Houses of worship haven’t been actual houses for a few months now, with buildings closed and most services being held online. The situation has brought innovation like drive-in services and “Jesus Lunchables” (individually packaged Communion), and broken down geographic barriers.
But while Zoom has made virtual services possible, many are still missing the in-person sense of community, and long for a return to normalcy.
Choosing not to reopen
Near the end of June, when new state guidelines suggested that parishioners could worship in public again, Simsbury United Methodist Church sent a survey to 421 members. Of the 144 who responded, only 24 expressed a strong desire to get back into the building. So the church held off reopening.
Meanwhile SUMC, like many other houses of worship, has kept their congregations together through online services and other programs.
The church has created an online experience that has all the social and choral elements of an in-person church gathering. Fifteen to 20 minutes of informal conversation among the congregation precedes the service, as well as “virtual coffee hours” where viewers are randomly assigned to Zoom break-out rooms so they can meet each other as they might at tables in church.
Asylum Hill Congregational Church in Hartford, blessed with a spacious parking lot, began holding services and other events outdoors this month, in addition to those online.
Attendees are “in cars or in chairs, spaced apart, all contactless,” she said. “We ask people to cut flowers from their gardens and bring them.” There are no church bulletins or other handouts for the Thursday services, and Communion is handled through individually pre-packaged host/juice sets that Thompson jokingly dubs “Jesus Lunchables.”
Having a home
Rabbi Eli Ostrozynzki of United Synagogues of Greater Hartford, an orthodox temple serving about 50 families in West Hartford, has been doing a hybrid of live and virtual offerings on Saturdays, with pre-Shabbat and post-Shabbat online elements surrounding a live outdoor gathering in the temple’s backyard. (The live section is livestreamed on Facebook.)
For the upcoming Jewish high holidays, Ostrozynzki is considering putting up a large tent.
“We took the pulse of the congregation,” Ostrozynzki says, and decided to keep leading with the online presence. ”Like most congregations, we are divided 50/50 about how we feel regarding reopening. We give everyone room to be heard. Mostly, these people need to feel that they have a home. Right now, we don’t have a temple. We have more of a tabernacle [the portable sanctuary, or earthly dwelling place of God, when the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness], in a religious sense.”
Back inside, with caution
Hartford’s St. Patrick-St. Anthony Church — the oldest Roman Catholic parish in Connecticut — has overseen an increasing number of in-building Masses while maintaining an active livestream schedule.
Those who attend the (fewer and smaller) Masses in person must wear masks and stay 6 feet apart. Hymnals and missalettes have been removed from the pews. A ban on confessionals was lifted June 8, but churches still can’t use the accustomed confessional booths because of distancing requirements. Holy water fonts will have to stay empty for some time.
Besides Masses, St. Patrick-St. Anthony has held weddings and funerals. “Still, it’s a challenge to continue to meet all the necessary responsibilities,” Gallagher said. “Zoom has been a great avenue for us. Interestingly enough, I think some of the things that we do on Zoom can be deeper than what we do in person.”
‘The present reality’
Hartford District Of the AME Zion Church was already livestreaming its services before the coronavirus crisis. But its presiding elder, Dr. Terry L. Jones Sr., operating solely online is “very different for me, because of the interaction with people. The Black idiom of preaching is a call-and-response setting.”
Jones says there are no immediate plans to reopen the church building. “People do miss connecting with each other in person,” he said, “but in this case we need to err on the side of caution. The church serves its 350-member congregation with Sunday services, midweek intercessory prayer, Bible study and Sunday school classes, all online.
“Some folk are calling this the new normal,” Jones says, “but we don’t agree with that. It sounds too permanent. We’d rather refer to it as the present reality.”
Not ‘guinea pigs’
David Waren, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, notes that area synagogues are “finding attendance has been stronger online than it was in person. It’s not the same, but there can be a certain intimacy on Zoom.”
“The big challenge now is the high holidays.” He expects some of the observances will be “very limited, indoor” ones, while “most will likely be outdoors.
Rabbi Tuvia Brander of Young Israel of West Hartford acknowledges that holding online services is not ideal, since some rituals such as the Kaddish prayer and the reading of the Torah must be done in a quorum. His temple experimented with something it called “Torah in a Flash,” where female members of Young Israel each prepared a one-minute Torah portion. The portions were strung together online. “People loved it, and we probably will run it again,” Brander said.
“People are in search of community. They are looking for connection more than ever. We are striving to replicate that in various ways. But it can’t be the same old same old. The message is the same. The medium needs to change. We need to ask what are our new goals.”
Rev. Kingsley Ihejirika, pastor of St. Justin-St. Michael Parish, in Hartford’s North End, said the church is able to allow 100 attendees at Masses now, but less than half that number attend.
A particular challenge for St. Justin-St. Michael is that the church has typically held Masses in three languages: English, Spanish and (for the large Haitian population) Creole. Online, they’ve been able to do English and Spanish. Now that the church building has reopened, Ihejirika wants to experiment with a live “combined Mass” in all three languages, planned for late August.
“If we continue to do separate Masses, we would only be a united church in name only. This brings the entire community together. You will feel the sense of family,” he said.
Caring for the community
The Farmington Valley American Muslim Center, closed for months, has donated hundreds of cans of food to Hartford women’s shelters and continued to host Foodshare weekly.
Back in March, Humaira Salehi initiated a program, “dropping off food supplies, informing people that we have this in place.” The program now has 20 volunteers working to feed those in need.
She says the Center is “like my second home, a place I go to for everything. I am a person of giving. It is something that brings me happiness. This is something I can still do, to stay connected.”
‘Tomorrow will be different’
Thompson says the Asylum Hill outdoor events have proved that “people miss community. Livestreaming has been a gift that we could not have imagined. We have seen our numbers grow incredibly. It helps people connect. But it doesn’t address the spirit of community that people are missing.”
The eighth-grade communion class, like so many planning weddings, opted to wait until next year instead of holding a virtual confirmation.
When Asylum Hill does reopen fully, Thompson says, “We’re going to do it responsibly. We’re going to do it slowly and always with that sense of ‘human life comes first.‘
“What we keep talking about is the new tomorrow. There’s no going back. Tomorrow will be different.”
Christopher Arnott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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