Today is Good Friday, the day Christians commemorate Jesus’ crucifixion. For Jews, Wednesday night marked the beginning of Passover, the spring holiday celebrating the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt. Normally both sets of holidays are packed with family, friends, food, and celebration—yet this year, as the US and the world weather the Covid-19 crisis, leaders in both faiths have been forced to reimagine what’s possible when churches, synagogues, and houses of worship are closed and group gatherings discouraged or prohibited to slow the spread of the disease.
WIRED spoke with nearly a dozen Christian and Jewish faith leaders from across the country to hear how the pandemic is reshaping their religious experience and challenging and strengthening their own beliefs. The following oral history, the fourth in our ongoing weekly series, Covid Spring, has been compiled from those original interviews, as well as from social media posts, to capture the transformation of religion in the time of the coronavirus.
Editor’s note: If you’d like to read previous installments of this series, Chapter 1 of Covid Spring dealt with patients and those on the front lines of the response across the country. Chapter 2 featured the voices of eight Americans who have watched what would normally be some of the biggest and most quintessentially human moments in their lives—births, weddings, loved ones’ deaths—remade and altered forever by the virus’s shadow. Last week’s Chapter 3 featured the voices of New Yorkers at the center of America’s Covid-19 epidemic. Quotes have been edited and condensed for clarity.
I. Faith and Hope
The Rev. Veronika Travis, associate rector, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Alexandria, Virginia: We could see the virus looming. I made the decision to not serve the cup anymore at communion—a choice some of the members thought I didn’t have the authority to make. That led to some conversation. Some people who were in more science-oriented jobs, they knew the coronavirus was going to be a big deal, but the average people in the church, they thought it was a bad flu. They were saying, “We need to act like we’re in flu season. Maybe don’t hug anymore,” stuff like that. The vestry—the board of the church—we talked, and I talked about how I was only going to serve the bread. That was the most sanitary way of giving communion.
Then we knew life was going to change on March 11th—that’s when the bishop of Virginia said we’re not letting you have in-person worship until March 25th, and then it just kept going from there with longer and longer restrictions from the bishop. Because we have a hierarchal church, I had an easier time than most because I was told what to do. We didn’t have to discuss it.
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Aaron Miller, rabbi, Washington Hebrew Congregation, Washington, DC: Our congregation’s first major disruption was when we closed our preschool. It was the first moment that wasn’t just “Wash your hands well.” Until that moment, I had been reading about the virus in places far away from Washington. But as Hemingway would say, the situation changed slowly and then suddenly. It all cascaded in the next 24 hours – schools were canceling, institutions were shutting down, and social distancing was the new normal.
Kati Whiting, executive director of ministry, The Heights Church, Richmond, Virginia: The last Sunday we were able to meet was March 15th. That week, everything came on so quickly. We had our staff meeting on Tuesday as normal, and by that weekend, we couldn’t have a gathering. We had to completely switch to a digital platform immediately. Church can’t cancel. Church can’t be canceled. The capital C Church has responded so well to this; I’ve seen our church and other churches all respond well.
Mark Blazer, rabbi, Temple Beth Ami, Santa Clarita, California: We made the shift toward this reality at the last minute on the night of Friday night, March 13th. We were supposed to be having services that evening, and the county issued new stay-at-home orders. About four hours before services started, we canceled services for the first time ever. No matter what, we had always had services. We missed one Friday night service, then Friday night the 20th, we were ready to go on Zoom right away. And we didn’t miss a beat on the classes.
Kati Whiting: We provided a worship experience for our church, and an experience for our children, and our students. Something for everyone they could watch from home, on their couch, in their jammies, safe from everything. At first, we thought this was going to be two weeks—two weeks we’ll miss meeting. As weeks passed, we realized we’d be on this for a while.
Traci Miller, parishioner, Baptist Church, Maryland: This year is a head trick. Our church announced it was suspended indefinitely. That was the first time I cried. It was very painful.
Mark Blazer: We wanted to establish continuity, and we wanted to make sure people knew that we were going to be here. We weren’t going to go dark—to have some semblance of stability in the midst of a lot of craziness and fear and panic and uncertainty.
Aaron Miller: We wanted to do two things in considering how we adapted: We wanted to be responsible. We’re a very large congregation, 2,500 member families, a 2,400-seat sanctuary—if Jews had mega-churches, maybe we’d be a mega-church—and so the decisions we made for the congregation needed to be good for the larger community. And we wanted to continue Judaism as we practiced Judaism. For a few weeks, we still did live services, though just a fraction of the congregation showed up. This morning, I led a Passover service to a completely empty chapel. I taped a picture of my wife next to the camera so I could look at someone I liked in the room. I became a rabbi because I love people, but as clergy, it feels like we’re now doing this alone.
Debbie Sperry, pastor, First United Methodist Church, Moscow, Idaho: John Wesley by default was the cofounder of United Methodism. He had the three simple rules: Do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God. We have a responsibility to protect people. We have to still find ways to be the church, which means acting in ways that care for our neighbor and do good but then staying in love with God: Finding ways to still connect with worship, study with devotionals, with service, with whatever that might be.
Brian Combs, founding pastor, Haywood Street, Asheville, North Carolina: We’re in the west side of downtown in what’s sometimes called “the homeless corridor.” Our whole idea is that God is coming among us, that God has taken up residence not as a prince, but as a pauper. Not as someone cloistered in the suburbs, rather someone who’s loitering on the corner of poverty. To be in ministry with that, Jesus has to be completely relational and in all the gritty places of life that bleed and bruise easily. We encourage intimacy. That’s what we do. We’re trying to be the family of faith up close. We cry together, we clasp hands together with worship and eat. What Covid has done is undermine the very theology in which we practice our faith. It’s moving toward suffering in every form and scratching around assuming that Jesus is waiting on the other side of that. To do it from a distance feels—it feels like holding your breath. It’s contrary to everything we believe about how to do things.
The Rev. Jeffrey Neal Stevenson, assistant rector, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Kansas City, Missourri: There are people who are really hurting because they don’t have the physical relationships—the hugs and the handshakes.
Brian Combs: We have a Welcome Table meal for the needy that independent restaurants typically put on: You eat off of a $50 piece of pottery. There’s a linen napkin. There’s a round table. There’s a wait staff. There’s fresh flowers. We bring you a seven-course meal, you eat all you want and come back as many times as you’d like. We’ve had to switch that all to to-go meals. We’ve had to shift everything out to the parking lot and then literally do these meals in to-go containers. One of the least faithful ways to do Christian urban ministry is when it’s transactional. It’s “us” and “them”—it’s “you have a need I’ll meet it. Please move along.” Haywood Street has tried to do the opposite. We want to linger. We want to do life together, share the same breath. When we can do that around a common table, when we pass a common loaf, we believe God blesses that. But we can’t do any of it.
Greg Bullard, pastor, Covenant of the Cross Church, Madison, Tennessee.: If you were to come to my church, you would have had to go through what we called the “Gauntlet of Love,” because everybody would have loved on you and told you they were so glad to see you and hugged you and asked you if you needed anything. All of those things, before you ever got to the auditorium. I don’t know how that’s going to impact the culture when this is over with. But right now that kind of culture, that’s hard to celebrate in a Zoom world.
Brian Combs: It’s very painful. That’s the only way I can say it, it’s just so painful. I ran into a woman at church today who had just had kidney surgery. She’s addicted to methamphetamine and had stopped using for five days. She wanted to be held, and to not be able to touch her was just excruciating.
Greg Bullard: Our tradition is not like a Catholic tradition or even Presbyterian, where they’ve prepared a sermon in advance. We’re part of a group called the Coalition of Spirit-Filled Churches. On any given Sunday, my sermon would change based off of the needs that happen to be present in the building. We may have sung extra songs, we may have not sung as many, depending on what we felt that the Holy Spirit was doing. A lot of times, our worship—part of the way through the music probably—the sermon may change based off of what the Holy Spirit’s doing. That free flow back and forth—all of that—is not what happens anymore. I literally have no one in the room with me where I’m preaching a sermon—the tech guy’s in one room, the music person’s in another, and I’m in another.
Veronika Travis: In our church, you have to touch things. I can’t virtually consecrate the elements—people can’t have bread and wine in their house and me virtually bless it. So we’re not doing communion right now. I don’t feel comfortable doing communion in my own home when others can’t. The bishops support a live-streamed eucharist if there is someone other than the priest present, and the congregation watching has spiritual communion. We don’t “virtually consecrate” the bread and the wine. But in our church we are doing morning prayer without eucharist for now. When we get back together, we’re going to have a fabulous celebration. It feels right to wait on communion until we can be together. We believe that Jesus is with us all the time, so it’s not like when we’re not receiving communion, you’re not receiving his presence. We can believe Jesus can be present and bless the world and heal the world without communion.
Greg Bullard: We do communion the first Sunday of the month at Covenant of the Cross. In Baptist and many Methodist churches, they have the small glasses of juice and those individual wafers that they pass among the congregation for communion. We told people three days in advance, “OK, get yourself some Saltines or some kind of unleavened cracker.” And “If you’ve got grape juice, that’s fine, if not, get wine, if not, get fruit juice, if not, even grape-flavored Coke—any kind of liquid. And we did communion across the internet. Most of the people who logged in participated.
Jeffrey Neal Stevenson: This is a very social parish. We’re doing coffee hour via Zoom. We’re doing all our classes by Zoom. We’ve tried to keep all our classes going virtually. Those classes are very integrated into who we are as a parish, and they’ve been a huge hit online. I think we’ll always have an online component to them now. I’m surprised—talking to 80-year-old church ladies online? I would’ve said, “They’re not going to do that.” But they’re the ones really making it happen.
Kati Whiting: Many of our members are in small groups—they’re able to conquer those fears and anxiety in those groups. A lot of people I’m talking to are experiencing anxiety and fear, but on the other hand, there are a lot of conversations about wanting to serve and wanting to be the light during this dark time. What could we be doing to help people start a conversation with God right now? There are a lot who are hopeful and want to be the solution.
Plus: What it means to “flatten the curve,” and everything else you need to know about the coronavirus.
Jeffrey Neal Stevenson: Normally, we have a cast of 60 to 80 people to make Sunday services happen. Now it’s just a priest and an organist. It’s definitely different. We’ve started doing daily prayers—three times a day. Father John has the morning, Jean does the afternoon one, and I do the evening one. We started that because everyone seemed to need a connection, but I think it’s something that will stick and stay.
Casper ter Kuile, author of The Power of Ritual, and organizer, Corona Community Chorus, New York: I sing in a choir every Monday. Honestly, it’s one of the ways I forget my professional brain. My brain goes quiet when I’m in harmony with others. I missed singing. I was thinking, “I know how to do this online,” so I just asked on Twitter, “If I did this, would you do it?” The first week, we had more than 100 people—including some people from my own life that I haven’t spoken to in years, as well as lots of strangers. We did songs and rounds that I’ve learned over the years. I put together a slideshow with the lyrics. I was expecting it would make people feel good—you could see families on the screen, pets on the screen—but as it went on, toward the end, there were a lot of people who were just crying. They’d experienced a connection. You can’t all talk at the same time, but you can all sing at the same time. It felt very real in the moment. Now we’ve been doing that for the last three Sundays.
Traci Miller: They’ve been doing prayer calls every day, and the response has been tremendous. I tried to call in yesterday a few minutes after the hour, and the system said they were already at capacity.
Aaron Miller: Religion is not a digital medium—it’s physical, tangible, it’s emotional, and when you’re behind a screen, you’re behind a screen. But so many people are joining us each week because this is one of those times when people need religion. Similar to 9/11, a lot of people are wondering how that “religion thing” can help them walk through this. Religion is a sacred mooring for people in times of upheaval like this, and I think this is why we’ve seen so many reconnecting with what Judaism can bring.
Marcia Zimmerman_, senior rabbi, Temple Israel, Minneapolis, Minn_esota: The possibilities have been amazing—engaging people on social media, Zoom, Facebook, text. We’ve doubled our numbers in many ways. I’ve been talking to friends in other churches and they’ve been saying the same thing. I don’t see us going back to not doing that work online after.
Debbie Sperry: People have been really appreciative. Our people who are joining us from all over are appreciating that we are in our normal space. We set up in the sanctuary—people are seeing our cross, our altar, those symbols that are sacred but are also familiar that allows it to be sort of a grounding experience.
Veronika Travis: The Episcopal Church has “daily offices,” similar to daily monastic hours—morning prayer, noonday prayer, evening prayer and compline. We have been doing morning prayer on Sunday on Zoom and streaming it live on Facebook. I make a slideshow. I have a couple people who I invite to be panelists, just like a webinar. I have a deacon who will read the gospel—last week he actually gave the sermon too. There are more people showing up for online services. We typically have about 150 people on a normal Sunday in church, but online, we’ve ranged from 120 to 180 participants, but some of them, they might have three or four people watching that screen, the whole family together. Some of the older people, who have moved to assisted living facilities or may not make it every week, they’ve jumped right on the internet, fired up Facebook, and are joining every week now.
Debbie Sperry: Some people were already on Facebook and that’s been really easy for them. Some people were on Facebook but it’s not so easy. On our page we say, “Worship starts at 10:30!” They’re like, “Where’s the link?” And we’re like, “Come back at 10:30!” That sort of intuitiveness when you’re familiar with tech and Facebook or whatever is not so intuitive for our older members.
Mark Blazer: The last couple of weeks we’ve had two to three times as many people joining us on Zoom as we normally do in person.
Debbie Sperry: Congregants say more in a week online than they normally do in person. I think the medium is easier to use, easier to write a comment like “thank you so much.”
Greg Bullard: We went from having about a 170 people watching our webcast to about 460. Our goal now is going to try to find ways to make sure that we keep these people connected to each other. For Holy Week, we have something we call a cottage-prayer meeting, and we do that every Wednesday. We do the same format now online, and we break down into Zoom breakout rooms while we are on that call. Then on Friday night, we will have a Zoom fellowship time for the whole church. We call them “Friday Night Hangouts,” and there’ll be a group for singles, for couples, for families, and a group for 60-plus. We’ll engage in that and have a healthy conversation, and I’ll give them a scripture. Sometimes those hangouts last for an hour-and-a-half, because these people haven’t seen each other since March 22nd or March 15th.
Mark Blazer: It doesn’t work great having people sing together on Zoom. It’s nice you feel connected, but it doesn’t sound good. There’s no harmonizing and there’s no way of getting the people on the same page on the same thing at the same time. It doesn’t sound right, but I think it makes people feel nice. We’re trying to make it not just interactive but inspirational and meaningful.
Veronika Travis: We’re also offering Compline, nighttime prayers, each evening at 8. I have a real regular set of four or five people who log in, and then others who come every so often. It’s a chance for them to tell me tell me how long the line was at Costco, that they’re lonely, just to talk to share observations from the day. Some people really need that to notice the passing of time.
Jeffrey Neal Stevenson: The work boundaries are really hard right now—this is true for anyone who works from home. When you’re ministering, you’re dealing with emotional and spiritual baggage. It used to be that I dealt with that in my office. Now it’s next to the kitchen. Drawing those boundaries is really hard.
Aaron Miller: You’re on all the time. It’s all hands on deck. We have two children—4 and 2—and as it is for all parents, the balancing act is always up in the air.
Greg Bullard: Every day seems monotonous now.
Mark Blazer: Whereas 9/11 was emotional—a devastating punch—this just keeps going. We just keep getting punched. I’m physically exhausted from the amount of work. We’re trying to respond to this because it doesn’t let up. It doesn’t end, and there’s always something that needs to be done.
Greg Bullard: Most people are getting to where they’re getting frustrated with having to be home and not being able to see people. They know that they need to do it, for their own safety, but they’re saying, “I know I have to do this. But dang it, I don’t like it.” There’s not a lot of fear on their part, but there is this idea, among some of them that I’ve talked to, that they have been lied to and misled by their government and by the society at large. They’re like, “Why didn’t the government do something to protect us earlier?” It’s not fear, it’s more “I’m just pissed off.” But most of their feeling is, “I just want to get back to seeing people that encourage me and give me hope.” Most of them are just, “I miss my friends. I miss being able to sit down and eat bad food—or good food—and engage.” There’s definitely a feeling like they’re trapped in the prison of their own home.
Jeffrey Neal Stevenson: I’ve been encouraging people on my evening prayers. I had a list of 10 folks who volunteered to make phone calls, and I sent them 200 names. Almost all of them had done them by the next day. They said the conversations were amazing. They’re taking personal responsibility for their relationships with the church.
Brian Combs: We’re trying to make a pivot to online worship. Online worship in a sense is oxymoronic to everything we believe in, like how we’re doing to-go meals—it’s awkward at best.
Debbie Sperry: To do a virtual service you have to script it, you have to block it as if you were doing a drama rehearsal—like move the camera, what’s in the way, which microphone is blocking the shot here, who’s going to move the camera? You have to choreograph all of that stuff. It takes a ton of time.
Greg Bullard: It’s actually harder to pastor a digital church when you’ve moved from in-person, where you can look people in the eye and know what’s going on in their lives and see that emotional experience and spiritual experience they’re having. It takes more work to do it this way—a lot more work. A lot of people don’t realize that.
Debbie Sperry: I don’t speak off the cuff, and I don’t memorize stuff like I normally would because there are just too many moving parts for me to keep it all straight. We have a full script that has the primers, the welcome, the scripture, the sermon, and the words to the hymn. We’ve been hard-copy mailing those out to those people to make sure that they’re included.
Greg Bullard: It takes more work not just on the pastor’s part, but also on the part of those who are wanting their own spiritual lives to be enriched. You can’t wait on the preacher to tell you something. You’ve got to be able to do this on your own.
Traci Miller: The first stab at online worship—they did clips from previous services, and then the preacher preached a new sermon. The second week, they went into individual homes, and there were different participants—someone did welcome, the offering, and so forth. It was really cute. Then they played Tyler Perry, he did a version of “He’s got the whole world in his hand,” where he started and then other people chimed in, and he put the whole song together. Our church did a version of that—maybe 15 people, like our keyboardist, and then it ended with two little kids singing.
Kati Whiting: We’ve also been offering a mid-week experience, Whitlow Wednesdays—our pastors are Josh and Crystal Whitlow, they planted Heights Church five years ago—so people can tune in, see their pastors, and have a good laugh. We’re adding some new songs to the Good Friday program, and we’ve recorded our worship team singing those songs.
Jeffrey Neal Stevenson: It’s been a challenge for Holy Week. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday—normally, they pull out all the stops, the washing of the feet, the stripping of the alter. It’s very dramatic. There’s a very dramatic moment where three of us—me, Father John, and Mother Anne—we scrape the alter clean with lye and water. For the Easter vigil, Saturday night, it’s done almost in the dark, with just the big candle on the alter. I usually have that sermon. I do all the preaching from the steps in a spotlight, and then when they have the Holy Noise, the organist pounds on the organ and the whole building rocks. Father John knocks on the back doors, and the lights come on, and there are all these lilies that have appeared. It’s all grandiose.
All these services are to evoke emotions. We’ve just done that through tradition. It’s true in every church, every denomination, every faith—the traditions are designed to evoke emotions. But we don’t have the tools this year. We don’t think of them as emotion-evoking tools, but that’s what they are. So we’re asking everyone to dig in at their homes; Father John has challenged everyone to create a holy space at home. That makes it more personal for them. It’s forced us to challenge people to do the work to understand what’s happening, what we’re celebrating, and what we’re marking. We talk about this every day.
Debbie Sperry: Normally we make it special with flowers, tulips, decoration, the bell choir, the organ, the regular choir, and the special music. We can’t do that. So how do we make it special? The musicians rallied to do something special.
Marcia Zimmerman: We just hired a very young rabbi to get into social media, but nothing has accelerated that transition like this. I’m 60. I wouldn’t have taken the time to learn to use Zoom without this moment. You’ve got to see the blessings.
Debbie Sperry: We put out a special Holy Week newsletter saying what we were doing and giving information about our response around Covid. We put out an offering to check out hymnals so people could sing along with us on Facebook. We’re doing an “egg hunt”—asking people to color this picture of an egg and put it in a street-facing window so that when kids go for a walk on Easter Sunday, they can spot the eggs. It’s not ideal, but it’s a way to connect.
Kati Whiting: We’re “egging” houses—we’re providing Easter Egg kits for families in the communities. We ordered 10,000 eggs, so we’re able to serve 500 families. We’re taking all the necessary precautions. We’re sanitizing all the eggs with Lysol, wearing masks and gloves, and using hand sanitizer in between each kit; then we’ll spray down all the bags again, and we’ll Lysol the spaces in the cars where we put the kits before we load them in. The drivers are wearing masks and gloves. We’ll either drop the kits on the porch or there’s an option to have us hide the eggs for them. Everyone and anyone who wanted joy right now is able to receive it. It’s serving as a great outreach. We know Easter eggs don’t have anything to do with God, but kids are being robbed of so many great experiences. We wanted to bring some joy and help their parents out—since they’re now home 24/7 with their kids.
Debbie Sperry: I try not to dig too deep into the darkness, but we also don’t shy away from it. It’s like, “Yep, we are absolutely acknowledging Easter is not what we’ve come to expect it to be.” We are grieving what we are missing, the things that are abnormal for us, and the parts of our traditions that we aren’t allowed to celebrate right now or participate in. But also we want to use that to move into, “Actually maybe that’s more like the original Easter than we care to admit.” The original Easter didn’t start with celebrations and rainbows and tulips. Their Easter started with grief and darkness and sadness about everything that they had lost.
Looking at Easter through that lens, it’s like, “Yeah, it’s not all that we’ve made it out to be, even when it’s glorious—it’s not all Peeps and bunnies and candy.” It helps connect us to people who are suffering at any Easter—people who are dealing with a cancer diagnosis and treatment, people who are living in poverty, people who don’t have clean water to drink or access to food. Maybe Easter doesn’t feel the same to them either, and maybe this gives us a chance to grow in our empathy with them.
Brian Combs: I have asked for permission to go to a church and sneak in the back Easter morning and be the only person in the sanctuary and just sit there and worship. I imagine I’ll weep through a lot of that service Sunday. I have felt such a flood of lament that has gone unexpressed until this point because I need to stay in my role and do my job and be stable for this ministry and the people that depend on it, but my own personal struggle is one of brokenness. Thankfully Holy Week has plenty of room for that. Our tradition, even if it’s not highlighted often, certainly affirms the place of darkness with no answers and the mystery of pain—that is very much a part of the shadow of the cross.
I feel a little like I would need to invoke some platitudes to make an overarching statement about hope in this moment. That feels like it’s a perversion of the Christian faith. The whole “skip Holy Week—especially Good Friday—and arrive pristine, in our Sunday best for Easter,” that just deforms the whole tradition that Christianity brings to bear on the experience of what it means to be human—a tradition that includes such hurt and a gospel story that says Jesus made room for all that. He courted it, if anything, and called the church to do the same.
Greg Bullard: I’m toying with the idea of doing a Facebook Live event on Easter Sunday morning as the sun is coming up here at the chapel, here at my house. Just having people watch the sun come up over the pond that my chapel overlooks. You may not be able to physically be here, but you can be here in spirit.
Aaron Miller: Our congregation has been around for almost 170 years, and the other day we did our first b’not mitzvah over Zoom. The cantor was in her house, I was in mine, the b’not mitzvah family was in their living room, their relatives, friends, and members of our congregation all joined us through Zoom. I felt terrible for this family. They’d wondered whether they should reschedule, but when all of this happened, their service was just ten days away. The grandfather of the family was a Holocaust survivor—someone who experienced the world turning over in so many horrible ways, and here, the granddaughters of a Holocaust survivor were celebrating their b’not mitzvah despite a pandemic. Perseverance is a part of the religious story too. All of this hit me when the service was over, and I was moved to tears.
Jeffrey Neal Stevenson: Someone keeps talking about how this is virtual relationships—and that’s not right. It doesn’t substitute for physical contact, but done right, it can amplify it. This Zoom coffee hour, it’s a tool we’re using to magnify our physical relationships. I really think this will change how we do stuff.
Debbie Sperry: I miss being with people—my church is my people. Those are the ones that I check in on. I have somebody who’s on hospice and I learned on Monday that she’s still full-time in a hospital bed. I love her, and she’s so much fun to visit with. I’m thinking about, “OK when she dies—which is inevitable and soon—what do we do for the funeral?” I’m trying to figure out funerals where you can’t be with the people and giving people liturgy that they could follow as a family via Zoom.
Aaron Miller: I’ve had two funerals since all this happened. I did one yesterday. He was a wonderful guy. I buried his wife a number of years ago. Such a mensch. Raised a wonderful family. He was 96 years old. He was in good health, but he contracted the virus, and three days later he was gone. Most of his large family could not be there for his burial—there were just four of us at the graveside: one of his sons and his wife, the funeral director, and me. That’s it. And it was heartbreaking. That wasn’t the burial he deserved.
Marcia Zimmerman: I’ve done 13 funerals in the last two-and-a-half weeks. It’s not all Covid, but it’s become now all Covid. In the early days, they all had underlying health issues but they weren’t being tested, so we won’t know. We have people in the hospital, people on ventilators who don’t have underlying health condition. That’s been really hard on the congregation.
Our funerals have evolved. About a week before we saw anyone we knew had the virus, I reached out as a rabbi to the Jewish funeral home, and we talked about it. We said, “We need to stay on top of this. How are we going to keep everyone safe? We can’t bring our community together.”
At first, it was no more than 10 people—only a graveside service, a very quick, 10-to-15-minute service. Then things began to turn. Even 10 people, we’re putting people at risk. Even five people, we’re putting people at risk. Then the Minnesota rabbinical society said no one should be graveside. So we do everything through zoom—the family intake, the funeral, the shiva (the Jewish gathering)—all through Zoom. The funeral director is the only one at the graveside.
The funerals have been incredible; people have been saying that they’re seeing relatives they’d never see if people actually had to be there in person. Everyone on these shivas, they share their stories. It’s been really wonderful. It’s an unexpected byproduct—there are sweet moments even without the physical gathering, which is a blessing.
Debbie Sperry: Within the Christian tradition, our business is about helping people in a myriad of ways. Worship is the most visible, but it’s not necessarily the biggest priority helping people with whatever they need—with relationship issues, with addiction issues, with health or housing or food or whatever. Trying to help people, the logistics around it are countless right now, and just for all of those communities trying to figure out like, “How do we do our best to help people?” and recognizing there are so many levels of help that are needed. The levels of need for people in like a regular time are so profound—there’s the statistic that 40 percent of the US population would struggle to afford a $400 emergency bill. How are they going to make ends meet now?
Brian Combs: If you feed people then there is still the possibility for new life. But once the food ends then martial law, rioting, looting—all those things quickly follow understandably. From the first day that we as a church realized this crisis was happening, we said: “We’ve got to focus on food.” As a ministry we have to be unflinching in our response. We are going to continue to move toward people even if it’s stubbing our toe at six feet away. We’re going to continue with food.
Greg Bullard: One of our largest ministries is a food pantry where we are the primary food source for about a thousand people a year. We provide secondary food for probably another 5,000 to 10,000, via Meals on Wheels and all that stuff. Everybody who comes to our food pantry, all of them already had full time jobs. Most of them had at least one full-time job and a part-time, if not two full-time jobs, and they still didn’t have enough to be able to feed themselves. We have people who drive 45 minutes one-way to get food, but our food-box feeds one adult two meals a day for 28 days—most food pantries, they just offer 72 hours of food. We’re calling all those families and seeing what they need, because we’re assuming that need has changed now.
Our last food distribution was on the 22nd of March. It takes 10 people to distribute the food and then by the time you have people who are actually coming in to get food, that’s more people than we’re supposed to have together.
We just don’t know how that’s going to happen now—we buy some food in bulk, but our congregation brings most of that food. Two-thirds to three-quarters of the food is actually brought by people to the church to be put in the food box. Now we don’t know how we can fill the need. There’s no way to build up enough food to feed those people. We’ve already begun trying to figure out how to provide food on the third Sunday of this month. And if we can’t provide food, what can we do?
Veronika Travis: We have a couple people who really volunteer a lot at the church. They’re in the category of people who feel pretty safe and privileged to be able to be home. They’re blessed to be lawyers who log into Zoom. They pray a lot for people who can’t stay home. There’s been an uptick in people wanting to talk about that—how our economy is organized. I see that as an opportunity, a chance to talk about what we owe each other socially. We don’t talk about the politics of that, because this close to Washington, you can’t talk about the politics, but we can talk about the issues.
Greg Bullard: My faith has also been regenerated in those people who are willing to say, “This is a hard time, but I’m going to keep stepping up to the plate for what I need to do.”
A lot of American culture tells you, if you’re not there, you shouldn’t pay that, you shouldn’t do that. That’s true in almost anything you do in America. “If I don’t have kids, I shouldn’t pay taxes for schools.” Well, OK, but those kids are going to be the ones determining your Social Security later, so you’d better make sure they’re intelligent. We want the most, with the least that we have to put out as a culture. The faith I’m seeing in this moment is a lot of people are saying, “I’m not going to do my life that way. I’m going to move beyond that and step up to a different level.” They’re calling people, they’re engaging people. I think I’m going to see good things out of this, once it’s all over with.
Brian Combs: I’m encouraged by how many folks have said, “I want to do more. I want to move closer. I want to take on a greater responsibility. I cannot abandon the people that I’ve come to love.” Dereliction of duty is not an option in this moment.
II. Lessons of the Past
Marcia Zimmerman: I just talked to a congregant who has lost three family members to Covid; it feels like someone is targeting them. It’s scary—what’s next? The people are feeling anxious. Some people have been saying this is the 11th plague—you know, because Passover is about the 10th plague.
Aaron Miller: Passover has been completely reshaped by the coronavirus.
Marcia Zimmerman: Passover is Passover. Let’s celebrate it, but don’t make it the Covid-19 Passover. There are people who are alone at home. We would normally do everything in our power to connect them to a family. You have to acknowledge that. But you also have to have celebration.
Aaron Miller: Judaism is not just a faith, it’s a tradition, it’s a people. There’s faith involved, sure, but it’s not a faith alone. In a time like this, people are turning to each other in ways I’ve never seen. My family, we had a Zoom Passover Seder for over 50 people, including some relatives I haven’t seen in over a decade. Some things change—radically so—and some things are still familiar.
Mark Blazer: One of the things we think about at Passover is that the story takes place in the setting of quarantine. The first Passover meal, the Jewish people—the Israelites—were quarantined in Egypt as the 10th plague was passing over Egypt. I mean literally the holiday began with isolation and with people knowing that outside was death.
Aaron Miller: Passover is the story of the world turning upside down. We went into Egypt, and things turned upside down, and we entered the wilderness, and things turned upside down again. More than any Passover in recent memory, people feel that this did not just happen to our ancestors thousands of years ago. The feeling of the Passover story is the feeling of our people today.
Mark Blazer: The holiday reminds us of thousands of years ago—this pendemic is the ultimate version of that story in our day. It’s also kind of a combination because we’re the Egyptians too right now—we’re not just the Israelites. Self-isolating, we’re the Egyptians, not knowing whether the angel of death is going to touch us. It’s even scarier from that standpoint.
There are so many Jews who lived through the Holocaust that even though this moment is scary, there have been a whole lot scarier times—even in the lifetime of some of the people who are unfortunately sitting in their homes right now. Five days ago, I was with a Holocaust survivor who was originally born in Germany. She’s 94. Sure it’s difficult right now, but it would be incorrect to say, “Hey, look, we’re living under a worse situation than she was.” There’s a perspective to it. I’ve seen some posts that say, “Anne Frank lived for two years with seven other people in a 450-square-foot room.” There’s a sense of “Let’s keep perspective.”
Marcia Zimmerman: Those are important lessons to learn right now, especially since this year the world seems topsy-turvy.
Chris Hayes, via Twitter: Really something just profoundly moving to consider all of the awful, dangerous conditions under which Jews have had seders throughout the millenia and how a seder in a pandemic over Zoom is a kind of a link in a chain back through that history.
Leslie Grossman, via Twitter: Passover updates from quarantine: I cried like a toddler because I can’t have the Seder with my parents who live 3 miles away from me. Also my aunt and uncle who are always early are early to the Zoom Seder, and I am comforted that even in a pandemic they are still on brand.
Benjy Sarlin, via Twitter: Have a nice Seder trying to find some modern relevance to an ancient story about hiding in your house until a deadly plague passes by that the government should have seen coming.
Sarah Marian Seltzer, via Twitter: My cousin won the virtual Seder by creating a burner Elijah account and making us let him in the zoom halfway through.
Zach Braff, via Twitter: Happy Passover to all who celebrate. This year Elijah is our only Seder guest.
Andy Lassner, via Twitter: Tonight, my 81-year-old mom is gonna sit in her apartment alone and have a Passover Seder. This makes me angry and sad and a hundred other emotions.
Alison Kuznitz, via Instagram: Passover is by no means an easy holiday to celebrate, especially if you insist on keeping strictly kosher all eight days. But to me, that struggle symbolizes the point of Pesach. The traditions don’t really change—whether you need food mailed to you in central Pennsylvania or if you’re completely winging it alone for the first time. So this year, I choose to feel free by enjoying what is so familiar and structured amid a very wonky time (and knowing my mom is saving me brisket at home). Chag sameach!
III. The Future
Casper ter Kuile: We were already in a massive trend of disaffiliation. There’s a large decline in institutional religion. But there’s a real growth in things that share some of the traits of organized religion—SoulCycle is a community where people support each other in the way that you’d normally expect from a congregation. These religious experiences are happening in secular spaces. All of that was already happening. Add in coronavirus, and the traditional delivery devices of religion aren’t there—you have to de-physicalize the religious experience. That’s exciting to me. Obviously, I’d much prefer not to be in this position, but there’s a real opportunity here.
Jeffrey Neal Stevenson: If you’ve ever heard me preach, this is one of my go-to sermons: We hear a lot about the dying of the church—it doesn’t matter what church you’re talking about. Church as an entity and church as an idea is dying. I think it’s a bullshit line. If you look at Christianity, about every 500 years there’s a big dramatic change in the way we view faith. Well, we are about 500 years out from the Reformation. We’re due for a change.
Now today, I’m broadcasting half our services from my phone. We’re still looking for the way church used to be. It’s not that the internet is changing religion, but it has to have a part in it. It’s changing who we are as a society. What’s happened in this pandemic is that I have to do something to keep up with what church is supposed to be. The little parish in the middle of nowhere Missouri with just 15 members, that church is still happening. The priest is sitting at his desk broadcasting too. On the other side of this, I think what we think of church will look different. Just like we’re changing for Holy Week, we have to understand our own responsibility for understanding our faith. We have to do that as individuals in the bigger church.
Kati Whiting: That’s what people need right now—they need church, they need God. The church is going to come out of this stronger.
Traci Miller: We’ve been doing Lent prayers every morning at 6, and they decided to continue that past Sunday because everyone is scared and destabilized. That’s all on a phone—a conference line. A lot of the ministries are doing calls—it’s better than nothing. I’m an usher, and I’m part of the prayer ministry. When I hear from them I love it, but I feel like an old person locked away and no one comes to visit.
Casper ter Kuile: One of the biggest things a religious life offers people is a rhythm. It’s not just me alone in the world wandering—it’s my life inside a larger story. That’s expressed in the liturgical calendar. Our lives fit within a sacred rhythm. When we’re all pulled out of that, it’s very disconcerting. Religion helps us feel stable and grounded.
Traci Miller: When this first hit, I took a deep dive into sadness. I was scared. But I heard TD Jakes talking about how this is a major disruption. The Lord has disrupted the entire globe and brought it to a standstill. With a disruption has to come major change. That’s a pretty powerful way of looking at it. It can be an opportunity to pivot. If you pray and trust, there’ll be a path. Once I got that in my system, I stopped being afraid and became excited. When people go back, things aren’t going to be the way they were. My faith has been strengthened by all of this. All I can do is rely on my faith. With God, nothing else matters, and without God, nothing else matters. My stress has gone way down. I have loved being home. I have been made to lie down in green pastures. You have to stay home. This reset, you’re being restored. That’s what the Lord’s Prayer is all about.
Casper ter Kuile: This is pushing a creativity that will last beyond the crisis. As a culture, moments like this make new things possible. On a policy level, things are possible now that would have seemed impossible six months ago. Even in our personal lives, you see people wondering: “How do I really live a life of meaning?” Religion has long sought to help answer that question.
Jeffrey Neal Stevenson: Our sacraments are very important in our church. For years, there’s been this conversation in the background, “Could I consecrate the bread and wine through a computer screen?” Now it is a no-kidding conversation that real theologians are having. That’s challenged my faith—what does it mean to make a sacrament? Can I do the rite of confession through Zoom? I’d say yes. Can I do the rite of healing, the unction, and use the oil on their forehead? What does the oil represent? For the eucharist, there’s a part where we’re standing there doing the prayer, and our rules say we must touch the bread and the chalice. But in the same way, when we use a communion wafer, I don’t have to touch every wafer, do I have to touch every forehead? Are we just talking about distance? I believe in a God who is not worried about the distance. That’s been a challenge to my faith.
Brian Combs: I’m not making sense of it, and I remain skeptical of any attempts to frame this theologically—to overlay a sense of orderly divine intent from God. My assumption is God is lamenting this as well. God set a world in motion that also includes an element of randomness. I very much don’t want to move on from the helplessness that God feels, which I share as well. I just want to hold space for the wrongness of this moment and assume that God is participating through presence but that God is very much lamenting how unintended all of this is and how contrary to the created order.
Veronika Travis: The pandemic is creating opportunities for me to think about my faith differently. I’ve been spending time with writers like Thomas Merton, other monastic people—people who have cultivated a relationship with faith in isolation or silence. I’m reading things like The Desert Fathers, a collection of writings and wisdom from early Christian monks who lived in the Egyptian desert. Even as we’re all apart, Christians are a communal faith—God is always with us.
What’s not part of the Christian life is doing everything by yourself. For our faith, this is making me conscious of the people who aren’t being connected. Sometimes that’s really stressful. The people who aren’t on the internet, the people who might be needing me and not calling. God is always there through all kinds of difficulties. God helps us understand the long view. Even when we read the Scriptures, people who trust God turn out OK, even when they experience tragedy, war, or terrible family structure. Those stories turn out to have God protecting the person suffering. That doesn’t discount the reality of suffering. But it does require us to be together, to serve each other, and it is a struggle to be sitting here in my house and not be able to help people.
Greg Bullard: This crisis has encouraged my faith in God in that I have learned that there was a lot of stuff in my life that was extraneous, that I didn’t have to do to be effective. That I don’t have to run all over the country constantly. My primary job as a pastor and as a leader is to pray and preside over worship, and to prepare people to do the work of ministry. That can be done in your own home. That can be done in a lot of places.
Kati Whiting: My faith has never been stronger than it has been through this. I’m realizing more than ever how much people need Jesus. God’s word says that, and you know that in your heart, but it’s moments like this where it really comes into play.
Greg Bullard: The scripture always tells us that all things work together for the good of those who love the Lord and are called according to his purpose. It didn’t say “all the things that I like” or “all the things I enjoy.” It said everything. Romans 8:28. Something good is going to come out of this. That’s what I want people to hear.
Mark Blazer: The bigger lesson—the most important lesson—is that we will get through this. We’ve survived before and will continue to survive as a people, as humanity. We will get through this. It gives people hope that we survived those things—we’re going to survive this too.
Aaron Miller: Zoom is a second-best option. Zoom is not what anyone wants, but religion is about taking the unplanned and making it sacred. Adam and Eve leaving the garden wasn’t the plan; Noah getting on the ark and leaving humanity behind wasn’t the plan; the destructions of the first or second temples wasn’t the plan. But faith is not just when things work out as planned. Religion keeps the ideal of what the world should be, and at times like this, faith is when we take the next best option and make it sacred too.
Traci Miller: Not going to church doesn’t impact my church at all. I work on it privately all the time. Going to church has become more social—it’s a fellowship. That portion of my faith-walk is highlighted.
Mark Blazer: If your faith means something, it means something now. It’s very easy to talk about faith and talk about sacrifice when you’re living a comfortable suburban life. This is where the rubber meets the road. We’re trying to put our faith into action, and that’s what I am here for.
Jeffrey Neal Stevenson: The church is not about the magic we do on Sunday, it’s about the relationships you find through what we do on Sunday morning.
Aaron Miller: Religion isn’t just when all goes well. Religion insists that life can remain sacred when it doesn’t.
Jenny Pachucki and Nora McGreevy contributed research and reporting to this article.
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