October 23, 2014

Faith in technology

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April 21, 2011

Internet brings Beckett back for Palm Sunday service

By Adam White
Observer staff

Williston Town Clerk Deb Beckett watches and listens through an online video connection as choir director Martin Hain directs vocal practice prior to Williston Federated Church's Palm Sunday service on April 17. (Observer photo by Adam White)

During a pause in her Palm Sunday service, Rev. Joan O’Gorman looked out over the parishioners seated in the Williston Federated Church. As she met one familiar gaze near the front of the room, she broke into a wide smile.

“To see Deb’s face, as if she was sitting right there in the second row, was moving and joyful,” O’Gorman said.

Though Deb Beckett is currently deployed to Iraq with the Vermont Army National Guard, the longtime Federated Church member and Williston Town Clerk was able to join Sunday’s service through Internet technology. The online communications system Skype provided an audio and video feed of the service that Beckett was able to access with a personal computer in her containerized housing unit in the camp of Co. C 3/126 Aviation (Air Ambulance) in Iraq.

“It was fabulous,” Beckett said afterward. “It was amazing to be able to see and hear everyone. It was almost like I was there.”

A 25-year veteran of the National Guard, Beckett is on her second tour in the Middle East; she spent a year in Kuwait in 2005 with Task Force Green Mountain. She has the opportunity to attend a general morning service at the Tigris River Chapel in her unit’s base camp, but found that she missed many aspects of the Federated Church after spending more than two decades worshipping there.

“As much as the services here are good and I appreciate that we have very enthusiastic and committed chaplains in this Brigade, it is a very different atmosphere,” Beckett said. “It seems to be very temporary, and just because of the circumstances and variety of faith backgrounds, the services are very generic.  I really miss the traditions and fellowship of the Williston Federated Church, especially the music, the fellowship and of course the message.”

Sunday’s service centered on the events leading up to Christ’s crucifixion, and O’Gorman was able to draw parallels between the Biblical material and the present conflict in the Middle East.

“Jesus wept over Jerusalem, as we continue to weep over all of the places in the world where there is a lack of peace,” O’Gorman said. She then lit a special “candle of peace,” and offered a blessing to all those currently serving in the military.

Beckett had previously listened to audio recordings of hometown services on the Federated Church’s website, but said that unreliable connections could make that process time-consuming and frustrating. The idea for her to join the Palm Sunday service via Skype came after she had used the website to communicate with friend and fellow parishioner Pam Sevigny, whose laptop was used to make Sunday’s connection.

“This is a good way to keep in touch with her,” Sevigny said. “It works well – as long as there are no sandstorms on her end – and computer-to-computer, it’s free.”

Beckett said that the ability to Skype and email regularly wasn’t available during her first deployment to the Middle East, but has since become fairly common among military personnel overseas.

“I have been able to Skype with friends and family on a somewhat regular basis, and it is a pretty common way for people to communicate,” Beckett said. “Some soldiers have used Skype to read stories to their kids or pop in at a family gathering type of thing – but I have not heard of anyone Skyping a church service.”

Beckett said that the technology – which one of her fellow parishioners said was “like something out of science fiction” – is the closest many soldiers can come to making the over 5,000-mile trip back home for important events.

“We were preparing to Skype the birth of a baby,” she said. “Fortunately, the new baby held off long enough for Dad to make it home on leave – but it was close.”

Beckett hopes to return stateside “in about four or five months,” but will continue to participate in Federated Church services via Skype in the meantime. Rev. O’Gorman said that “gathering with those near and far” is very much in the spirit of what the church is all about.

“We pray for Deb every Sunday, but to have her present with us in this way is truly special,” O’Gorman said.

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