The coronavirus pandemic has forced religious organizations to adopt their services to adhere to safety guidelines.
Leaders of churches, synagogues and mosques throughout Monroe County are continuously developing new plans and tactics to keep the community worshiping despite strict social distancing guidelines due to the risk of contracting the coronavirus.
From the beginning of the pandemic, religious organizations have been deemed hotbeds for the coronavirus. This is likely because of the way gatherings take place: large groups of people in relatively small spaces, coming in close contact with one another.
But enthusiasm for reopening places of worship has been noticeable. On May 1, Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb announced that in-person services of more than 10 people could resume in all 92 counties, offering one of the only exemptions from the strict limits placed on public gatherings in stages one and two of his Back-on-Track plan.
Father Patrick Hyde of St. Paul Catholic Center said being able to meet in person is beneficial to traditional practices.
“We believe in the importance of not only gathering as a community but also the power and the efficacy of the sacrament,” Hyde said. “By going to Mass, not just to be together, but receiving the Eucharist and the confession, we through the sacrament encounter Jesus Christ himself.”
St. Paul now requires people to RSVP for each service through EventBrite. Hyde also described a reduced attendance, citing it as one of the many challenges that comes with operating during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“So based on the capacity of the church, 30% capacity is 180 people, which is normally not efficient to the Mass numbers that we have,” Hyde said. “People aren’t used to having to check in when they come to Mass or sit in a pew all by themselves.”
However, recommendations from Holcomb’s plan say that it is ideal to conduct as many activities as possible remotely. For some, such as Congregation Beth Shalom, a Jewish organization, this has meant going completely virtual for the last several months. The congregation formed a Health and Wellness Task Force in March, which gave guidelines to keep people safe.
President Lesley Levin said suspending physical services helps keep others safe as well as honors the principles of Judaism.
“In Judaism, any laws or rules are overridden if it’s to save a person’s life. Here, we felt that in order to save lives, it’s important not to have in-person services,”Levin said.
But many places are using a hybrid approach to congregation, with both Zoom and other streaming services as well as following social distancing guidelines.
City Church For All Nations requires every staff member and volunteer to wear a mask, and blocks off every other pew, alternating and sanitizing the available rows between the two services held each day. Cars are parked in every other spot of the parking lot, and ushers lead people to seats, which fill front to back and release back to front in order to limit the crossing of paths. There is also a health official available to take daily temperature checks and monitor symptoms of all attendees.
“That medical staff is there to view every volunteer and every attendee that walks through the door. They just kind of give them a visual once-over,” staff pastor Seth Pate said. “We have a medical quarantine room. If they do visually see someone who looks sick or if someone says they’re sick or if someone has a high temperature, they take them in there and give them a once-over exam and make a decision on whether they need to go home or stay.”
The Islamic Center of Bloomington requires congregants to bring their own prayer mats, and social distancing is heavily enforced — meaning attendance numbers have gone down from 100 to 40 per day, Mohammed Kaled Sayed, member of the judiciary board, said. However, outside worship is also an option.
“We provide speakers so people can pray outside and listen to the speech,” Sayed said. “It’s naturally regulated. Some people choose to stay outside and some people go inside.”
Sayed said while lots of outdoor space is available, some still choose to stay home.
“Not many people can come and attend, because people know thatover 25 will stay outside, and it is too hot in the summer so people prefer not to come,” Sayed said.
The deeply-rooted ideology of “come one, come all” has faced adjustments virtually, too. Technological issues also play a large role, creating barriers that didn’t exist before.
“I think the challenges are you lose that contact and touch with some of your attendees that aren’t really savvy or web-based,” Pate said. “Other people are less committed to come into church to begin with, and that kind of got them out of any routine they had.”
But for some, technology, though certainly challenging, has also served as an added element.
“Some of our members are in their senior years and it’s difficult for them to actually get to the synagogue for many things,” Levin said. “This way, they can participate more easily. We’ve actually had better attendance at services and programming than we did before we were meeting on Zoom.”
Even with unexpected blessings, in the wake of hardship it can be difficult to keep the faith. People get sick, hugs and handshakes can’t be given and what is often a communal experience begins to feel more isolated.
However, leaders are working with communities in different but equally meaningful ways. Rounds of phone calls to congregants, as many as 2,800 in City Church’s case, offering help with getting necessities or just someone to listen are one of the most common acts of service, in addition to socially-distanced "driveway visits" to homes. Holiday celebrations have been forced to become smaller, but gatherings are still occurring in a safe manner.
“I remember during the months of Ramadan, a holy month for all Muslims, people used to gather in the buildings for the 30 days and 30 nights,” Sayem said. “People used to stay there for five hours every night. It is a big social gathering, but since we didn’t have that this year, me and another family gathered all the 30 nights.”
The grassroots movement to reconnect with religion was started by members of the public, Levin said.
“People stepped up and want to do these things now to help make people feel connected. We’re fortunate to have a very involved congregation,” Levin said. “We have members who’ve been grocery shopping for people. We’re making it our goal this year to collect food for the food pantry MCUM .”
Father Hyde said both leaders and members making the effort is most beneficial, especially with a student-affiliated organization such as St. Paul’s.
“In the past 3-4 weeks of the semester, we spent countless hours tabling on campus, hosting events, creating those opportunities to meet people that we just simply can’t do. It requires a greater intentionality on the part of the students to reach out to us so that we know they’re there and can meet their needs,”Hyde said.
People have to think more about the wisdom behind that and the favors they were living in without feeling them, Sayem said.
“There were things we took for granted during all our life, but we never thought about them. So we need to think about that and try to do something to be thankful for whatever we value.”
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