The soaring sanctuary of the Shrine of the Sacred Heart, in the District’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood, bustles daily in normal times with parishioners — predominantly immigrants, many undocumented. But the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered communal worship for the church, as with most congregations across the country. It has also cut off many parishioners and neighborhood residents from work and unemployment benefits. And thus from food.
And that’s when prayer took another form at Sacred Heart.
The Catholic parish became one of the U.S. houses of worship that has transformed its sacred and communal spaces into a kind of food distribution center. With gloves and masks, in small teams, mostly in silence, congregants for the past few weeks have come to the sanctuary to pack some 560 baskets of food. Beans, oil, rice, carrots. One basket for each family who needs food. The packers don’t know the names of the recipients, some of whom are fellow congregants, some of whom aren’t even Catholic.
“There was a lot of silence. It was a prayer. To pray for these people who we don’t know who they are, thinking they might be sick, they might be dying, their kids might be unable to eat, I was thinking of these people and feeling very thankful to God that he’s using me to help somebody else and letting me be part of this prayer,” said Monica Zavallos, 50, a member of Sacred Heart who also works at the parish.
The closure of mosques, churches, synagogues, gurdwaras and other faith-centered buildings has provoked conversation and innovation about what it means to gather and serve as a worship community. For many congregations, online attendance has soared; others have watched members drift away, dissatisfied by remote prayer.
Some places have focused their communal work on service.
In addition to Sacred Heart, others include Brightwood Park United Methodist Church in Northwest D.C. The church near the Maryland border has turned its fellowship hall and smaller chapel into a mobile food distribution center for needy residents of the area.
Every day except Monday, masked volunteers answer a hotline for food and other supplies, sort and pack food and make deliveries. They are serving about 200 families. During Memorial Day weekend, the transformed spaces were used to pack 7,400 pounds of food.
Nicole Porter, a parishioner who works at a criminal justice think tank, said the first time she walked into the church’s main sanctuary, she had a strong emotional reaction. For two months she hadn’t been in the space where she had worshiped regularly for nearly a decade. The air and the mood felt different.
“A church is more than a building, that’s in scripture. But I also feel spaces can evoke emotion. Both of those things can be true,” she said. Porter has had those feelings in virtual worship and in preparing food boxes.
All Souls Church Unitarian, in Columbia Heights, is filled three days a week not with rows of worshipers but a dozen people packing food.
“We at All Souls are very clear that the church is not a building,” said the Rev. RK Keithan, social justice minister at the church, where he says attendance online has been higher than that typically in-person. “Our building is closed but All Souls is very much open.”