The coronavirus pandemic has emptied most religious sanctuaries, churches and synagogues, while amplifying the need for spiritual connection.
Religious communities in the Wood River Valley have adapted by going online, or just getting outside.
Catholic churches have dispensed with communion for the faithful, choir singing has been discouraged and a special dispensation was granted for elders over 60 to not attend Mass. Pews have been kept free of missals, bulletins and other handouts.
Yet with a combination of computer technology and innovative practices, clergies continue to bring solace to their congregations. In many cases, sermons have been recorded and compiled on websites for later listening. As a result, it’s never been more convenient to church-hop virtually. Kathleen Bean is the associate rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Sun Valley where the congregation has been meeting entirely outside for Sunday services at Festival Meadows on Sun Valley Road since early August.
“It’s worked out really well,” Bean said. “We had limited attendance until we shifted to outdoor services [from in-church services]. We found that more came when we went outside. People have been so happy to lay eyes on one another.”
St. Thomas, like many other religious communities, records its Sunday services for later viewing. Additional church services have been recorded on the back patio of the church. “Godly Play” classes and Sunday School videos have been available on Facebook.
“The virtual services have had a lot of reach, with music and video clips of our parishioners,” Bean said. “Our music director has become more skilled over time with mixing music together. With practice, our filmmaker has learned to use more camera angles.”
Bean said she has relied on encouraging words from scripture during the pandemic.
“Jesus said, ‘I am with you always to the end of the age,’ so there is no risk of being abandoned,” Bean said. “We may be facing difficult circumstances, fear and anxiety, but God is no less present and always surrounding us. We don’t have to be afraid, just to lean into what is facing us and do our best.”
For years, the Wood River Jewish Community has shared in what Rabbi Robbi Sherwin called a “collaboration of gratitude” with St. Thomas, using the church sanctuary for major events like the High Holy Days, weddings and bar mitzvahs. That all came to an end this spring when the pandemic struck.
“We have not used St. Thomas all year,” Sherwin said. “Shabbat services have been held outside this summer, at the Botanical Gardens and at Rotary Park in Ketchum. We had already often held services outside or at someone’s home. Jews believe in science and medicine and are following closely the guidelines of scientists and doctors. No one shows up to a service without a mask and social distancing.”
The Wood River Jewish Community has offered classes and services online since March.
“We connect to one another socially when we can and continue to use Zoom for a platform for most of our connections,” said Sherwin.
Now that summer is over, there is no plan to move inside.
“No big Hannukah parties or anything else until further notice,” Sherwin said. “Preservation of human life overrides virtually every other religious rule. This stems from the principle of Jewish life known as pikuach nefesh from the Talmud, which is a series of ongoing commentaries that are thousands of years old.”
While many religious communities have turned to the internet for community and connection, some are now using sanctuaries with face masks. For many, the coronavirus has limited the use of buildings, while perhaps expanding the message of the faithful.
For the first time since 1897, Jehovah’s Witnesses canceled all in-person conventions, due to COVID-19. Instead, the faithful turned to online options. Jehovah’s Witness spokesman Royce Porkert said the online program of conventions has been translated into over 500 languages, which may very well make this the most attended convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses to date.
Hailey resident and Jehovah’s Witness Keb Anderson said earlier this summer that he was grateful for the six-week virtual convention format, which ran through August.
“We can all be together and we can pause it and review and discuss it or just watch it again,” Anderson said. “A number of the older ones in our congregation have benefitted from being able to watch the whole program at home.”