Prayers during a pandemic

Prayers during a pandemic
Photo/Wikimedia Commons

By Luke Anderson |

During difficult times, people often turn to their religious communities for support, but conditions under the coronavirus pandemic continue to hinder those fellowships.

Religious leaders and institutions are finding new ways to connect with congregations while maintaining their traditions. This week marks the Christian Holy Week leading up to Easter on April 12, while the Jewish Passover began on April 8. These holidays, both of which represent deliverance and hope for the future, will certainly look and feel very different for those celebrating them this year.

At the beginning of March, most of Alexandria’s religious institutions were operating as normal, but things suddenly changed when coronavirus cases began to infiltrate the Washington D.C. metro area. Now, with an executive order from Gov. Ralph Northam (D-VA) prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people, houses of worship throughout the city are exploring new ways to engage with and support their communities.

The Virginia Theological Seminary was the first establishment in Alexandria to be directly affected by the virus. Father Tim Cole of Christ Church in Georgetown was the first to test positive for COVID-19 in Washington D.C. Soon after, the church’s organist also tested positive. The organist had played during a service at Immanuel Chapel on the Virginia Theological Seminary campus on March 2, according to Dean Ian Markham.

On March 10, the Alexandria Health Department was notified of the potential exposure and issued a news release urging anyone who visited Immanuel Chapel between Feb. 26 and March 4 to monitor themselves for symptoms for 14 days from their last visit.

The exposure resulted in Alexandria’s first case of COVID-19 on March 11. Virginia Theological Seminary ended up with three positive cases, two students and one student’s spouse, as well as 53 people in quarantine, according to Markham.

“It was a very stressful time,” Markham said. “It still is. That was hard. Being the first was a significant landmark moment, which was challenging.”

When he received confirmation from the AHD of the presumed positive case, Markham shut down the campus, except for essential services such as mail and facility workers. The rest of the seminary’s approximately 100 employees were instructed to work or train remotely.

Since then, the seminary has been uploading three chapel services online each week, and students have been taking classes online. About half of the student body has returned to their homes around the country, Markham said.

The seminary community has been resilient though. Volunteers, students and staff have delivered food to those 53 in quarantine, left daffodils at each other’s doors, created a spoof newspaper called “These Desperate Times” and organized a singing of “It Is Well With My Soul” by recording individual parts while in isolation, Markham said.

Beulah Baptist Church is one of the oldest churches in Alexandria. Founded in 1863, it is 157 years old. (Photo/Quardricos Driskell)

Other churches around the city are using social media and video chat technology to stay in touch with their congregations while they can’t physically gather.

“I will say the number of people that have participated in our noonday prayer service or via our worship services online has certainly increased, which I think is a good thing,” the Rev. Quardricos Driskell, pastor of Beulah Baptist Church, said. “I think that speaks to the longing … to be in community and to be in fellowship with one another.”

Since canceling in-person services more than a month ago, Driskell and his congregation have been connecting through social media platforms and live streaming services, such as Facebook Live and Zoom.

The Rev. Noelle York-Simmons, rector of Christ Church in Alexandria, is also using Facebook Live for major Sunday services and Zoom for church business meetings, small group meetings and children’s ministries.

As with most churches, Christ Church and Beulah Baptist have a percentage of congregants who cannot or do not wish to participate in online services and activities. In these cases, faith leaders and volunteers are reaching out with phone calls to check on the individuals.

“Part of what’s so difficult about this is that there’s not another option,” York-Simmons said. “We can’t even bring them church, which would be another thing that we would do for someone who’s shut in or injured in the hospital. We would go to them and find a way of bringing kind of a piece of the liturgy to them, and we can’t do that right now.”

For some, the use of technology in a religious atmosphere goes against the religion itself.

Hazzan Elisheva Dienstfrey of Agudas Achim Congregation explained that for certain prayers, Jewish law requires at least 10 people to be present. With a state-wide stay-at-home order and gatherings of more than 10 people prohibited, obeying these traditions has become increasingly complicated.

“When it became clear … that we couldn’t even hold a service, that became very awkward because as Conservative Jews at Agudas Achim Congregation, we don’t believe in using any electronics or recording anything … on the Sabbath, on Shabbat, which is when we all come together,” Dienstfrey said.

Steven Rein, rabbi of Agudas Achim Congregation, consulted with his colleagues and the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which came up with temporary rules and exceptions during this time, Dienstfrey said. For prayers requiring the presence of 10 people, such as the Mourner’s Kaddish, it is now temporarily acceptable to recite the prayer if 10 people can be seen. Therefore, Agudas Achim has purchased a Zoom business package, which allows 300 participants.

For Dienstfrey, this is a very strange change to get used to. She and Rein stream services on an iPad while sitting six feet apart — the only two people in an otherwise empty synagogue that seats 500 people.

“I became a cantor, a clergyperson, so I could hold hands and give hugs and sing with people,” Dienstfrey said. “I can’t do any of those things now. You can’t sing with people via Zoom. It doesn’t work. … So much of being Jewish is being with community and now we don’t have that. We’re trying our best, but a Zoom call could never replace what we have in person.”

Dienstfrey said that her teenage children have been helping her adapt to new technology. Other adolescents within the synagogue have volunteered to help staff members and other congregants who need assistance. A committee of volunteers is also calling congregants who are older or single to see how they’re doing.

The synagogue’s Passover celebrations began on Wednesday night and will continue on Thursday night. The congregation is celebrating with Seders, ceremonial dinners that involve retelling the story of the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in ancient Egypt. Normally, no phones or electronics would be used for Seders, but this year, congregants are encouraged to use Zoom and other technology to gather with family and friends.

“We had to make an exception because it’s more important for us to be able to give our community this religious experience that happens only once a year than to follow all the laws just right, just so,” Dienstfrey said.

For most of these institutions, it is too early to know the extent of financial impact of the coronavirus.

Markham reported that the Virginia Theological Seminary’s endowment, which was $177 million at the end of December 2019, had dropped to $132 million as of last week. The seminary has committed to paying all employees through June, but will determine budget planning for the next fiscal year at its board meeting in May.

The leaders of Christ Church in Alexandria are concerned about losing revenue during the COVID-19 outbreak, since the historic church is unable to offer tours at this time. (File Photo)

As a historic landmark, Christ Church is no longer able to give guided tours, which usually yield donations, during the week. This is an especially tough blow as summer approaches, and tours tend to be especially popular during tourism season. Although each institution is different, all will likely see some monetary decline with the stall in regular tithes and income from weddings and funerals.

In a season of renewed life and hope, Driskell wonders what life will look like in the wake of COVID-19.

“Cherry blossoms are out, trees are blooming. That’s what spring is about — life,” Driskell said. “We know that people die every day, but lives are being lost en masse because of this virus.”

(Read more: Local organizations supply food during coronavirus pandemic)