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By Thomas Goldsmith 

When disaster strikes, North Carolinians often flock to churches or other faith centers to experience worship, support each other, and help the broader community.

But the lowering threat of COVID-19 in North Carolina has mostly shut the doors of churches, synagogues and mosques to gatherings of any size. The crisis is directing congregations and faith leaders down distinctive new paths where they encounter canceled services, remote worship via video, virtual fellowship in Zoom meetings, heightened community service, and targeted prayer.

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“The Lenten Season is meant to be a time of reflection and renewal. In this particular time of difficulty and pain, when we cannot participate fully in the Eucharist by receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, we are encouraged to explore the many other ways in which and through which Christ comes to us,” James Sabak, director of the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, wrote in a website message as Holy Week approached.

The decision March 16 by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to limit public gatherings to 10 or fewer people applies to faith centers as well as businesses. After early March, when leaders tried to modify rituals such as communion to lessen the chance of infection, the choice was taken out of the hands of ministers, rabbis and imams.

That’s when faith leaders from OBX to the Tennessee line started crafting solutions out of texts including the Bible, the Torah, and the Quran; from new interpretations of ancient rituals; from leaps in technology; and from a desire to wield the power of faith against a frightening threat that seems both modern and Biblical.

Handwashing for centuries

At the Islamic Association of Raleigh, where thousands typically gather for prayers five times a day, the edict meant canceling the important Friday prayers and drastically trimming the number of people taking part as a group in daily prayers.

“What they have done is to divide prayers into smaller groups, a few at a time, and then they leave,” Fiaz Fareed, outreach director of the association, said on the phone.

Islamic practice coincided with one of the key medical recommendations for preventing the spread of the COVID-19 infection, Fareed said.

“Muslims have been washing their hands for centuries because they cannot come to prayer without washing their hands at least five times a day,” he said.

Adapting funerals to COVID-19 concerns

As the virus continues to spread, changes keep coming to some of the most cherished, ancient rituals of world religion — worship services, weddings, funerals, confession, communion and prayer. In one example, those planning Catholics funerals found they had decisions to make.

“Funerals are being limited to immediate family excluding the ministers,” said Patricia Guilfoyle, interim communications facilitator for the Diocese of Charlotte. “We want to limit the number of people gathering given this public health concern.”

The restriction of no more than 10 people at a funeral went too far for some members of St. Gabriel Catholic Church in Charlotte.

“That seemed to be unworkable, meeting that number,”  Ana Lothspeich, pastoral care director for the church, said on the phone.

Four families dealing with a March death chose to proceed with internment, but to delay a formal memorial in the church until conditions would allow people who couldn’t otherwise attend.

“Many people wanted to come from out of town, but were not able to travel,” Lothspeich said. “A lot of families want closure, but they understand about the limits.”

Zoom-ing into a service

In another adaptation, Raachel Jurovics, rabbi emerita at Raleigh’s Yavneh, a Renewal Jewish synagogue, recently took part in a service powered by Zoom Cloud Meetings. That’s a popular remote-meeting application that’s showing up in faith-based settings.

“We’re a small community, but we had about 15 people log in to Zoom and the only drawback, we discovered, is that everybody except the worship leaders needed to be muted, because if we were all singing together what you got was a cacophony,” Jurovics said and laughed.

The remote service succeeded because of the sense of connection people felt to a caring community, and the opportunity to schmooze with others when the event was done.

The remote meetings that many congregations are streaming have their distinct advantages but can also heighten the sense of exclusion caused by the COVID-19 guidelines, Jurovics said.

“It’s certainly an opportunity folks didn’t have previously and it does help reduce the sense of isolation and remind you that there is a community functioning that so cares about you that it’s so present to you,” she said. “I think for Christian communities that are used to having an opportunity for communion, forgoing that has to be extremely difficult. Even watching a service where other people take communion strikes me as almost exacerbating the sense of loss.”

Jurovics has taken part in many interfaith activities and was recently named rabbi in residence for the Episcopal Diocese of Raleigh.

What they are saying

“Churches can mobilize volunteers to show the love of Christ in practical ways offering relief and hope in this time of fear and crisis. Consider the challenges caused by the virus as opportunities for us to shine the light of Christ in the midst of darkness.”

Baptists on Mission 

“Missing this blessed act of worship and noble gathering of believers reminds us of Allah’s great favor upon us all with the blessings of Islam, Iman, family, health, safety, and so much more. We turn to Allah in humility and ask Him to protect all of humanity from this affliction and to lift it from the entire world.”

Triangle Imams Council on the suspension of Friday services

“[Canceling mass] is an exceedingly difficult decision as your Bishop, given my love for you and more, what I know of your love for Our Lord. Yet, at this time, it is clear to me that as Catholics we need to make this sacrifice together with so many others out of our stewardship of the common good and out of our care to our most vulnerable brothers and sisters.”

— Bishop Luis Rafael Zarama, The Catholic Diocese of Raleigh

“The Jewish concept of “Pikuach Nefesh” (saving a life) overrides virtually every other Jewish ritual and commandment. As Congregation Beth Israel adjusts to the threat of COVID-19, your safety remains our most important concern.”

Congregation Beth Israel, Asheville

Changes for volunteers, too

When more typical natural disasters strike North Carolina, faith-based groups such as N.C. Baptists on Mission roll into action, feeding people, setting up shelter, repairing houses, and more. But the onset of the coronavirus threat across North Carolina presents starkly different problems from those created by a hurricane in perhaps 20 counties, said Tom Beam, disaster relief consultant for Baptists on Mission.

“When there’s a natural disaster like Hurricane Florence, we just have a few churches or a gym open up and we just sleep everybody, but we’re not going to be able to do any kind of lodging for volunteers,” Beam said in a telephone interview. “Many of our volunteers are retired. And many of them have underlying health problems. So we would have to encourage more local church members to be involved so that we don’t have to provide places for volunteers to congregate.”

Baptists on Mission is also looking throughout the state for food deserts, poorly supplied areas where grocery sources will likely be even more scarce in times of crisis. “We’re hoping we can fill in the gaps of where it looks like there’s a greater need for food,” Beam said.

‘Odd and insufficient’

Many people of faith find comfort and stability in practices and rituals that have remained essentially the same for years, decades or centuries. In this time of trial, North Carolina faith leaders are having to improvise to a rare degree. The goal becomes preserving essential spiritual values while changing the physical location of worship and other outreach.

“We know this is an unusual time,”  Tony Hoshaw and Carol Ripley-Moffitt, interim co-pastors of Raleigh’s Community United Church of Christ, wrote to members about COVID-19-related changes to in-person worship schedules.

“As the people of God, we are capable of fully leaning into it. We will playfully and prayerfully work at being Community in this time. Please be kind to yourselves.”

Adaptations to accustomed ritual continue as the crisis apparently grows more grave. The Diocese of Raleigh has asked pastors to celebrate the confession with penitents one-on-one, making sure that both distancing and privacy are observed. And Holy Infant Catholic Church in Durham and St. James Catholic Church in Fayetteville, as well as a few churches in the Diocese of Charlotte, offered drive-thru confessions starting this weekend.

Robert Kochersberger, an English professor emeritus at North Carolina State University, noted in an email to this writer that his wife, the Rev. Janet Watrous, is an Episcopal priest and that they have attended church even when living outside the United States in places where they could not understand the service.  The pandemic-related closing of all Episcopal churches has been hard, Kochersberger wrote.

“On Sunday, we first planned a small home service, but then changed our minds, given the personal closeness that it would lead to,” he wrote. “We watched the live stream of church from the National Cathedral in D.C. A bonus is that it was an Episcopal service!

“So we did find a way to worship, but it was both odd and insufficient. I guess desperate times call for desperate measures.”

Jason Smith, lead pastor direction at nondenominational Forest Hill Church in Charlotte, used video on Wednesday to inform his congregation about changes in the presentation of worship during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy: Forest Hill Church

The address the couple heard was delivered by a familiar North Carolina voice, that of the Most Rev. Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. Curry began his career as a minister in Winston-Salem, from 1978 through 1982, and returned as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina in 2000.

‘Who can help and heal’

Widely known for his social-justice-themed sermon at the wedding of Megan Markle and Prince Harry, Curry discussed the COVID-19 pandemic during his March 15 sermon at the National Cathedral, using the context of Jesus’ final hours.

“Later at that Last Supper, Jesus said to His disciples, ’No one has greater love than this, but that they give up their life for their friends,’” Curry said. “That kind of love must be contagious. That kind of contagious love can change the world.”

Fighting the force of the pandemic will require “love working through medical folk, love working through leaders, love working through each one of us who can help and heal,” Curry said.

Thomas Goldsmith

Thomas Goldsmith worked in daily newspapers for 33 years before joining North Carolina Health News. Goldsmith is a native Tar Heel who attended the UNC-Chapel Hill, and worked at newspapers in Tennessee...