Faith communities adapt amid coronavirus pandemic with online Sabbaths and drive-thru confessionals

Rev. Tom Fiske (center) streams a worship service Grace Episcopal Church over Facebook, St. George, Utah, April 24, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Grace Episcopal Church, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — From home-based study to online worship services and drive-thru confessions, the coronavirus pandemic has forced churches in Southern Utah and beyond to adapt how they cater to the spiritual needs of their congregants.

Rabbi Helene Ainbender of Beit Chaverim Jewish community, speaks at the “Prayer Over the City” event at the St. George Tabernacle, St. George, Utah, Jan. 1, 2019. | File photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“The little things you took for granted, you can’t anymore,” Rabbi Helene Ainbender, head of the Beit Chaverim, Jewish Congregation of Greater Zion, said.

People who have long gathered together with other members of their faith community have found themselves unable to worship together as they once did.

“People like to be in touch with God and their spirituality,” Ainbender said, adding some people feel a void when they are unable to fulfill the rituals attached to their faith or lose the interaction that comes with being a part of a faith community.

In order to help the spiritually hungry, Ainbender, along with other community faith leaders, have turned to the internet to share the word of God.

A mass service at the St. George Church streamed over Facebook Live and later posted to YouTube due to the COVID-19 pandemic, St. George, Utah, April 24, 2020 | Photo courtesy of the St. George Catholic Church, St. George News

Recently, Ainbender conducted the Jewish community’s Passover observance for over 20 families through the use of the web-based Zoom teleconferencing application. She’s also started using it for Friday night Sabbath worship services.

Other faith groups, like the St. George Catholic Church, have also shifted to online worship services during this time.

With large gatherings restricted due to the pandemic, English and Spanish weekend services at the Catholic Church began to be streamed over Facebook Live and subsequently uploaded to YouTube, said Carole Drake, a pastoral assistant at the church. This has since been expanded to daily services featuring the clergy and readers, she said.

“It’s been a new experience for us, that’s for sure,” Drake said.

While the church currently does not offer the sacrament of communion due to the pandemic, Drake said it is something the congregation observes spiritually for now. She and others nonetheless look forward to the day when they can once more gather together and partake in the Eucharist, she said.

A service that remains available, though adapted for the times, is the Sacrament of Reconciliation, more commonly known as confession.

Each Saturday, members of the Catholic faith are able participate in a “drive-thru confessional,” Drake said. People are able to drive into the parking lot and meet with one of the church’s priests in a manner that observes health and social distancing guidelines, yet still allows the rite to take place.

A sign at the entry to the St. George Catholic Church parking lot advising congregants of the availability of “drive-through confessions” at the church, St. George, Utah, April 11, 2020 | Photo by Ron Chaffin, St. George News

Ministry on a one-on-one level also takes place through clergy speaking to those in need of guidance over the phone, or an in-person visit if possible.

“When we can assist them by bringing prayer and holy communion, we will,” Drake said.

Ainbender also counsels members of her congregation over the phone where possible, though noted some conversations that used to last 15 minutes go much longer now due to worries brought on by the pandemic.

“They want hope and they want to be reassured it’s not the end of days,” Ainbender said.

For those unable to participate in the Zoom-based services, Ainbender said she delivers notes of inspiration to their homes. These tend to include prayers reminding the faithful that God is with them and there is no need to fear, the rabbi said.

“You still have to reach out to those who don’t have computers,” she said.

Rev. Tom Fiske, the spiritual leader at Grace Episcopal Church, said these are challenging times that have forced services to be held via Zoom upon invitation and video outreach through Facebook.

In the religious community as well as in the secular population, fellowship is so important in this time, Fiske said.

“God said very early in Genesis that it is not good that people should be alone, that Adam should not be alone,” he added. “The Holy Spirit is best known in community and I would say that would be so with any faith.”

Rev. Tom Fiske streams a worship service for Grace Episcopal Church over Facebook, St. George, Utah, April 23, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Grace Episcopal Church, St. George News

People in community, Fiske added, need each other especially in times of crisis.

“Most congregations know the Holy Spirit and where the Holy Spirit is leading them,” Fiske said. “There are different (denominations) that all share love, hope, charity and kindness.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, these ideals offer strength to those who struggle, he added. He also said people should be humble under God and be there for each under during hard times.

Central to coping with hard times now, Fiske said, is the distance that separates the community, families and friends. People, he added, are growing weary of being alone.

“I tell my congregation we are loving one and another by keeping our distance through this crisis,” Fiske said. “God wants us to be separate at this time in order to stay healthy. I firmly believe that. This is what I am telling my congregation.”

With all the challenges, Fiske sees hope.

“This is not the end of the world, he said. “Yes, this is a tough time that we are going through … but Saint Paul writes (all) will know you are Christian by the love you show one another, and that is what all of us are doing in St. George.”

For members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, church services were suspended worldwide in mid-March, followed by a suspension of all temple-related activities. Latter-day Saints were counseled to stay at home and use the church’s home-based “Come Unto Me” gospel study guides that rolled out in 2019.

“We’re all learning church in our own homes,” said Ralph Atkin, an LDS church spokesman for the southwest Utah area. “We’re all conducting our own services.”

A Latter-day Saint family has a home-based scriptural study at home using the LDS church “Come Unto Me” gospel study program, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, St. George News

As allowed by church bishops, families are able to take part in the weekly sacrament service at home as a part of their Sunday observance as well.

Church administration has also offered guidelines to local and regional leaders online as to how to administer certain church responsibilities and ordinances (religious rites) during this time.

Atkin said his own family is visiting the eastern side of Zion Canyon over the weekend and will conduct their home-based study and worship there.

“Our program of Come Unto Me has been perfect” for dealing with the coronavirus, he said.

Individual Later-day Saint wards and stakes are also responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in their own way beyond general instructions handed down from church headquarters, Atkin said.

One example of how local LDS church leaders are keeping in touch with their congregants in one stake is through weekly email-based newsletters.

Members in general are also asked to look after their families and neighbors during time while continuing to observe state-issued health restrictions and distancing.

St. George News Reporter David Lewis contributed to this story.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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