By KENDRA SITTON | Uptown News
For faith communities home to more than 250 people, there was a clear mandate last weekend: they could not meet, according to San Diego County. For those falling below that number, they had a more difficult decision: shut down at a time when people need their community’s support the most or risk the potential of congregants spreading the virus to each other.
Some churches that initially said they would stay open while encouraging seniors, immunocompromised, and sick people to remain at home and ending the practice of communion reversed course. The rapidly shifting situation meant many places that intended to stay open on Wednesday, were dissolving in-person services by Friday. A handful stayed open, including University Christian Church (UCC), St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, and Ohr Shalom Synagogue. With the ban shrinking down to 10-person gatherings, many buildings have shut their doors for the time since a major wildfire or another catastrophe — or ever. For heavily religious people, this may be the first time they have had to spend an extended period of time away from their communities, marking an end to a significant tradition to them and possibly thrusting them into additional emotional isolation.
“I’ve spent all this time advocating for digital media, and I’ve just written my dissertation on digital media, and yet, I think that something is absolutely lost when you’re not able to be in physical community with each other,” said Rev. Caleb Lines of UCC.
With important religious holidays like Shabat and Easter looming, the grief of the lost ability to gather could increase. Meanwhile, religious institutions are turning to innovative uses of technology to keep their communities connected.
Many churches livestreamed their services on their website, Facebook Live, Twitter, or Instagram, including St. Paul’s Cathedral, UCC, and Mission Hills United Methodist Church.
The Rock Church, the largest megachurch in the city of San Diego, had Pastor Miles McPherson interview Mayor Kevin Faulconer, El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells, and Dr. Wilma Wooten, from San Diego County Health and Human Services, on its livestream. While the service still had normal worship, prayer, and even a short message, the interview was able to provide vital information about the outbreak to a different audience.
Congregational Church of La Jolla sent “Worship at Home” kits to congregants that included verses, reflections, and a written-out sermon for families. First Baptist Church of National City offered drive-thru blessings on Sunday, with even Mayor Alejandra Sotelo-Solis driving up to the church to be prayed for by the pastors gathered there. Missiongathering Church released a guided meditation. Dharma Bum Temple will put its weekly classes on YouTube.
“One of the really cool things about this unfortunate opportunity that we got forced into is that we’re able to be really innovative with the way that we’re doing ministry and really hone in on the fact that church is not happening inside of a building anymore. The ways that people are finding spirituality are not confined to the four walls of a sanctuary,” said Bailey Brawner, pastor of Mission Hills UMC.
Social distancing could mean social isolation, so faith communities are grappling with how best to stay connected beyond just classes and services. Dharma Bum Temple is going to rely heavily on its Facebook group and UCC’s church app will be more significant than ever. Pastors are struggling to find ways to keep seniors engaged who are not digitally savvy. St. Paul’s Cathedral is organizing a phone tree so vulnerable people will be checked in on weekly. With school out, Kensington Community Church is figuring out ways to conduct youth group through Zoom or Instagram. Stephen Colon, a youth leader, said this is important because it will keep the group connected so they do not feel the need to sneak off to North Park to hang out with each other. In addition to fears about seniors and young people slipping through the cracks, many of these religious buildings host recovery groups.
“We have a huge recovery community, so a lot of people battling addiction. We see a few hundred people a week with multiple classes. For many people battling addiction, it’s a day-to-day, life-threatening situation where they rely on meetings and they rely on the community to stay clean and sober,” said Jeff Zlotnik, co-founder of Dharma Bum Temple. “I wish I could say this is exactly what we’re going to do. And that’s going to fix everyone and solve all the problems, but it’s not. It’s going to be difficult.”
Despite fears about what will happen to their congregants, for many faith leaders, shutting down services was a moral imperative. Patient 31 in South Korea is connected to 80% of cases in the country because she went to two church services, the hospital (after a car collision) and a buffet with a fever. The vast majority of the people she exposed were at church. With people at those church services then spreading it to others, thousands of cases can be traced back to this one patient.
In the U.S., hundreds of people in Washington, D.C. were exposed to coronavirus when an Episcopal priest gave out communion before testing positive to the virus. The first confirmed cases of coronavirus in a few cities have been Episcopal priests, including D.C. Chattanooga, Tennessee and Fort Worth, Texas after the denomination held the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes annual conference in February.
In his message on Sunday over livestream, Jeff Martinhauk, priest at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, explained that throughout the week the cathedral staff had made the radical change of not offering eucharist without knowing a few days later they would do the unthinkable of closing their doors. By the time the county banned gatherings of 250 people, they had decided they could not risk becoming another story of a faith community spreading the virus exponentially.
“Closing down churches, from the perspective of in-person gathering, is a way to love your neighbor. I sincerely understand that for many people, the experience of church is about connection. And there’s a fear that, especially in the context of many people socially isolating, that they might need that connection more than ever. But I think that’s actually where we need boldfaced leadership to step in and say, ‘No, this is the right thing to do. This is a Christian thing,’” said Colon.
The Roman Catholic Diocese has canceled all public masses and school classes as of Monday, March 16, with other denominations putting out warnings to only hold services if congregants can have six feet of space between them.
For many religious San Diegans, they must go digital to maintain their community’s bonds as COVID-19 continues to upturn daily life.
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.