Houses of worship get creative in time of COVID

July 24, 2020

Some worried about finances, some more about safety

With COVID-19 concerns still front and center, houses of worship across the North Shore are moving forward with very different approaches — from traditional indoor Masses to meditations on kayaks to online-only services. Some are worried that the pandemic and economic downturn will have damaging, long-term effects.

“We need your help now more than ever,” the Rev. Jim Achadinha with the Catholic Community of Rockport and Gloucester wrote in a recent blog. “Our parishes depend solely on the generosity of our fellow parishioners to pay bills, make ends meet, and help to ensure the financial stability of our parishes and communities.”

Many Catholic churches have re-opened their doors, including Star of the Sea in Marblehead, which welcomed parishioners back inside beginning May 30.

“Some people are a bit apprehensive, but they’re thrilled to be back,” said the Rev. Ronald Coyne. “Older people are more willing to take the chance and come.”

Star of the Sea offers a full schedule of weekend and weekday Masses, with everyone wearing masks and social distancing.

Coyne said Star of the Sea isn’t feeling a financial hit yet.

“We’re doing very well because people go online and give,” he said. “The money is automatically donated, whether they’re in the building or not. People get their envelopes every month and there is still a collection basket at the door.”

Communion to go

At Clifton Lutheran Church, people gathered on July 19 for the first time since March at an outdoor service in the church’s yard. Gaylea White, of Salem, enjoyed being with fellow parishioners again, even if she could only see the top part of their faces. Everyone was wearing masks.

“Another thing that delightfully surprised me was the ‘to go’ Communion wafer and Communion grape juice in its individual packaging,” White said.

After the outside, in-person service, Rev. James Bixby walked inside and led a Facebook Live service.

“It’s a mix,” he said. “Everybody I know is making the right decision for them. The people who aren’t ready are making the right decision, too. There’s no pressure that they have to do something risky. They won’t miss out.”

Bixby is concerned about the church’s finances if the pandemic continues for too long.

“Certainly, we are feeling the economic impact, so we’re being good stewards of what we have,” he said.

Clifton Lutheran is one of the North Shore churches that received Pandemic Unemployment Assistance loans to cover employees’ salaries.

Contemplative kayaking

In Beverly, at First Baptist Church, they’re finding creative ways to connect with parishioners, including on contemplative kayaking trips.

“We use paddling on the water as a form of meditation and prayer in groups of up to 10,” said Rev. Kent Harrop. “We’re looking at ways to build on the concept of what it means to be at First Baptist. Even after the pandemic is over, we’ll keep doing that. ”

Harrop says the church has quadrupled the number of worshipers online since COVID-19 broke out and is now averaging more than 1,000 people from 10 states and three countries each Sunday.

As for finances, “Actually, people have been following through on their financial commitments because they feel really engaged. We had 3,000 people participate in a children’s program on Tuesday. People are finding that as a church we’re trying to be responsive.”

Another safety risk

At Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody, Rabbi Richard Perlman said all services would stay online — even during Judaism’s holiest days of the year this fall. The temple leadership considered outdoor services, but worried about adequate social distancing and restroom use. And there’s another concern.

“Prior to the pandemic, people will recall that there were synagogue and church shootings going on,” Perlman said. “We are trying to maintain safety. So, to offer services outside, in our opinion, causes a more unsafe environment that could end up being even worse. You can’t lock a tent and people who have bad intentions have an easier target.”

At Marblehead’s Temple Emanu-El, Rabbi David Meyer is planning one outdoor service on Aug. 7, but other than that all Shabbat services will stay online. There are no plans for indoor services.

“Really, there’s no safe way to do it and people aren’t clamoring for it,” he said.

Meyer has been leading virtual services from his temple’s sanctuary, with photos of his congregants taped to chairs there.

The temple will reopen next month for bar and bat mitzvahs, religious ceremonies for Jewish children turning 13. Only small crowds of up to 25 people will be able to attend.

More than just a building

Many church and synagogue leaders say the COVID closures have given people a new perspective about worship and togetherness.

“This is a great opportunity to see a church as more than just a building,” said Pastor Katie Omberg at First Congregational Church in Saugus. “It’s really cool to see the different ways we’re able to build community.”

And what about older folks who may be technically challenged?

Omberg says elderly parishioners are getting the hang of virtual services.

“I walked an 85-year-old woman through how to use Zoom the other day,” she said. “She’s a pro now.”

 

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