In the face of coronavirus, religions are embracing online community, live-streaming, and conference calls

Manning the livestream at St. Paul’s Methodist Church in Brooklyn, New York.
Manning the livestream at St. Paul’s Methodist Church in Brooklyn, New York.
Image: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
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At this year’s Purim service at Romemu, a progressive synagogue on New York’s Upper West Side, a lay reader addressed an absent congregation of more than 500 remote watchers: “This is where you get your graggers out,” he said, looking up from the scroll. “So, wherever you have them hidden in your home…”

On what is ordinarily one of the noisier Jewish holidays, synagogues abound with children in costumes and the rat-a-tat of graggers, noisemakers more commonly known as ratchets, drowning out the name of the villainous Haman. This year, synagogues sat mostly empty on the holiday, with some capping attendance at the door and livestreaming to a wider congregation, while others closed altogether to protect the health of congregants.

Anxious people under lockdown around the world are turning to religion for solace and distraction, forcing governing bodies to place stringent restrictions on churches, temples, and mosques alike. To fill in the gaps and provide spiritual guidance in a time of crisis, ancient religions have been forced to turn to distinctly modern technologies to hold services and communicate with the faithful.

For congregations that had embraced digital tools and live-streaming, the switch was easy. Others have struggled to translate sacred ritual into digital experience—particularly as scripture understandably gives few clues as to what high-tech tools do, or do not, pass muster.

A heavy weight

Sofia Abasolo, an English teacher and translator in Genoa, Italy, has had to skip Catholic mass for weeks, with churches unable to host services. On a recent Sunday, she dressed up her two sons, aged two and three, as if they were going to church, and put on a televised service, streamed live from the Vatican.

“With the actual service, I was still standing and kneeling at all the times where you would do that,” she said in an interview. “Obviously the kids were going wild.” And while live-streaming was better than nothing, she says, worshipping at distance was a struggle, not least because her elder son was left disappointed after misunderstanding “live-stream” for the far more exciting “ice-cream.”

An especially heavy weight is not being able to enter Communion, she says, and instead make do with “spiritual communion,” a practice recommended by the Pope only “when it isn’t possible to receive the sacrament.” For Catholics, there’s particular theological importance in attending mass in person and receiving Holy Communion, which is understood as the literal blood and body of Jesus Christ.

Worshipping from home, meanwhile, simply isn’t the same as being in the church itself, she says. “For Catholics, the Eucharist is there. I am with Christ physically when I’m there, for me, I really feel that difference.” While Abasolo recognizes the public health need to self-isolate, “equally, it is a tragedy,” she says.

In tweets, Pope Francis encouraged Catholics to gather together remotely, inviting them “to direct their voices together toward Heaven, reciting the Our Father” at noon on March 25. He issued official statements from the Vatican, meanwhile, reminding bishops and other preachers of their right to grant “general absolution” to the faithful, “without prior individual confession,” in emergencies such as these.

Ingenious solutions in churches, mosques, and temples

All over the world, priests continue to hold masses in their empty churches. Some have found ingenious solutions: In the Lombardy town of Robbiano di Giussano, local priest Don Giuseppe Corbari called upon his congregants to send him selfies. These he printed out and taped to the church’s pews—”children in the front benches, the altar boys on the altar, and all the adults in the other places,” he told a local Milanese publication, Wanted in Milan so that the church was full of faces once again. (He eventually received so many pictures that the church printer ran out of toner.)

Most mosques around the world have closed, with Muslims advised to say Friday prayers at home. In Finland, however, Ramil Belyaev, an imam from the Finnish Islamic Community in Helsinki, led prayers via a Facebook Live broadcast. Ordinarily 100 people might show up in person; for the initial Friday prayer, around 60 devices tuned in, he said.

Sikh gurdwaras customarily have a langar—a community kitchen that serves free vegetarian meals to any visitor. In a time of social distancing, some communities have instead turned to delivering free food instead: In Melbourne, Australia, a group of Sikh volunteers are delivering meals on order to families in the city. People facing “hard times” due to the virus can text or call in their orders for meals such as vegetable kormas or matar mushroom, which will then be dropped off at their homes. On the sixth day of the project, volunteers delivered some 505 meals.

A similar initiative is underway in Scotland, with the Sikh Food Bank. On March 21, Scottish volunteers launched the initiative, which will deliver food parcels and essentials and provide advice and support to those in need.

Building community at distance

Meanwhile, Jewish temples around the world have wrestled with questions of halakha, or Jewish law, including what technology is appropriate to use on the Sabbath, or how to establish a minyan of ten Jewish men older than 13 in one place, as is ordinarily compulsory for certain prayers.

In light of the unusual circumstances, some Orthodox synagogues have chosen to accept a real-time Zoom call, where participants have their cameras on, as a temporary solution or a “digital minyan.” How to access streams or calls on a day when many eschew technology is another question. The Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis, issued some temporary guidelines, including that the stream should be activated only by someone who was not Jewish, or done automatically ahead of time: “Individuals linking to the stream should activate their equipment before Shabbat or have it activate automatically because a ‘many-to-many’ video connection, such as Zoom, often requires each participant to log in, a problematic practice on Shabbat.”

For the most part, synagogues have closed, though getting the message through to more isolated communities has been more of a challenge. Certain Orthodox communities in New Jersey and New York alike have resisted a ban on large gatherings, with police in Lakewood, New Jersey, called in to break up at least four weddings last week. In London, hazy government advice has led to some synagogues in Stamford Hill, in north-east London, remaining open. Only women, children and “elderly and weaker men with health disabilities” have been explicitly told to stay away.

Since closing its doors, the leadership team of Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Pittsburgh, has made calls to some 600 member families, telling them not to attend services. “We’re trying to make the best decision we can make,” says Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, a rabbi at Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Pittsburgh. Going ahead, he said, “loneliness and isolation are going to be our major tasks.” The hardest challenge was connecting members who do not have access to a computer, he said: “I don’t know what the right answer is. For those particular individuals, it’s going to be really isolating.”

Already, the synagogue’s leadership has set up a selection of digital programs to bring the community together. Some of these are not so different from those introduced by many workplaces suddenly thrust into a remote-only environment, including setting people up with virtual workout buddies or invigorating the somewhat underused community Slack. He is also working to bring people together for study, art projects, or Jewish ritual, often over Zoom, he said. Almost none of the programming is limited to synagogue members only. “There’s a benefit of serving our people as best we can, anyway,” Markiz said, “and there might be other people who want to join us while we’re doing these projects.”

These efforts build upon projects and initiatives the synagogue had already begun to put in place before the crisis, including a Monday morning Talmud class Markiz has live-streamed for the past two years. “We’ve been developing the tools and resources for exactly a moment like this,” he said. “We are a very nimble place and we have adapted as quickly as we could.”