The presence of the novel coronavirus has required places of worship in and around the City of Falls Church to get creative with how they carry out this year’s Holy Week and Passover. But material changes to this sacred time have local faith leaders seeing a renewed vigor made possible through the forced separation.
“We have created worship opportunities where we can be together,” Dulin United Methodist Church’s pastor Dave Kirkland said. “Maybe not physically, but spiritually, so we’re together spiritually when we worship together online.”
Just as with everything over the past month, the virtualization of church gatherings has developed on the fly to keep congregations connected. That means a heavy dose of either pre-recorded or livestreamed services as well as Zoom classes for various small groups.
For Columbia Baptist Church, senior pastor Jim Baucom, who gives roughly five live sermons himself each week, advised his parishioners to keep things as regular as possible by attending their usual service time. Baucom was able to get the jump on the pandemic after reading “The Great Influenza” while preparing for their Christmas play at the church last year. Once he saw that Covid-19’s transmissibility pattern was similar to that of the Spanish flu of 1918, he began putting a plan in place to cover six to eight months of services back in February.
Saint James Catholic Church also made sure to do their services live to help congregants get a sense of normalcy, according to the parish’s pastor, father Paul Scalia. And rabbi Amy Schwartzman of Temple Rodef Shalom said that the congregation will host a larger version of the Passover Seder tonight after they held a family-oriented Seder on Passover’s first night yesterday.
Others have opted to tape their services in advance. Interim pastor Andy Anderson at the Falls Church Episcopal said that his clergy recorded their Easter Sunday mass the previous week on Palm Sunday, and Dulin recorded theirs on Tuesday morning in order to polish the final broadcast prior to it being pushed out Sunday morning.
No matter whether they do it live or record it beforehand, all churches keep their services available online either on a Facebook page or website. And all churches reported that their viewership numbers are on par, and in some cases even better, than the live masses they would hold throughout the week.
The advantage of technology is that it allows the different denominations to keep their parishioners up to date, while also leaving some room for flair.
For instance, Saint James does a theological talk show where Scalia and another parochial vicar will answer and discuss questions that members send in via email, phone or over social media.
Temple Rodef Shalom created a pop up website called the TRS virtual community. The site offers members to get together virtually every day for 30 minutes where temple staffers will host various members doing something they want to share — such as a lesson on a Jewish figure in professional baseball or safe practices in the time of the virus.
Dulin’s director of music ministries has instructed each choir member to record their part in a song separately, which he then splices together and plays when the service airs. Even cheekier, Dulin had its members send in photos so that Kirkland could stick them to the pews while he “preaches” to them.
The churches aren’t letting the distancing remove the interactive elements of this week either.
On Palm Sunday, Saint James posted a picture of a palm on the church’s Facebook page that parishioners could print out for themselves and Dulin put its palms outside in a bucket for people to drive up and grab them as needed.
And the Falls Church Episcopal told its congregants to go outside and cut some branches down to serve as palms, and wash each others’ hands instead of washing each other’s feet as Jesus did. Anderson told parishioners nearby brush would suffice and also said they could process around their homes and bless certain rooms and items if they wanted. He’s even recruited lay people to read scriptures over Zoom for certain Sunday services.
At Saint Philip’s, father Denis Donahue said that the 14 stations of the cross have been placed along the outer edge of the parking lot (at safe distances apart, of course) so that congregants could see the progression leading up to Jesus’s crucifixion on Calvary.
This isn’t to say that the digital elements adopted by the places of worship could replace the loss of the physical connection.
“There’s a certain sadness and disappointment around the fact that we won’t be in our usual configuration of family and friends,” Schwartzman said.
It’s brought a sense of grief, in Baucom’s words, to this year’s Holy Week. People are missing the Eucharist, as Donahue noted, which is receiving communion or the body of Christ during Easter Sunday mass.
But Anderson feels that amidst the melancholy is a chance to provide a new perspective on what faith actually is.
“We love that the walls of the church help people connect to God, but God is present everywhere,” Anderson said. “In the gospels we hear that Jesus says the true place of worship is in the spirit and in truth…we’ll experience [faith] in deeper and more real ways and perhaps in ways that people can carry it forward.”
A return to religion’s roots has come about, as Anderson said. In the earliest days of Christendom people worshiped at their homes. And it’s also called upon those who are a part of the faith community to look out for fellow members in a way they may have not before.
Group leaders and deacons at Columbia Baptist will call families at least two times a week to see if they need assistance in any way from the church. The same goes for the Falls Church Episcopal, which started a parish phone tree to check in on members — one of which had lost their grocery store delivery connection, motivating a group of parishioners to swoop in and help.
A smidgen of that community bond help make this crisis manageable, and also leaves people with a taste of what more could come once return to church or temple is possible.
“Because of the absence, the yearning and the love and devotion has been heightened,” Donahue said. Scalia added separately, “One of the wonderful things of the antiquity of our faith is we’ve seen everything — times before where we’ve had to make some pretty serious adjustments because of plagues or something else — but here we are. We have to adjust to it and make the best of it that we can.”