Keeping the faith during the coronavirus pandemic
Just weeks after the first case was detected in Delaware, the coronavirus pandemic has changed almost every element of life in the First State.
Faith groups are still driven to worship, but are being forced to find creative ways to do so.
Delaware Public Media’s Sophia Schmidt talked with representatives of a few congregations to find out how they are adapting.
The Friday evening before Gov. John Carney signed his stay-at-home order, the Jewish community center in Talleyville broadcast Shabbat over Facebook live.
“I really appreciate you guys signing in. I appreciate you sending notes and posts on Facebook and on YouTube,” said Siegel JCC CEO Ivy Harlev during the virtual Shabbat. “I’m so glad that we’re all connected this way, because it really is important during this crazy time— things are a little different right now!”
With gatherings of more than 50 people banned by the Governor earlier this month and that limit dropped to 10 Wednesday, congregations of various faiths are re-thinking how they practice.
Faizal Chaudhury is secretary of the Islamic Society of Delaware (ISD), a mosque in Newark, where gatherings of more than 10 people were banned several weeks ago.
What have they had to change?
"In the religion, it is prescribed that you should pray together." - Faizal Chaudhury, ISD
“Unfortunately for us, everything,” Chaudhury said. “We are actually the largest Islamic organization in Delaware, so even our daily prayer services extract more than 10 people.”
ISD has suspended all daily prayers at the mosque, as well as monthly religious study gatherings and Saturday and Sunday schools.
“We had to stop the Friday prayer, for the first time in our history here at ISD, so that was a painful decision,” he said.
ISD’s Friday prayer usually includes a 40-minute message from the Imam, who now broadcasts shorter speeches live over the web.
“We also uploaded a video of the Imam himself saying it’s religiously permitted because the health of the community supersedes a lot of the other traditions or guidance you might have,” said Chaudhury.
Even though technology is helping the community worship together, Chaudhury says some elements of in-person prayer services can’t be replaced.
“Key with any religion is the social aspect of the religion itself,” he said. “In the religion, it is prescribed that you should pray together. Praying together in congregation is preferable to you praying alone. So obviously, you're giving up that extra bonus points, if you want to call it. … The other interaction part is often times when you get together with the community, even after the prayer, that's the more social aspect of it, where people will just inquire about [each other’s] wellbeing.”
Chaudhury says this social aspect is especially important for the community that worships at ISD.
"The social aspect is just so core to a lot of these people coming from different parts of the world." - Chaudhury
“A large part of our community is first generation,” he said. “This is a place where they really feel them coming together as a community to share stories. … The social aspect is just so core to a lot of these people coming from different parts of the world, and I think that will be another thing that the community obviously is missing a lot.”
Congregation Beth Emeth in Wilmington faces similar challenges going digital. Rabbi Elisa Koppel, director of lifelong learning at the synagogue, agrees there are some things that live-streamed services can’t replace.
“I think in some ways it can be more connected,” she said. “I've seen a lot of comments from friends that the services were great this morning— ‘I got to stay in my PJs, I can eat my breakfast and have coffee while doing all this.’ There's something intimate about that almost.”
“At the same time, you can't hear different people singing together,” she added. “Because the way Zoom works, you can only hear one voice at a time. There's a time delay, so communal singing doesn't really work, even if everyone's mic is on.”
With Passover — as well as Easter and Ramadan— coming up, faith groups will need to get creative.
"The Jewish people have always been good at adapting." - Rabbi Elisa Koppel
“I know there's a lot of creative thinking going on right now in the Jewish community, on what Passover looks like. The Passover Seder … is usually a huge gathering in your home of family and friends, which just isn't possible right now. And for those of us on the spectrum of Jewish religions who are comfortable using electricity and technology on holidays, it's kind of easier for us because we can automatically move to Zoom. But there are conservative Jews and Orthodox Jews who are also making those considerations and figuring out, can we be authentic to our Judaism and at the same time, find a way to be connected to people who we don't live with? To be able to have a communal celebration for people who live alone ... what does that look like?”
But the challenge is nothing Rabbi Koppel’s community can’t handle.
“I think in a way, the Jewish people have always been good at adapting,” she said. “We've always been faced with lots of changes from the world and within the Jewish community and in some ways, we're used to changing things with the times because we need to. And we have a concept of making rules in extraordinary circumstances. And I think everyone agrees that this is extraordinary circumstances.”
There are some silver linings. Rabbi Koppel says the synagogue is putting out more programming over the internet than it previously did in-person. And more people are tuning in.
“People are able to try out different services. I had a friend from the congregation I was at before this one who came to our adult learning last night because she misses learning with me. I know people who have tried praying from their couch at different services at a variety of synagogues, because they want to see what that rabbi is saying, ... how that cantor is singing that song.”
"I get nervous when I do it to be honest with you, because I'm preaching to an empty room." - Pastor John Hornberger
Pastor John Hornberger of Bethesda United Methodist Church in Middletown says the video sermons he puts on Facebook are also reaching new ears.
“I get nervous when I do it to be honest with you, because I'm preaching to an empty room,” he said. “I'm thinking though, that the Bible studies ... it is going to be bringing people here that would not come here, because of distance.”
But he worries access to computers or technological literacy may be a barrier for some congregants.
“That is an issue,” said Hornberger. “In my congregation here that I serve, I would say that maybe 60 percent of the people here— and it’s a small congregation— would not be computer savvy. So … that's a problem.”
Delivering holy communion presents another challenge. Earlier in the outbreak, Hornberger considered blessing wine and wafers in disposable cups and distributing them to congregants in a drive-through, but decided against it.
Even though religious gatherings in the time of social distancing are not quite the same, Pastor Hornberger, Chaudhury and Rabbi Koppel agree they’re still worth pursuing.
“Having opportunities to connect right now is important,” said Koppel. “And I think religion is important always for people who connect to religion, and I think especially at times of challenge becomes particularly important. So as a Jewish leader, and as a synagogue leader, I think it's important to make sure that our people still have our synagogue, even if we can't be in the building right now.”