East Bay houses of worship stay busy during COVID-19 shutdown
By Lou Fancher
Despite the prohibition on face-to-face interactions and large gatherings due to COVID-19 directives, leaders of East Bay faith communities say they have no time for sitting around.
“Our people are just as busy as before,” says Piedmont Community Church Senior Minister Rev. Bill McNabb. Pastoral video chats and conference calls support a steady stream of online services and creative video messaging. A secretary answers phone inquiries from 10 to noon each day. Pastors provide — as they have for years, McNabb notes — home phone numbers at the end of recorded office messages. A “telephone tree” has been organized that has 30 volunteers calling every senior in the church each week.
“That’ll be an ongoing thing,” says McNabb about the effort aimed at countering the isolation seniors may especially suffer during the lockdown.
Payman Amiri, the board chairman at Oakland’s Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California, says, “We have meetings via videoconferencing and have kept all our staff on payroll because it’s the right thing to do. We’ve been providing grocery shopping to seniors and have developed a dedicated fund that gives people a minimum amount of money for a bridge that helps until they get the stimulus package. Morale is high.”
Using primarily Zoom, the center maintains its busy calendar of weekly meetings, workshops, lectures, presentations and Friday prayers. At Piedmont’s Kehilla Community Synagogue, Senior Rabbi Dev Noily exits back-to-back meetings long enough to answer questions via email.
“We’re calling all of our older members and asking them what technology they have and are comfortable with. We have a mutual aid system set up that helps people who want to learn (or) access online options and connect with people who can teach and help them to do that.”
Noily says the greatest challenges are providing high-touch faith practices now prohibited by COVID-19 protocols.
“It’s very important in Jewish practice for a dedicated group of people called the chevra kadisha, or “holy collective,” to tend to the bodies of people who have died. This tending includes both accompanying the body at all times with prayerful intention and performing a ritual washing of the body. These rites are the last things we do for each other, to honor the sacredness of the body and to offer loving accompaniment to the soul.”
Young people who have for a year or more studied sections of the Torah in preparation for their bar and bat mitzvahs must choose between online ceremonies or indefinite postponement of the coming-of-age ritual. At Piedmont Church, 300 high school students have postponed an annual trip that was to depart for Mexico on Easter to build homes. Amiri says Ramadan, a month of fasting but also a time for helping others, is especially complicated for Muslims.
“Every Saturday we prepare and pack 500 meals and take them to homeless people. We are figuring out how we will prepare meals and deliver them to a (service) center instead of going to an encampment.”
An annual hajj pilgrimage in July to visit the holy sites of Islam in Mecca and Medina has been cancelled. “It’s not replaceable because that ritual has to do with place, with the biblical story of Abraham,” says Amiri.
In the Christian, Muslim, Jewish and other faiths, providing standard weekly services is less of an obstacle, largely due to videoconferencing platforms. Amiri says one unexpected advantage of online activities has been reaching a broader audience.
“Now, people from all over the world can join our prayers and lectures. People are appreciative that this brings some normalcy to their frightened, full-of-anxiety lives. It helps people to cope.”
McNabb says that as good as technology has become, there’s no substitute for worshiping in person, although services streamed online do have a silver lining.
“Standing up and greeting people — there’s nothing like human interaction. On the other hand, we actually have more people watching services on the Internet than were attending in person. The message of the gospel is actually reaching more people.”
Asked about communities with limited access to WiFi or digital equipment or with people unfamiliar with newer technology, they say increased phone use and links to resources for free Internet access are helping members stay connected.
“I wish we had resources to go to rural areas and hand out Chromebooks,” says Amiri. “These are the things bigger places like Google, who have resources, can provide.”
Noily says Kehilla members miss singing together, visiting people in poor health or who are lonely, sharing snacks, news and human touch— being in the physical presence of other people. Even so, networks within and beyond the synagogue offer fruitful, uplifting connectivity and awareness.
“I’m learning many lessons every day — about myself, my fears, the wisdom of my tradition, the creativity and love of my communities. We don’t know what this crisis is yet, or the extent of its impacts and our losses. I think the lessons will emerge once we’ve lived through the worst of it, as a community, as a world. I pray that this breaks down our species’ hubris, and opens us to our vulnerability and inter-relatedness — not only with each other but also with the trees, the water, the air, the land and all of the other life forms whose homes we are poisoning. I hope our hearts stay open.”
The Islamic Center as part of a faith trio for the past 20 years with Montclair Presbyterian Church and Kehilla, finds crisis brings people together.
“I hope humanity will appreciate what we have had,” Amiri says. “Being able to eat whenever we want, inhale oxygen without worrying, enjoying one another’s company. Hopefully when life comes back together, we will appreciate each other instead of being on our smartphones. Hopefully people will realize that having your family come to dinner is precious. We will cherish the moment we can go to mosques or churches or temples. I hope this makes us realize we have blessings.”
McNabb speaks of new dreams and unity. Turning in this National Poetry Month of April to poet Kitty O’Meara’s work about the pandemic, “And the People Stayed Home,” he quotes the last stanza:
“And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again,
they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images,
and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully,
as they had been healed.”