As pandemic shuts down places of worship, faith communities build new connections

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UNION COUNTY, NJ — On March 13, as New Jersey confirmed 50 cases of coronavirus and universities canceled their in-person classes, Masjid Darul Islam, a mosque in Elizabeth, kept its doors open for the weekly Friday prayer. Roughly 700 congregants attended.

A week later, on March 20 — after the state’s confirmed cases had risen to 890, fatalities to 11, and Gov. Phil Murphy had ordered all schools closed — the mosque canceled the Friday prayers. About 100 congregants still showed up, driven in part by the closure of every other mosque in the vicinity. The sermon, typically 30 minutes long, was reduced to two.

Since then, to ensure the mosque continues its religious programming without violating government directives to observe social distancing, the mosque’s management has scrambled to set up a livestream of the Friday sermon.

“Maybe Allah did this to make people have more appreciation for the masjid itself,” said Hassen Abdellah, president of the mosque’s board, in a March 24 interview with LocalSource. “The demand is crazy. That’s the irony of it all.”

Masjid Darul Islam isn’t alone. As Union County’s places of worship have closed their doors and canceled their programming in an attempt to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, many religious leaders have reported a surge in religious interest. In many instances, the pandemic hasn’t challenged organized religion — it’s revitalized it.

“It’s a mixture of things,” said Rabbi Ethan Prosnit, of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, in a March 30 interview with LocalSource. “People have more time, and there’s a desire to feel connected to something greater.”

The Islamic Center of Union County has mobilized its social network to deliver supplies, from groceries to medicine, to both Muslims and non-Muslims. Members of Liberty Church’s congregation have cooked and delivered meals for high-risk individuals and families affected by the virus, while younger children have sent colored pictures to older folks in the community “in an attempt to bring some cheer during this depressing time,” said church member Karen Fox. Meanwhile, the congregation at Townley Presbyterian Church in Union successfully reached its goal of donating $500 and/or 500 nonperishable food items to the food pantry at its sister church, Connecticut Farms Presbyterian, during its last in-person service on March 15 — 21 days earlier than its initial 40-day target. Since then, like many other congregations, the church has divided its membership into clusters, for which an elder ensures regular contact by phone, according to a March 26 email from pastor Ron Thompson. Everyone calls everyone.

Prosnit noted one more key factor driving the increase in religious engagement, the very same one that Masjid Darul Islam has hastened to implement: the switch to online worship. It’s a transition that has been unfolding slowly but steadily for the past decade, adopted by some, ignored by others. Then came the pandemic.

‘Business as usual’

David Butler began his church in his living room.

Though, it wasn’t a church at first. “Oasis Singles,” launched in 2006, is an online Christian dating service. Butler, a self-described entrepreneur, used his understanding of search engine optimization to ensure that his website would be at the top of Google’s search results. The website now has more than 100,000 visitors monthly.

Once Butler had grown a large enough audience, and his web design and SEO company TJB Web Media had generated enough profits, he figured he’d start a church. Oasis Church, born in 2011, now has campuses in Union and Clark, hosting a total of 800 congregants. The church’s online “campus,” however, has “tens of thousands of listeners all around the world,” according to Butler. Services were livestreamed, sermons repackaged as podcasts.

“The bottom line is, what you see physically is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Butler in a March 27 interview with LocalSource.

Butler was ahead of the curve, but he wasn’t the only one to pioneer the integration of faith and modern technology.

Just 3 miles from Oasis Church’s Clark campus is the Garwood location of Liquid Church, a nondenominational church with seven locations across New Jersey, two in Union County. It has long taken advantage of live video-streaming to connect its various campuses. Every Sunday, each Liquid Church congregation would meet at its respective campus. Following a band performance and pastoral prayer, congregants would watch a livestream of the main sermon, delivered by lead pastor Tim Lucas at the church’s Parsippany campus. The sermon was then uploaded online for those who couldn’t attend.

Once the coronavirus outbreak forced places of worship to close their doors, both Oasis Church and Liquid Church simply took their semi-virtual formats to their logical conclusion: totally virtual worship. While other congregations scrambled to set up online platforms, both continued their programming with little to no disruption.

“It’s business as usual, just online,” said Scott Elliott, pastor of Liquid Church’s Mountainside campus, in a March 20 interview with LocalSource. “That’s our motto.”

Now, every Monday at home, Elliott records his “hosting spot” — making announcements and praying for congregants, preferably “somewhere my kids won’t be heard.” He then creates an entirely virtual Sunday service by editing the spot into a single video that includes a prerecorded band performance and the lead pastor’s sermon. The video is streamed “live” on Saturday night and six times throughout Sunday, viewed by the more than 1,000 members of the congregation.

On March 18, the church streamed a special prayer event on Facebook. More than 1,000 people tuned in, and, since being uploaded to YouTube, the video has been viewed more than 21,000 times, according to Brooke LeMunyon, Liquid Church’s senior communications director.

“We were grateful, praise God, that we had a system prepared for this,” said LeMunyon, referring to the pandemic, in a March 20 interview with LocalSource. “We’ve been putting a lot of energy into the digital space.”

‘We’ve never had that capacity before’

But not everyone is, or can be, online. The small congregation of IPC New Jersey Worship Center in Kenilworth — no more than 10 families — has conducted its services via conference call, according to pastor Stanley Joseph. A message posted to the website of St. Vladimir Ukranian Catholic Church in Elizabeth said its pastor would pray “vicariously” with congregants at home. According to board president Javed Choudhry, the Muslim Community Center of Union County has canceled its Friday sermon and prayer without offering a livestreaming alternative.

For the small places of worship that have attempted to go virtual, such as Union County Baptist Church in Linden, the ride has been a bumpy one. The first obstacle the 120-member congregation faced in establishing an online platform: financial feasibility. Filming equipment can be expensive, and platforms like Zoom demand subscription fees. Like many of its peers, the church ultimately opted for Facebook Live.

“It’s free — you can’t beat that,” said pastor Rick Rule in a March 26 interview with LocalSource.

But Facebook has proven less than ideal. Rule’s congregation, guided by YouTube tutorials, attempted to use the social media website to livestream sermons that would then be uploaded onto a third-party website for repeat viewing. For a time, the video wasn’t accessible to congregants without Facebook accounts, as trying to play it simply redirected the user to Facebook.

“Facebook is not really designed to do what a lot of churches are trying to do with it,” Rule said. “The result is hiccups like uploading a March 25 sermon that required the viewer to ‘tilt your head 90 degrees to watch it.’”

The biggest challenge, though, has been ensuring that the switch to online platforms doesn’t exclude seniors.

“My own mother, she won’t touch Facebook,” said Rule with a chuckle. “She won’t touch a computer, period. Finding a way to make it accessible to those that are not used to using technology, that’s where the problems come in.”

Temple Sha’arey Shalom in Springfield, with its mostly senior congregation of 200 families, has experienced similar trouble in its odyssey to the virtual world.

“Most larger congregations already have services online, so for them it’s not been an issue,” said Rabbi Renee Edelman in a March 25 interview with LocalSource. “For us, it’s been more of an issue. Service online is new. We’ve never had that capacity before.”

‘It’s going to get bigger’

Even smaller congregations’ struggles to establish online platforms, however, have given religious communities an opportunity to build connections during a time of intense isolation. The younger, more technologically inclined members of Union County Baptist Church have embraced their newfound importance to the community.

“The camaraderie there has been good,” Rule said. “It’s always been good, but now more people that may not have been involved before are finding that they have abilities that can be useful, and now they’re jumping in, so that’s exciting to me.”

Edelman’s congregation reached out to the Jewish Community Center in Summit, which was more than happy to help set up streaming online. Liquid Church has done the same, helping smaller churches install the necessary equipment — cameras, switchers, microphones — to livestream services and coaching their members in using virtual platforms. Members of Elliott’s congregation have also assisted more elderly folks unfamiliar with Facebook Live and Google Hangouts.

“Once we come back from this, everyone will have that base level of virtual knowledge,” Elliott said. “So we’ll be able to connect in new ways.”

In a similar vein, Butler expects the virtual experiments currently undertaken by places of worship to have consequences that far outlast the coronavirus pandemic.

“The online thing is already big,” Butler said. “It’s going to get bigger.”

Already, some congregations, many small, are learning what Liquid and Oasis churches have long known: Online platforms allow them to expand their reach dramatically. Liberty Church’s weekly Wednesday prayer, attended by fewer than 10 individuals in normal circumstances, has seen 20 to 30 people regularly tuning in on Zoom. Townley Presbyterian Church, which had an average in-person attendance of 25 people at its Sunday worship services, has reached more than 200 people online, according to pastor Ron Thompson. The Church of Amazing Grace in Springfield, consisting of a small congregation that has been together since only 2017, has found a crosscountry audience for its online sermons, according to pastor Rich Teeters. The church’s online blog, largely inactive prior to the pandemic, is now updated twice a week.

Like other places of worship with newly obtained or updated online capacity, Temple Emanu-El plans to continue livestreaming services even after normal life resumes, according to Prosnit. He’s still adjusting to preaching to a camera, as he is accustomed to the immediate responses of a crowd, but he’s learning quickly.

“It’s been a powerful experience for me to think differently about how we can connect with people,” Prosnit said.

Butler expects many churchgoers, especially among the younger generations, to embrace virtual worship fully, moving forward. People, he suggested, will realize that they can observe their faith commitments while staying cozy in bed, coffee mug in hand. They might also appreciate the added intimacy that comes with seeing one another in their home environments.

Congregational worship will become far more accessible, and the material differences between places of worships will lose their potency.

“Doesn’t matter what kind of building you met in before, we’re all on Facebook Live,” Elliott said.

In a March 26 interview with LocalSource, the Rev. Nova Villa Vitug-Thomas, of Ignite United Methodist Church in Kenilworth, noted that individuals might find virtual worship meaningful in ways that differ from traditional worship. Freed from the distractions that might come with sitting in a crowded Sunday service, congregants can focus more intensely on the act of worship itself. They can also immerse themselves in worship by rewinding and rewatching the service, or segments of it, as often as they please.

“It can change the landscape of America forever, something like this,” Butler said of the pandemic. “How people do church, definitely.”

‘There’s no way we come out of this the same’

For all his optimism regarding virtual worship, Butler does acknowledge that it cannot fully replace the “fellowship” that comes from in-person services — and the pandemic has certainly not come without steep financial and social costs for many in the faith community.

Darul Islam’s congregation, observing statewide restrictions on gatherings of more than 10 people, couldn’t hold a funeral for a recently deceased member. The Knights of Columbus, an organization that supports Catholic churches and charities in Union, had to cancel three months’ worth of the fundraising events it depends on for its revenue stream, according to organization member Tom Dudek. Rabbi Mark Mallach, of Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael in Springfield, has rescheduled several weddings, postponed the bar mitzvah of a congregant’s child and even forbidden shiva, a weeklong mourning ritual, unless done virtually.

Still, for people like Nova, it’s hard not to look for the positives in the current situation, no matter how seemingly bleak. Her congregation has come together to pray for the 15 members serving as doctors and nurses on the frontlines against the coronavirus. More people are participating in church programming than before.

“All things can work together for good, as the Bible says,” said Nova. “When God closes a door, he opens a window. There’s always a way for God’s word to prevail.”

Mallach, like many of his faithful peers, has come to appreciate the varieties of closeness bred by widespread social distancing. In a March 25 interview with LocalSource, he recalled how he and his wife recently encountered another couple while strolling down the street. Spontaneously, “like the splitting of the Red Sea,” the two couples maneuvered to maintain a distance of 6 feet. Without any coordination, Mallach observed, the four strangers had protected one another.

The incident crystallized the key experience of many in the religious community amid the shutdown: Physical distance can indicate, and in fact fuel, spiritual closeness.

“There’s no way we come out of this the same,” Elliott said. “It’s going to connect us in a way that we’ve never been connected before. It highlights our humanity. It reminds us of who we are, of how we need each other, and of how we need God.”

On March 20, the congregants of Temple Sha’arey Shalom gathered on Facebook Live at 7:30 p.m. for the Friday-night service. They recited the “mi sheberach,” a Hebrew prayer of healing for those “ill in body, spirit and mind,” according to Edelman. The congregation has been hit especially hard by COVID-19, with five of its members currently hospitalized.

Rather than holding a formal service, Edelman and Cantor Jason Rosenman sat on the steps of the bima, the elevated platform from which the Torah is read. Their voices reverberated throughout the empty chamber as they sang and their congregants typed in names of people for whom to pray.

In ordinary circumstances, Edelman observed, some congregants couldn’t attend because of poor weather or child-related commitments. Now everyone could be present, virtually and emotionally. The informality of the service only heightened its intimacy.

“I think people actually felt more connected when we did the Facebook Live service than when we do it in the room,” Edelman said. “For the cantor and me, it seemed like the room was full of people. It didn’t seem like we were singing to an empty room. People were responding constantly. We felt that love.”

Prosnit reported similar experiences in his congregation, which recently held an entirely virtual bar mitzvah, one that was celebratory and almost “normal” despite the circumstances.

“I think it has shown us that we can bring our religion, not just when we’re together, but when we’re at home,” Prosnit said.

It’s a sentiment that cuts across religious boundaries.

“Our prayers are not contained to a structure,” Abdellah said.

While Muslims believe that praying in a congregation is more blessed than praying individually, the act of worship itself is ultimately valid no matter where and with whom it is conducted. After all, Abdellah pointed out, the Prophet Muhammad once said that the entire Earth itself is a place of worship.

“If there’s no masjid,” Abdellah said, “the whole world is a masjid.”

Photos by Ahmed Elbenni