uncertain weeks ahead, Matzke and St. Mark Lutheran are remaining right where they are when others reach out for them. In addition to live-streaming Sunday service, the church also does live Bible study on Tuesdays, Vesper services, and fellowship time via Facebook.
Asked if there was a particular teaching from the Bible that he would share with others at this time of uncertainty, regardless of their faith or belief system, Matzke had no hesitation in pointing to 1 John 4:18: There is no fear in love. But perfect love casts out fear …
“What I always come back to is – when the Church is presenting the Bible and is truly on message – we’re loved unconditionally by the God that made us,” Matzke said. “We all live our lives trying to live up to a standard, whether it’s Scripture or a framework we make for ourselves … ‘Perfect love casts out fear.’ That’s what I keep thinking about. You don’t have to be of a certain religious perspective to understand and feel that.
“What’s going to cast fear out is love and being loved, and that is for everybody.”
The shift from ministering to a church “in real life” to doing live broadcasts over social media would be whiplash-inducing for some. But Matzke has done it gracefully.
What might be more whiplash-inducing to those who don’t know Matzke is who (or maybe more appropriately, what) prepared him for talking to a camera and microphone in an otherwise empty room.
Enter the beings that occupy him during his downtime: Bigfoot, Mothman, the Flatwoods Monster, and a parade of other cryptid creatures and unexplained phenomena.
Five years ago, Matzke joined up with close friend Seth Breedlove, who was starting an independent film company called Small Town Monsters (STM). In the ensuing years, Matzke has worked with Breedlove on documentary films including The Mothman of Point Pleasant, On the Trail of … Bigfoot, and MOMO: The Missouri Monster. His involvement ranges from production to writing to narration to acting.
As an offshoot of STM, Matzke and Breedlove also co-host the weekly Monsteropolis podcast. Every Friday, the pair discuss topics ranging from STM activity to general paranormal topics to Matzke’s deep and abiding admiration for Godzilla and Japanese Kaiju (“giant monster”) films.
“I can honestly say that Small Town Monsters prepared me for this,” Matzke said recently regarding his church’s transition to live streaming during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I have that to thank for understanding how Facebook Live works and things like that. I was able to instantly trade on that experience.
“It’s very weird how that worked out, you know? Sitting in a room, talking to no one as I’m narrating, or talking to Seth on a Google hangout or recording a podcast. It really set me up for this transition.”
STM recently completed a successful kickstarter campaign to fund its next round of documentary films, including The Mothman Legacy, The Mark of the Bell Witch, and its most recent release, On the Trail of … UFOs. Matzke wrote a five-year retrospective coffee-table book that was part of the Kickstarter’s rewards offering.
Plans were afoot to celebrate the first half-decade of STM and the release of On the Trail of … UFOs with Mysteries & Monsters at the Canton Palace Theater in Canton, Ohio, on March 21. This would have been a daylong event featuring screenings of STM films, speakers, and special guests, but the pandemic led to its rescheduling and eventual cancellation. Plans are underway to revive the event in the spring of 2021.
The new round of documentaries and Monsters & Mysteries aren’t the only things on the horizon for STM, though.
“Seth has a real passion for small businesses. I mean, Small Town Monsters is a small business itself,” Matzke said. “He feels really passionate about promoting the local shops and restaurants around Wadsworth, Ohio, where he is, and when we’re on the other side of this (pandemic), we’re kicking around the idea of doing something there like live shows to draw people in.”
Cryptids aside, there’s also the King of the Monsters and Matzke’s lifelong love of the atomic beast. (For a deep dive into his passion, check out episode 34 of Monsteropolis, which is devoted entirely to the topic and features Matzke’s son, Andy, another active member of the STM team.)
When asked how he envisioned a showdown between Godzilla and the novel coronavirus playing out, he chuckled for a few seconds before offering a scenario.
“It’d be great if COVID-19 took on this huge Kaiju form,” Matzke said. “And Godzilla comes in, and after messing around with it a bit, he goes for his signature move like a professional wrestler at the end of a match. He just unleashes his atomic breath on COVID-19 and that’s it. It’s over. Just like that.”
Matzke pauses for a few seconds before continuing.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if it was that easy?”
Follow St. Mark Lutheran Church on Facebook, and visit the church at stmarkchester.com to see more of what Pastor Matzke is up to. All services offered online thus far can be streamed from both sources.
Learn more about Small Town Monsters at smalltownmonsters.com. Several STM films are available for streaming to members on Amazon Prime, including On the Trail of … Bigfoot, Invasion On Chestnut Ridge, The Bray Road Beast, and several more. The Monsteropolis podcast is available on most podcast platforms, including Apple Podcasts and Spotify.