In all faiths and in all times, believers have responded to crises and catastrophes, wars and tragedies by coming together for prayer and encouragement.
However, at least for the time being, such practices may be more nostalgic than true to life. Restrictions designed to limit the spread of the coronavirus prevent gatherings of more than 10 people. While churches in some counties have been dealing with these limits for weeks, it’s now a reality for everybody with Gov. Laura Kelly’s order Tuesday limiting religious gatherings and funerals to 10 or fewer people. The rule came after news reports that three of the state’s 11 coronavirus clusters are tied to church gatherings. (Update: Legislative leaders voted Wednesday to rescind the governor’s order, leaving some doubt as to what the formal rules will be on Easter Sunday; the governor successfully sued to keep the restrictions in place.)
For Christians observing Holy Week events leading up to Easter, and Jews observing Passover beginning Wednesday, practicing one’s faith will look very different this year than it typically does.
“This is uncharted territory for everyone,” says Jon Morris, lead pastor of Vima Church, a fledgling Christian church in Wichita.
Hussam Madi, a spokesman for the Islamic Society of Wichita, calls closing the mosques for group prayer “really jarring.”
“It is sad for us not to be able to go there and pray with the rest of the followers,” Madi says. “It is really sad times.”
Limits on public gatherings have pushed church online, but there’s a notable consequence. Without in-person services, many faith communities are coming up short on donations, since most churches depend on the weekly plop of envelopes into collection baskets to pay their bills. It’s liable to make direct deposit for tithing more common.
Social media, once an afterthought for many churches, is quickly becoming a crucial connection point.
What hasn’t changed is that faith-based communities are still magnets in times of trouble. Casual attendees are showing up, and there’s increased interest in prayer. Congregations are enthusiastically answering their pastors’ calls to make grocery store runs and help keep the pantries of the elderly and homebound well-stocked during the pandemic.
Laura Frazey, pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Wichita, made the decision to close communal worship services before Kelly ordered crowd-size restrictions.
“We didn’t close our doors on Sunday out of fear, but out of love,” Frazey says. “It was done with an eye toward protecting our vulnerable population.
“If we were to continue to have worship, people would still come out of a sense of obligation.”
Faith communities have responded to the closures by turning to technology to stream services into homes from empty churches.
“They’re getting creative fast,” Morris says. “I was in Best Buy, buying a few little things, and an employee there told me, ‘There have been a lot of churches in here buying stuff.’ They’re buying equipment, getting online and figuring out how to do it.”
Catholic parishes around the state have begun livestreaming Masses and even Eucharistic Adoration, where parishioners spend time in prayer before Jesus in the Eucharist.
Catholic teaching dictates confessions must be heard in person, so people are still going to churches to receive that sacrament. Priests urge those in line to maintain safe distancing.
Some priests around the nation have even been doing “drive-by” confessions, hearing from penitents through a car window. Prayer groups in many denominations now meet via teleconferencing services such as Zoom.
“God created community in a lot of different ways,” Frazey says. “We have been hit with this opportunity. We have the option to run with it or cower in the corner.”
A church is much more than its Sunday worship services, she says, and maintaining the sense of community is vital during this period of forced isolation. One of the first steps Covenant church elders took as the restrictions began to occur was to figure out how to still connect with those who are homebound or in nursing homes. Old-fashioned phone calls are making a comeback.
In truth, Darren McClintock says, the closings are taking Christianity back to its roots.
“What we consider to be traditional isn’t traditional at all,” says McClintock, pastor of Central Christian Church in east Wichita. “It’s a fairly recent phenomenon.
“The (Christian) Church has functioned as house churches for millennia,” he says. “In most of the world, that’s how the church functions.”
St. John Paul II called families “the domestic church.”
The pandemic “doesn’t really change anything other than our mode of operation that we’re used to,” McClintock says. “It’s an opportunity for us to grow in the reality of what ‘church’ is really about.
“We are the people of God,” he says. “It doesn’t matter where we meet. That is irrelevant.”
Vima’s church can hold 400 people, but a recent online service drew 1,600 views.
“For us, this is actually creating a little bit of momentum,” Morris says. “People are looking for a place of hope, a place of prayer, a place of encouragement.”
Pastors and rabbis are still shepherds tending to their flocks, even if it’s in different ways.
“Right now, I’m trying to calm the panicked and get the lackadaisical to take it (the pandemic) more seriously,” says Michael Davis, rabbi at Congregation Emanu-El in Wichita.
People may fear that the coronavirus is divine punishment, but Frazey rejects that suggestion.
“God has not abandoned us. God is here and is using every one of us, and we’re doing everything we can.”
When the pandemic eases, clergy say, religious communities hope to emerge stronger, reminded of what matters most.
The Journal, the print and digital magazine of the Kansas Leadership Center, is publishing a digital newsletter that explores what is working, what isn’t working and what’s being learned during the response to COVID-19. To receive twice-a-week updates, subscribe here: https://kansasleadershipcenter.org/contact-us/join-our-email-list/