'Here in Spirit': An Oral History of Faith Amid the Pandemic

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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.

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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.


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