Religious communities through out the Wood River Valley have had to adapt over the past eight months in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Attendance has been limited to abide by social distancing requirements. Many services are now livestreamed online or recorded for later viewing.
With the holiday season upon us, local religious leaders have made plans to present their Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations despite this year’s unique challenges. Some faiths will offer ceremonies in-person, by reservation only, or outside for safety. Face masks will be required for in-person attendance.
“We need to meet. We need to be together,” said Calvary Bible Church Pastor Ron Brown. “It’s been a challenge to adjust with social distancing, but our numbers are such that we can do that.”
Brown quotes the Bible, saying Jesus, the son of God, came into the world “to seek and save that which was lost.” He said the pandemic and all the political division and unrest in the world is “just another reminder of how lost and in need of a savior we are. It is only in a personal relationship with God that we can find true joy, peace and lasting satisfaction,” he said.
Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood Pastor Mark Inouye said his congregation has been at one-quarter capacity for months to maintain social distancing. He is planning four Christmas Eve services by reservation only to serve as many parishioners as he can.
“We would normally have 500 to 700 people in two services, but we know we can’t do that,” Inouye said. “There is a line in the hymn ‘O Holy Night’ that goes, ‘the weary world rejoices.’ I think that is a great image of where we are at. There is a lot happening in the world that is difficult right now but we are going to rejoice in that Jesus has come on our behalf. We are going to do that in the safest way that we know.”
Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Church in Sun Valley and St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Hailey are also requiring reservations. There will be two Holy Masses on Christmas Eve and one on Christmas Day. Space will continue to be limited, as it has been for months.
St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Sun Valley will have three outdoor in-person worship services this Christmas Eve. The services will take place in front of the church for clergy and musicians and the parking lot will be for the congregation.
“As Christians, this is a season of great spiritual hope, in that Jesus our Lord humbly came to us in our need,” said St. Thomas Episcopal Church Rev. M. Jonah Kendall. “He comes to us, as he did 2,000 years ago, with great love. This year, we cannot receive as many inside the church, but even if there is no room at the inn, like it was for Mary and Joseph, Jesus will come where he is invited. We can be hopeful in that Jesus does not deny the heart that seeks to receive him.”
“Each service will be a Holy Eucharist,” Kendall said. The 4 p.m. service will feature a short Christmas pageant; the 6 and 8 p.m. services will be candlelight.
“All are welcome,” Kendall said.
Valley of Peace Lutheran Church Pastor Jerry Reinke and his wife understand the impact of the coronavirus after contracting it back in March, but luckily, they had few symptoms.
“We shut off face to face worship in November for two weeks,” Reinke said. “We have had a lot of people get COVID, about 40 percent of our congregation. Some have had it pretty seriously.”
Reinke said social distancing limits his usual congregation of 24 to about a dozen. He is waiting to see how much of a Christmas service to host, based on the latest governmental restrictions.
“It’s usually well-attended, but we hope to avoid that this year,” he said. “Our goal is to provide livestreamed services.”
Reinke also serves a congregation virtually by Zoom in Stanley where he said the coronavirus has been “rampant” since summer.
“With the computer you can’t be as extemporaneous as before,” he said. “But after the service I stop sharing my screen during prayer time. People can then interact together sharing their own stories and prayer concerns. It helps us to realize as Christians that the church is people and that we can gather together in untraditional ways and still make it work.”
Calvary Chapel Church Pastor David Rosser described the birth of Jesus Christ as “the greatest interjection into humanity that we have ever known.” He said it is an important time, but he has never held Christmas Eve services.
“It is an important time for families to spend time together and I would not want to interfere with that,” Rosser said.
The Jehovah’s Witness Community does not celebrate Christmas at all. “We believe that Christmas is not approved by God because it is rooted in pagan customs and rites,” states the official Jehovah’s Witness website.
Wood River Valley Seventh-Day Adventist Church Elder John Hall said his Saturday Sabbath Zoom meetings have served his congregation of between six and 13 people through the summer, reaching some as far away as Alaska.
“Normally, we have a Christmas program, but I don’t see us doing anything like that this year. It will be a quiet personal observance, like Thanksgiving was,”’ Hall said. “Christmas is a time to be thankful for all of our blessings—family and friends and the Lord’s birth—to rejoice on that but also be safe. It’s especially a good time to connect with family, but not necessarily go see them. I don’t want to lose one of my fellow members because I was stubborn.”
Rabbi Robbi Sherwin said the Wood River Jewish Community will be celebrating Hanukkah on Zoom this year, as she has with all services since the outbreak of the pandemic. Since the Jewish/Hebrew calendar is a lunar/solar combination, the dates of Hanukkah can vary. It is always in the winter and usually in December. This year, Hanukkah takes place from sunset on Dec. 10 to sunset on Dec. 18.
The Jewish Community will have a nightly candle lighting at 5 p.m. featuring different families from around the country who are members of the local community. On Friday night, Dec. 11, the Shabbat service was followed by a lively Hanukkah song session. “There are hundreds more songs for Hanukkah other than ‘Dreidel, Dreidel’” Sherwin said.
Light on the Mountains Center for Spiritual Living’s Rev. John Moreland has been offering virtual services since April. “People are happy to stay at home right now and not face the risks of COVID,” Moreland said.
“As we look forward to a season that represents birth and renewal, we need to realize that all of us have significantly changed already. As life begins to get back to some normalcy sometime in 2021, we will all see that very much is different; whether we acknowledge it or not, we have all been doing some deep inner work. This holiday season is an opportunity to seek to have a greater understanding of this change as we all celebrate our different faith community’s traditions.”