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ST. LOUIS, MO — How do you deal with social distancing when your calling is bringing people together? As the coronavirus outbreak continues to spread across America, and state and local governments enact increasingly severe restrictions on social gatherings, religious and community groups are struggling to meet the needs of their members.
"We are a social organism," said James Croft, outreach director at the Ethical Society of St. Louis. "We need to be in communities to become the best versions of ourselves. When people are isolated, we don't do very well."
When the new coronavirus outbreak started, Croft reached out to other St. Louis-area religious leaders, including the Rev. Mike Angell, rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in University City, and Rori Picker Neiss, executive director of the local Jewish Community Relations Council. In a Facebook group, they started discussing ways to meet the crisis head on and continue to serve their communities.
Like many congregations across the country, Croft turned to Facebook Live to stream the Ethical Society's typical Sunday morning platform. But he quickly realized the limitations of that approach.
"People need to see each other. People need to be able to speak to each other. People need to be able to check in with each other," Croft said. "So, we're not going to continue to offer an hourlong program."
Rather, the Ethical Society is turning to Zoom, a video conferencing service typically used for business meetings, to allow for more personal interaction among its members.
"What we're doing is not just trying to dump everything that we've traditionally done online, but rethink what community gatherings look like in a time of isolation and quarantine," Croft said. "I think that clergy tend to feel like our programs, my sermon, is the most important thing, but actually it's not. The community is the most important thing."
With its stained glass windows, vaulted ceiling and baroque organ, you could easily mistake the Ethical Society's meeting house for a church. There's even a steeple, but one that looks as if it could have been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. (It was actually designed by local architect Harris Armstrong, one of Wright's modernist disciples.)
But it's a church based on a common ethics rather than a common belief system. Part of the American Ethical Union, the society provides something akin to a religious community for people of all faiths or none at all.
"Ethical humanism has been called a religion of relationships," Croft said. "It's in interactions with others, particularly in our attempts to improve others' lives, that we become the best versions of ourselves."
But more traditional religious leaders brought up many of the same points as Croft.
"We believe that we are the body of Christ, and we are many members of the same body," the Rev. Angell said. "So those members have to stay in touch with each other. It's part of who we are to stay in touch with each other."
Angell said his church is also turning to social media for livestreams and to Zoom for more intimate group chats, prayer and Bible study. Angell said they're even using phone trees to check in on members of the congregation, something they haven't done since the 1990s.
"Christians are a people who have a certain perspective on time," he said. "That's true for every faith tradition I know, but faith is based on rhythms. The idea of Sunday morning worship, that's something that Christians have been doing for around 2,000 years. So having ways for folks to maintain that rhythm is really important for their sense of time."
This isn't the first time Angell's congregation has dealt with a pandemic. He wasn't around in 1918, when a deadly strain of flu killed 50 million people around the globe, but the The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion was — it just turned 151 years old. And while technology exists today to meet challenges in ways that would have been unthinkable back then, social media and video conferencing technology have been imperfect solutions amid the coronavirus crisis.
Trying to meet the needs of people with different levels of comfort with technology has been a particular struggle, Angell said.
That's a sentiment Picker Neiss shares, but with added complications for the Jewish community.
While organizations such as Jewish Family Services are reaching out to vulnerable members of the community to make sure they have the resources they need, and local congregations are turning to social media and video conferencing platforms to host services, many people don't have access to computers or know how to use them, she said.
And the coronavirus crisis is even more isolating and disruptive for members of the Orthodox Jewish community, who follow prohibitions about using technology on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays.
"We do have parts of our community that are still gathering online and trying to create a sense of normalcy ... but that's something the Orthodox community is not able to do because we can't use the technology that is necessary right now," Picker Neiss said. "There is much more a sense of loneliness that comes with that."
While institutions such as the Catholic Church have eased some of the requirements of Mass, communion and confession to address the coronavirus outbreak, Orthodox Judaism has no such central authority, Picker Neiss said. That leaves individuals, working with their rabbis, to try to balance religious duties with their health and safety — including their mental health — as the crisis unfolds.
"The most significant loss has been the loss of community," she said. "We are a very social people, and I think religious community, in particular, has always been about building a connection with other people.
"In the Jewish tradition, we believe there are certain prayers that can only be said with a quorum of 10 people, including prayers we say in memory for those who've passed," she continued. "So ... it's kind of training us that this is where we turn to [when we're in mourning]. We turn to the gatherings. And that's what we've lost."
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No matter how bad the coronavirus crisis gets, all three religious leaders said, "We're all in this together."
Think about all the small ways you can help, from donating to food pantries to calling neighbors to just staying home and washing your hands a lot, they said. And look out for each other — especially the most vulnerable members of your community.
"Right now the biggest commandment is to protect yourself and protect others," Picker Neiss said. "An important part of our faith tradition is the importance of saving a life. So, if just staying home decreases the risk by any percentage, then that's the most important thing that we need to do."
She encouraged people to try to see the beauty in the world, even in this challenging time, and to "learn to look for God in the everyday."
"Our Jewish Food Pantry is open to anyone who needs it," Picker Neiss said, "and all of our online classes are open to anyone who wants to participate. Part of what this crisis is doing, even as it has forced us to change the way we do community, it has also eliminated some of borders and boundaries that had existed before.
"So, I think this is a great opportunity if you want to check out a Jewish service online in the safety of your own home. It's a great time to explore relationships that we just haven't had the opportunity or have been too scared to explore before."
"We need each other right now," Angell said. "We actually need each other more than we think we do at any given moment, but we need each other right now, so getting connected and staying connected is really important."
Croft said people should allow themselves to feel anxious in this uncertain time. He does. But he hopes they will ultimately be kind to themselves and show others grace.
"We're all learning this. This is new for everybody. This is certainly the biggest shock to our way of life in my lifetime," he said.
"Our jobs [as clergy] are basically about bringing large numbers of people together into one space to provide them with a communal experience," Croft said. "And for most people who go into clergy work, definitely for me, it's a calling, it's a vocation — we chose to do this instead of many other things we could have done. And we can't do that now. Our calling suddenly has to be redefined."
Croft said he's seeing people struggle with the psychological challenge of not knowing what their lives are about anymore. But he's hopeful we'll not only overcome the current challenges but also find ways to use them to our benefit.
"I have seen the most amazing outflowing of creativity and energy, not just from clergy and my colleagues, but more broadly just friends on Facebook who produce theater, suddenly now producing online cabarets. One of my friends is organizing the largest singalong in the history of the world online. People are doing these amazingly creative things in an attempt to try to remain connected to each other. And I think that's a source of hope."
Find more information about online programs at the Ethical Society of St. Louis here.
Find more information about online services at The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion here.
Find more information about Jewish programs around St. Louis here.