Religious And Faith Communities Continue Services Amid Coronavirus Outbreak

Mar 24, 2020
Originally published on March 22, 2020 6:39 pm

Portland Rabbi David Kosak and other clergy members at Congregation Neveh Shalom, have been conducting Friday and Saturday Shabbat services in an empty sanctuary, livestreamed to congregates. 

As “social distancing” becomes an increasingly common part of the world’s vocabulary, this is the new normal for Neveh Shalom, and many other places of worship, for the foreseeable future. 

Two weeks ago, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced  guidelines prohibiting all public gatherings of more than 250 people in order to reduce the spread of the ongoing novel coronavirus outbreak. 

Last week, she tightened that to gatherings of more than 25.

“This is exactly the time when people need their religious communities and the faith and the strength and the support and the connection, and yet, simultaneously, this is a time when that is being denied,” Kosak said. 

Friday and Saturday Shabbat services at Neveh Shalom were already livestreamed, but normally the synagogue saw anywhere from 75 to 350 people coming in-person to the services.

Now all of those people are forced to move online.

Other ceremonies, such as bar and bat mitzvahs, will also need to be conducted virtually or rescheduled for a later date. 

With new restrictions, and an ever-growing number of diagnosed coronavirus cases in Oregon, local religious and faith leaders are still working to continue their services, whether virtually or in person. 

For Portland Pastor J.W. Matt Hennessee with the Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church, in-person gatherings continue. 

“Our job as spiritual leaders is to do everything we can to be supportive in moments like this and encourage people and to provide spiritual nourishment,” Hennessee said. 

He said even with the restrictions, the church continued its in-person services Sunday. 

The church’s space is large, Hennessee said. The balcony can accommodate about 100 people and the floor seats 500 to 600 people, plenty of space for people to spread out and practice social distancing.

“We are still saying to people, ‘If you’re sick or feeling ill of any kind, please stay home,’” Hennessee said. “If you come to church service, recognize that we need to create space between ourselves. There will be no hugging, no handshaking, no fist-bumping, no elbow-bumping. We’re literally here to hear the music, to hear the word.”

Along with those measures, Hennessee said, the church already broadcasts one of its two Sunday services on a local radio station and is working on implementing some sort of livestreaming capability as well.

Hennessee said they may have to rely on those broadcasts in the future, as this past Sunday’s services may be the last for a while.

The church is considering keeping its doors open during the week and only allowing 10 or so people in at a time to hear a short sermon. Hennessee is also considering having a set-up in the church’s parking lot for people to drive in, get service and drive out without leaving their cars.

Faith leaders said the biggest issue with only providing live streaming and virtual services is the lack of interactivity, especially as many people are already feeling isolated.

Pastor Morgan Schmidt, with the First Presbyterian Church in Bend, had that in mind when figuring out what to do for her community. 

“[The staff at the church] were in conversations in the last couple weeks to determine how we were going to respond to our community’s needs, given the distinct possibility and now reality that worship would need to be moved online and that large gatherings wouldn’t be recommended,” Schmidt said. 

Church staff discussed the logistics of conducting virtual services, she said, and Schmidt was also concerned about keeping her community connected: “How do we connect with our community? How do we make sure people are taking care of each other and not just worry about whether worship is online or not?” 

Schmidt created the Pandemic Partners Bend Facebook group with more than 8,000 members — a hub for people to request and offer help to people, such as picking up and delivering groceries and medication.

“Just a way for neighbors to help neighbors,” Schmidt said.

She said although the Pandemic Partners Facebook group is not religious in nature, Schmidt still considers it an extension of her work as a pastor.

“My job primarily is to remind people that they are good and loved and that they have goodness and love to offer the world,” she said.

“We’ve just found a different way of communicating that to an even larger community than our faith community," she said. “This is how I’m choosing to kind of extend that pastoral care to our Bend community and beyond.”

Kosak, with Neveh Shalom, said the one-way nature of livestreaming is unfortunate for people looking for community and interaction. 

To aid that, the congregation also does smaller daily services, now conducted through video conference calls, so that people can see each other and talk.

He said typically about 10 or 15 people showed up for small daily services in-person at the synagogue. 

“We had 28 people online, so more than double the normal attendance. It was really powerful,” Kosak said of the first smaller service offered via video chat. “A number of people wrote afterwards and actually had tears in their eyes during it, because we were able to be there for people the way they needed.”

He said he's trying to look at this situation as positively as he can.

“If it’s a way to deepen our relationships, even though you have social distance but maybe not emotional distance, then what a great gift to society, but you have to mindfully plan for that,” He said. “That doesn’t happen automatically.”

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