Over the last year, religious institutions have faced a dilemma. While wanting to embrace people going through hard times like the coronavirus pandemic, restrictions and health concerns have kept congregations from being together in large numbers.
“I think it has impacted a lot of people,” said Mark Hall, who served as president at First Congregational Church of Cheshire in 2014. “For me, church was always a place where I would see a lot of friends every weekend. I think it has been difficult for the community to not have that social aspect over the last year.”
To do his part, Hall has spent countless hours developing a way to connect people virtually. For more than a year, he has been recording weekly services at First Congregational Church of Cheshire.
After shooting on Saturdays, the church has been running a live stream on Sundays at 10 a.m. People can watch the services on YouTube and Facebook.
“I went from not having much experience to doing up to 16 hours of editing a week,” reflected Hall, who resides with his wife and four daughters in Cheshire. “At the beginning of the pandemic when there was nothing to do at home, I found that this was a good escape for me.”
Last year, Hall said that the idea of virtual services came up in a meeting between the church board and the ministers.
“We went from a casual conversation of having smaller services to closing down the church,” recalled Hall, whose wife served as the church president last year.
Hall has been an IT Director at United Health for 30 years, but in his spare time, he also runs the phone and security systems, internet, and computers at his church. For his virtual service project, the first challenge was to find software to run it.
“I tried several things, but ended up using a product called DaVinci Resolve. It is a video production software suite,” stated Hall.
To start the digital recording, he set up three camera angles in the church. He looked at previous services to make the production as consistent as possible.
“I had a dedicated voice recorder that was separate from the camera,” said Hall. “The biggest learning curve was finding out how to synch all of the videos.”
As an added touch, Hall printed up 8 x 12 color photos of parishioners to serve as spectators at the services.
“Some minister had done it and the story went viral,” reflected Hall. “Our board suggested to ministers that we put pictures in the pews.”
In post production, he had to learn how to intersperse graphics in the videos. To put the name of songs or hymns on the screen, he used closed captioning options on Facebook and YouTube.
“Little by little, it got easier,” recalled Hall. “I started with five video clips on three timelines. There were some entertaining blooper videos that we had to edit out.”
Hall created a standard introduction and closing to the services.
“It starts with the church bells ringing and went into people singing. For the introduction, I also got people from the church community to say hello,” said Hall. “Before COVID, the services ran for a solid hour, but right now, they last about 45 minutes.”
At the beginning of editing, he approximated that the process took 12 to 16 hours.
“Thankfully, my skill set has increased extensively. I think the best editing time I ever did was two hours from beginning to end,” reflected Hall. “Sometimes, it would take an hour for my computer to compile everything and then I had to upload it to Facebook and YouTube.”
Along with volunteering at his church, Hall has also been active in the Spirits Alive! Cemetery Tour. Started by the Mulholland family with the support of the Cheshire Historical Society, the program has “spirit” actors talk about the lives and deaths of past residents at Hillside Cemetery.
Dawn Marchand and Steve Holt help to direct the series.
“My family has been involved since the first year,” recalled Hall, who started out as a tour guide. “My daughter Dor, has acted in it for four years.”
Due to the pandemic, Spirits Alive! organizers decided that they couldn’t run the popular event live last year, but Hall came up with an alternative idea after speaking with Joyce Mulholland.
From August to October, Hall recorded people telling six stories from previous years.
Hall’s daughter was the first person to act in the virtual series.
“I wish that she would have gone later because I could have done a better job filming,” said Hall.
At CHS, Dori Hall performed in the Drama Club.
“Like any parent, you are gushing and proud to see your kid perform,” stated Hall. “For this kind of role, it is also gut-wrenching because the people tell you stories of how they died. It is an interesting contrast because it makes you weep on different levels.”
Hall tried filming the tour a couple of years ago, but he feels that his church work helped him better prepare this time around.
“I bought microphones, so that we didn’t get wind noise,” reflected Hall. “Even though we shot at night, I got pretty good light for filming.”
While having improved significantly in videorecording, Hall said that photography has been a life-long interest. While attending Cheshire High School from 1984–88, he became a correspondent for photographer Roy Roland at The Cheshire Herald.
“I captured the life of the high school through the inside instead of just shooting events,” explained Hall, who was paid $7 per photo. “I had a darkroom in my basement where I developed film.”
He fondly recalls how he received his first press pass in 1984. When Dodd Middle School won a radio contest, Hall approached Roland about getting credentials to watch John Cafferty and The Beaver Brown Band perform in a students-only concert.
“It was kind of neat,” recalled Hall, who made a print pass in the basement of the school. “I really enjoyed getting assignments to do high-school related photos. When I made a scrapbook years later, I realized that one of the guys in my photos ended up being a groomsman in my wedding.”
In reflecting upon his life experiences, Hall feels that the pandemic shows why it is important to be flexible in any field. At the First Congregational Church of Cheshire, he recalls how services were held outside last year, so that people could adhere to social distancing.
“We have to find ways to keep people engaged, like Bible studies on Zoom,” Hall said.
Since Hall recently had shoulder surgery, current church president Andy Irish has stepped up to record services.
“In case I got COVID, I thought it was important to have someone else available to run the video and editing,” explained Hall.
After recuperating, Hall plans to help with bringing services outside again this year. The plan is to start that process with Palm Sunday and Easter.
“Last year, we filmed the Easter services beforehand and then I had to edit everything,” reflected Hall. “We are trying to improve the quality of the services right now.”
Even when the pandemic is over, Hall feels that virtual services will continue to have a following. First Congregational Church of Cheshire currently has 208 subscribers on their YouTube Channel.
“We will try to put something together for people,” said Hall.