A recent cyberattack against virtual worship at First Baptist Church Jamaica Plain in Boston, Massachusetts, sparked Darrell Hamilton to re-imagine his calling and even that of the Church – capital C.
How do congregations call and equip clergy and lay people to ministry in online settings? How do churches provide welcoming virtual services that also are emotionally and spiritually safe?
“As a ministry team and as a congregation we want to maintain our witness of the Gospel,” said Hamilton, the church’s pastor for formation and outreach. “But we also do not want to tolerate hate speech and bigotry.”
The congregation experienced the latter March 29 during an 11 a.m. Zoom worship service. Several unknown individuals disrupted the gathering with vulgar outbursts.
Zoom is a video conferencing app that can be used on tablets, computers and smartphones to virtually connect with other individuals for meetings, worship and other gatherings. Zoombombing occurs when online intruders in some way disrupt such gatherings.
The attack against the Boston church occurred during a period when religious groups around the country, worshiping online to honor social distancing safeguards due to COVID-19, were reporting similar attacks.
That weekend was First Baptist Jamaica Plain’s first foray into virtual services. Hamilton and a handful of lay members stepped up to oversee the operation.
The online attack resulted in expanding that group and contemplating the role as more intentionally ministerial, Hamilton said.
“We now have a team of moderators of hosts,” he said. “We are now having to think much more about the virtual realm.”
Hamilton spoke with Baptist News Global about the incident, its impact on some church members and the new safeguards in place as Christians move toward Easter Sunday. His comments are included here, edited for brevity and clarity.
When did you start to understand a Zoombombing incident was underway that Sunday morning?
We realized we were getting hacked and hijacked when we saw a lot of trolls (logged on). Then there was a racial slur articulated. Later they tried to disrupt us during welcome and introductions and as we prayed. They came in with obscene comments and gestures and anti-LGBTQ remarks. We tried to mute individuals, but it wasn’t enough.
What actions did you take from that point?
We ended the meeting, thinking that with a few minutes offline we could add a password to protect the service. I was moderating the account that day and ended the meeting. I sent a notification to all members and through our church listserv with a password to get back in.
Did services resume, and did most worshipers return?
We continued the service and there were just a few people who didn’t come back because it was triggering and traumatic for them. We are a congregation of people who are from marginalized communities and those hateful remarks were harmful to them.
And it did sully the spirit of the worship, so we were trying to keep going forward. It put us in an interesting place, but it called us to step into a ministry role that we have in these times.
Do you think the church was intentionally targeted?
We have talked about that as a ministry team. We don’t know. We are not trying to figure out the psychology of those trolls. But this is not our first time dealing with people who disagreed with our message of black lives matter and of being a welcoming and inclusive congregation.
They may just be people wanting to be jerks and to be as disruptive as they could for their own entertainment. We have seen that was happening in a lot of different formats for no apparent reason.
What response did you get from those deeply hurt by the intrusion?
People were lamenting that it happened and sharing the way it made them feel, sharing the deep hurt it triggered. But people were still holding a position of openness. No one wanted us to shut down our worship but to be open and welcoming. They needed a couple of days to process their own hurt and, come Palm Sunday, they were with us in worship again.
What changes did you implement for Palm Sunday – and were you hit again?
There were no issues. Zoom as a company announced that they were going to require a password for all meetings and no person could change that. And they also required a waiting room.
How did the virtual waiting room work for your church?
We were able to go in and craft our own message, to greet people and thank them for coming. We told them about our intention to be welcoming but also our criteria for this being a safe space. Our team of hosts would go through a process of specifying that there could be no hurtful behavior. And then the hosts would let people in individually.
Did it work?
It definitely worked.
Will there be any tweaks for Easter Sunday?
We’re going to have a larger team of cohosts and moderators who help us manage the space because we expect a lot of people will want to go to our Eater service just as they would any Easter.
We are committed first and foremost to providing a space that provides love and justice, which is the message of the Gospel.
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