“Has anyone written a call n response liturgy specifically for Coronavirus?” I tweeted hastily at 9 a.m. on March 15.
Our Sunday service—which would be live-streamed via Facebook to our 500-person congregation—was starting in an hour, and at the last minute, we realized that our Lenten liturgy no longer felt appropriate. Our pastor at Forefront Church, which is based in Brooklyn, was busy going over his sermon, our three musicians were rehearsing, and the two-person A/V team was setting up the cameras. It fell on me, the executive director, to rewrite our liturgy. Several people had replied to my tweet with resources, and I found a prayer I liked, so I adapted it for our congregation. Despite the scrambling, we pulled off our first remote and live-streamed Sunday service, which was viewed a few thousand times.
Rewriting the liturgy was just one of many decisions that we had to quickly make over the course of the next few weeks. By the time our governor issued an order for all non-essential businesses to close, we reimagined our Sunday service yet again, this time getting each person on staff to live-stream their segment from their apartment.
Despite the hiccups, our transition has been relatively smooth. We are a progressive nondenominational Christian church that skews young; our congregation is fairly technologically savvy, and we already had in place most of the infrastructure for a live-stream. From the beginning, that meant we were able to focus on other things, such as circulating forms that people could fill out to request and offer help, from financial assistance to grocery transportation. We knew that creating as many forms of virtual community as possible was a huge priority given the social isolation people felt, and luckily many congregants stepped up to host virtual prayer and meditation events on Zoom, a video-conferencing platform.
All across the country, in big cities and small towns, other religious and congregational leaders are also trying to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic by finding new ways to reach people. Most of them are, like me, trying to recreate physical services on virtual platforms, to improvise with ancient liturgical traditions, and to contact congregants, especially those most at-risk, to see how they are doing and connect them with help when needed. During the past two weeks, as I interviewed a number of faith leaders—from Catholic, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, and Protestant traditions—several of them told me their current plans and then warned me that things might change the next week. Each congregational leader had their distinct concerns, but most were wrestling with a number of paradoxes, namely, how to strengthen networks of community and support while maintaining physical distance, and how to respect tradition while radically adapting it to the current context.
THE FIRST TIME I rang the Rev. Rich Andre, the associate pastor of St. Austin Catholic Parish in Austin, Texas, at the time we had agreed to chat, my call went straight to voicemail. He left me a very apologetic voicemail a few hours later. “It’s been an absolutely nutty day,” he said. “I’m spending the whole day trying work with videographers to up the production value of our live-stream.”
As far as Catholic priests go, Father Andre is fairly online: He is on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Soundcloud, and even Pinterest. And yet even he was struggling with the technological transition, as it was hard to get good sound quality while streaming on Facebook Live in the large, echoing space of the church.
More than 2,000 families call St. Austin home, which also runs a pre-K through eighth grade school and operates 47 ministries, many focused on social justice and caring for the homeless. Much of the staff’s focus has been on how to continue to meet the needs of those who knock on their doors for help, while also establishing necessary health precautions. Like almost all of the clergy leaders I spoke to, Father Andre seemed to be stretched thin.
“I had a moment yesterday—it’s never happened to me in my career—where I was answering the phone to respond to a request to anoint a dying patient, and my cell phone was ringing, and the office phone was ringing all at the same time,” he said. “I don’t know how long anybody can keep working at this frenetic level, as the ground keeps shifting.”
Two days before our call, the bishop of his diocese canceled all public Masses to Father Andre’s relief, as public Masses cannot be canceled without the bishop’s authorization. The previous Sunday, when St. Austin still had to hold its five public Masses, the priests asked parishioners not to come if they were elderly and immunocompromised. Still, Andre estimated that 300 people showed up that day—and many of them were elderly or known to be at-risk.
“For people of faith, their community is an essential operation and necessary part of their lives,” said the Rev. Daniel Horan, a Catholic theologian and Franciscan friar who teaches at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. “In a trying time where people are very afraid, their faith community is exactly where they want to be.” That said, the commitment to life must supersede our desire to be in a physical, worshipping community, he carefully added.
The Catholic Church has historically instructed people to make an act of “spiritual communion” in times in which they cannot, for whatever reason, attend Mass. “If the church cannot gather physically, we gather together in communion through the Holy Spirit as occasioned by baptism,” Horan said. “That’s not taught to many folks.”
Part of the appeal of the Eucharist—the consuming of consecrated wine and bread—is its physical tangibility and the clear step-by-step nature of the rite. By contrast, spiritual communion seems less clear. Archdioceses, such as Washington D.C.’s, have started offering step-by-step guides for how to conduct prayer services, including a prayer for the act of spiritual communion, at home. “This is an opportunity to revisit our tradition and see what resources are out there to help us respond to our needs,” Horan said.
Spiritual communion has proven to be a confusing concept for many of St. Austin’s parishioners, based on the emails and calls that the staff have received. Father Andre thinks they have to shift congregants’ habits. “We’ve been telling people for so long that there’s no substitute for going to Mass,” he said, noting that older generations especially value this church attendance. “Now all of a sudden, we’re turning on a dime and saying, ‘Don’t come to Mass.’” It will take time for parishioners to learn this new way of practicing communion.
REVISITING TRADITION HAS also been something that the Rev. John Iwohara has been pondering. He is the senior resident minister of Gardena Buddhist Church, which serves the South Bay region of Los Angeles County and is part of the Jodo Shinshu Japanese school of Buddhism. Out of the dozen clergy I spoke with, he seemed the calmest. Yes, they had canceled their Sunday services, and he had been posting video messages on Facebook. Yes, they had many elderly members—the total membership is around 500—but there were at least a dozen younger volunteers who had stepped up to wait in line at the grocery store, even for up to a few hours, on their behalf.
An essential practice of the Jodo Shinshu school of Buddhism is to chant for half an hour every day. He and the other ministers have not figured out what the best way to host a virtual chanting experience, one that would allow members to hear each other chanting at the same time. Right now, members are encouraged to chant at their home altars. When we spoke, he mentioned that they were going to have a Zoom discussion, “Dinner and Dharma,” that night for the young adults. They would be reading from a collection of letters written by Rennyo Shonin, a fifteenth-century Japanese priest. The letter demarcated for that night’s discussion detailed the experience of an epidemic during Rennyo’s time.
“The letters talk about how many people are dying because of the epidemic, and some people think it’s because of illness,” Iwohara said. “But the real cause of death is birth. Coming to fully understand that … helps put everything in perspective.”
WHILE SOME CLERGY, like Iwohara, take comfort in being grounded in their unchanging, spiritual truths, other clergy are grappling with reframing ancient tradition.
Rabbi Valerie Cohen leads a Reform synagogue, Temple Emanuel Sinai, in Worcester, Massachusetts. For the 400 families on its membership roster, many life-cycle events, such as weddings, b’nai mitzvah, and b’not mitzvah, have been postponed. The biggest ritual on Rabbi Cohen’s mind, though, is funerals. Jews do not traditionally cremate. Bodies, which are typically not embalmed, are supposed to be buried as soon as possible, ideally within 24 hours of death.
“I would hesitate to say it would be impossible to postpone burials,” said Rabbi Cohen, though she added that it would take extreme circumstances to change the tradition. “The vast majority of [rabbis] have decided we’ll do a funeral at the gravesite. Some say immediate family only, some say less than 10, some less than five people, all 6 feet apart.”
She’s heard, however, of people doing memorial services, even shivas—a mourning period where relatives and friends congregate at the bereaved’s home—on Zoom.
Despite these stresses, Cohen has seen positive things emerge. A pen-pal program between young kids, who draw and color pictures, and elderly congregants, who write letters in response, has sprung up. A member in the community who moved to Israel joined in on a Talmud class hosted on Zoom. A woman from a small congregation in Mississippi recently called Cohen to ask if her congregation could watch their live-stream. Cohen asked if they would also like to participate in their online Torah study. “We can create connection with another congregation without the same resources,” Cohen said. “This pandemic will widen our boundaries in ways that they should’ve already been widened.”
The possibilities of technology are a bit more constrained for Orthodox Jewish congregations, for whom observing the Sabbath, or Shabbat (Friday night to Saturday night), means refraining from technology, especially the usage of phones or computers. Without the possibility of live-streaming a Shabbat service, many Orthodox congregations have chosen to cancel services entirely.
Rabbi Yechiel Shaffer is an Orthodox rabbi at the Pikesville Jewish Congregation near Baltimore, Maryland. According to Shaffer, it is a highly social Modern Orthodox congregation with more than 150 families, mostly with young children. Despite the canceling of public services, Shaffer has tried to create as much as connection as he can, posting Shabbat prayer and candle-lighting times on the website so that families can pray together in their homes during those times, knowing they are connected with other congregants even if physically apart.
Since his congregants can no longer hear him give his usual messages during Shabbat services, Shaffer is also posting short audio clips on Jewish law and spiritual life for members. Outside of Shabbat, his congregation has organized various ways to connect via Zoom.
Traditional Jewish law requires praying three times a day, but there are certain prayers that can only be made within the context of a minyan, or a quorum of ten people (or ten men, for Orthodox Jews) in the same physical space. Social distancing has made it virtually impossible to gather a minyan, so many Orthodox communities, Shaffer said, have created Zoom prayer rooms where everyone prays individually while dialed in, skipping over the sections in their prayer book that require a minyan.
“Social distancing is the most important piece of this which runs smack in the face of life-cycle events; we like to celebrate together, whether it’s a wedding or circumcision,” he said. “While there is an aspect of it that is disappointing and sad, there is also something deeply intimate, private and personal about it. It’s made all of us question and rethink what is important to us, and what makes something spiritually impactful and significant.”
WHILE PLENTY OF CLERGY are preoccupied with recreating religious services online, for some religious leaders, strengthening social services has been an equal, if not greater, concern. Imam Khalid Latif, the executive director of the Islamic Center at New York University, said the center joined with two other Muslim organizations to raise almost $500,000 from more than 3,000 supporters for people financially affected by COVID-19. So far, the funds have been distributed to 554 households and 1,750 individuals around the country in micro-grants ranging from $250 to $1,000.*
The Islamic Center at NYU serves more than 10,000 people in the tri-state area. While the center has been very active in hosting virtual meetings—from yoga sessions to study circles (halaqas)—Imam Latif was much more interested in detailing the center’s social services. Just a few days ago, the center raised funds for and distributed 5,000 masks to local hospitals.
Citing a hadith, or a saying from the prophet Muhammad, which states, “you will not enter Paradise until you have faith and you will not have faith until you love each other,” Imam Latif said, “The completion of your faith is that you have love for one another. Islam is a very God-centric, not ego-centric, religion, and it places as much emphasis on externals as it does on internals … on how individuals treat people around them.”
The Rev. Theresa Cho ministers in San Francisco at St. John’s Presbyterian Church, part of the mainline PCUSA denomination. Since food security is a huge concern in the city, and since many members of her congregation have stable salaries, she saw it as non-negotiable that the church kept their food pantry open. “Many food pantries are closing because most churches’ volunteers are over 65,” she said. “Most of our volunteers are younger … we feel an obligation to provide this service because this is what we believe a church should be doing.”
Like Cho, the Rev. Andrew Draper has been hard at work trying to figure out how to respond to the pandemic-related needs in his city of Muncie, Indiana. Fifteen years ago, Draper founded Urban Light Community Church as a multi-racial and working-class congregation. Part of the evangelical denomination Churches of God, the congregation operates a robust set of social services and counseling ministries, as well as a community development corporation, which runs a women’s recovery home, a housing redevelopment program, and a community garden.
The church’s counseling ministries have shifted to Zoom, and its social services are mostly limited to phone calls, with occasional handovers of bus passes or grocery store gift cards. The main social service program is its partnership with a local food bank to deliver goods to around 40 families in need. “We knew we needed to keep things going,” he said. “There is some level of risk we just have to take. People have physical, emotional and psychological needs … We don’t think the church should stop meeting needs or be considered ‘non-essential’ when things like Burger King’s drive-thru seem to be considered ‘essential’ right now.” He added, “Giving is going down a bit which is a challenge because needs are going up.”
The decline in giving is a weighty concern for many churches who don’t have much savings. The Rev. Valerie Washington is the minister at Hughlett Temple A.M.E. Zion Church in Louisville, Kentucky. Most members of her 144-person congregation are between the ages of 55 and 75. In addition to Sunday services, the church operates a food and clothing pantry on its premises. “We live week-to-week as far as finances are concerned, and last week, we had a loan that’s due, an insurance bill that is due,” she said. “This past Sunday, there was a shortage of 40 percent in giving.”
Now that services are canceled, Washington, together with her web technician, has set up online giving platforms for members. She hopes that the young adults in the congregation will start to teach the older ones how to use these tools, as so far online giving has not taken off. Most congregants are still calling to see if they can drop off their money in the church’s mailbox.
The church leadership’s next big decision is whether to conduct services via conference call or Facebook Live. Many congregations are opting for Facebook live, which allows people to watch a live-streamed service and type comments, but she has a slight preference for conference calls.
She explained, “One time we were snowed in and no one could get to church, so we had church through conference call.” Forty-four members called in. “There’s something about the camaraderie, the fellowship with one another.” And to her, that’s what church is all about. “When you come to church with other believers, it encourages, strengthens, and feeds you—you get spiritual nourishment that you don’t get by yourself at home.”
PERHAPS THE BIGGEST theme across my conversations was how exhausted all the clergy I spoke to felt. Rabbi Shaffer said, “We are human, and we are adjusting to this new reality ourselves. This is a big opportunity for kindness, to reach out to clergy and say, ‘How are you doing?’”
I thought of his comments during a virtual Shabbat dinner that I joined. A few friends in Philadelphia hosted it over Zoom. The hosts sang the blessings over the bread and wine, and then we began eating dinner, separately, but connected through our web cameras. It was a simple, sweet meal that came together within a few days. It wasn’t organized by a rabbi or any official clergy, but rather by laypeople who simply wanted to connect spiritually and communally. Maybe the biggest stress relief for clergy will be realizing that spiritual community still happens, even without them.
Sarah Ngu is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY, who has written for Vox, Vice, Jacobin, Sojourners, Religious Socialism, and Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Follow Sarah on Twitter (@sarahngu) and read their work at sarahngu.com.
*Correction: This sentence has been updated to reflect the fact that the campaign has helped 1,750 individuals, not 750 as previously stated.