Coming together in faith even as a virus pulls communities apart
Religious leaders in Greater Portland are finding ways to foster togetherness as the coronavirus pandemic forces them to limit or even cancel physical services.
SOUTH PORTLAND — The Rev. Cindy Maddox preached to a dwindled flock on Sunday morning.
No more than 50 people – about a third of regular attendance – filled the red-cushioned pews of First Congregational Church in South Portland. They sat far apart, and exchanged smiles, nods, and warm gestures of support – but never a hug or a handshake. Hand sanitizer, and not service programs, waited at the door.
Yet Maddox, who spoke to a far-flung online audience as well as the one before her, found a way to unite in spirit those whom the coronavirus has driven apart. In her sermon, she acknowledged the uncertainty and isolation created by the pandemic, which has infected more than 160,000 worldwide and, so far, caused seven confirmed cases and five likely cases in Maine.
If people of faith can’t see each other, let alone the future, Maddox said, then instead they can find solace and community in the principles they share.
“Crises don’t create character – they reveal it,” she said. “And if we cannot predict the future, then perhaps the best we can do is ground ourselves in our values, and let those be our guide.”
As officials warn against community gatherings, the coronavirus has disrupted religious services around the world. From a mosque in Seattle to the National Cathedral in Washington D.C., faith leaders are limiting services or canceling them altogether.
Even Pope Francis, head of the 1.2 billion-member Roman Catholic Church, is livestreaming prayers in an effort to keep crowds away from St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City.
Sunday’s service at First Congregational was the last in March. For the indefinite future, Maddox will stand alone in the sanctuary, preaching to a camera that streams her words to parishioners over the internet.
“The hardest part of all this for me as your pastor is knowing that for some of you, the hugs you receive on Sunday are the only ones you get all week,” Maddox wrote in a message to the congregation last week. “I see and hear your need for human touch, and I’m so sorry we are having to withdraw from each other in this way. We will hold each other close in our hearts and in our prayers.”
Many other local faith leaders are taking similar precautions.
Temple Beth El in Portland posted on its Facebook page Friday that it would cancel services and programs for at least a week. In an email newsletter, Rabbi Carolyn Braun advised against panic. She intertwined thoughts about ancient spiritual traditions of hand-washing and the need to be protective of the community.
“I imagine many of the laws of purity come from our need to try to control things that are beyond our understanding,” Braun wrote. “This virus is concerning, and we need to pay attention, but if we approach it the way I approach kids in the winter – carefully and from a safe distance – we’ll get through it.”
Ahmed Abdirahman, executive director of the Maine Muslim Community Center in Portland, said the mosque was open Friday for traditional prayers. But he encouraged people who are elderly or at risk to stay home, and he said the attendance was roughly half of the usual Friday gathering.
Many people had questions about where to get reliable information, and Abdirahman said leaders directed them to local news and government agencies like the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. They also reiterated the tips from health professionals about how to prevent the spread of disease, and they plan to use the mosque’s Facebook page and phone lists to share any changes in their operations.
“So far, we are in talks and watching what the public school systems are doing and very much communicating – not hourly, but more frequently than daily,” he said. “And trying to make sure we don’t overreach, but we don’t underreact.”
The Rev. Jane Field, executive director of the Maine Council of Churches, said the state’s church leaders met on a virtual conference Friday afternoon to discus their various approaches. Field said they discussed not only how to help people practice their faith while being safe, but also how to support people who are poor and vulnerable.
“By taking these steps, we are protecting the very most vulnerable among us and preserving the capacity of our health care system to care for those who do not get infected,” Field said.
At St. Luke’s Cathedral in Portland, the Rev. Ben Shambaugh planned as recently as Thursday to go ahead with Sunday services, taking precautions to prevent the spread of germs and encouraging people who feel sick or at risk to stay home. The Episcopal Diocese of Maine circulated the link to a livestream of the Sunday 10 a.m. service at the cathedral, so people across the state could participate.
But Shambaugh quickly decided that he needed to close the cathedral entirely for two weeks instead. He said no decisions have been made yet about Holy Week, which is in April and includes the celebration of Easter.
“We have a sizable population in the over 60 and therefore at-risk category and a large number of folks of varying degrees of health and hygiene who use our building,” Shambaugh wrote in an email. “Some of our most dedicated people are also the most vulnerable to disease and some of our most active people are active in – and could be carriers to – a wide variety of groups and activities far beyond our walls. Not having worship services – and not having meetings or classes in general – could have a profound impact of flattening the curve and providing more time for our medical system to respond to the virus. It also has the possibility of saving a huge number of lives.”
Shambaugh said the clergy will still livestream worship on Sundays, but other participants like the choir were asked to stay home. Members of the congregation and the diocese can watch online. The chapel at St. Luke’s will be sterilized every morning, and then it will open at noon on weekdays for one hour so people can come in and pray on their own.
But Shambaugh said he is worried about the financial and emotional toll of the coronavirus as well. The staff will continue to run pantries for food and necessities, and people in need should call the cathedral office. Another clergy member started a phone tree to check on members, especially people who are elderly and alone.
On Sunday, Shambaugh conducted services with only three other clergy members and a musician, praying and singing to a livestream audience. In his sermon, Shambaugh worked to counter that feeling of isolation that could weigh on his congregation.
“Studies of people isolated in the SARS epidemic showed great increases in depression and addiction, with people filling up with anxiety, piling worry upon worry and experiencing fear- for themselves and for others,” he said, adding later: “We are living in a time of fear. Thanks to the tools of music, scripture, common worship and community, we can be agents of peace, that peace that passeth understanding, as well.”
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland implemented its regular influenza protocols in January. Those protections already in place mean that parishes are not using the shared cup of consecrated wine, holding hands during prayer or shaking hands as a sign of peace.
On Friday, the diocese posted an update online that said Masses would continue but most other events in coming weeks will be canceled. That message also encouraged people to stay home if they are ill or at risk, and it included information about how to participate in Mass via livestream, TV or radio.
“Those who are compromised because of age, illness, or other complicating health issues are excused from Mass,” Bishop Robert P. Deeley said.
Services at First Parish in Portland, a Unitarian Universalist congregation on Congress Street, are canceled until April 12, Easter Sunday, according to an announcement from the Rev. Christina Sillari on the church website. Church leaders hope to have a live stream of services ready by next Sunday.
“I encourage all of us to stay connected to each other through the online opportunities we create to ease the isolation and loneliness we may be experiencing,” Sillari wrote. “I also encourage you to call and/or email the folks you know in our community to check in on them, especially those who you feel are vulnerable.”
Early on in Sunday services at First Congregational Church, Maddox gathered
“Good morning!” she said brightly. “Well, this is kind of a weird time, huh?”
The children – two of whom are hers – giggled uncertainly. In simple, clear terms, Maddox went over the social-distancing and hygiene rules they had discussed at a recent church gathering. No touching. Wash your hands. Cough into a tissue, or your upper sleeve.
But she also reminded the children of another principle: Love thy neighbor.
Like many other faith communities, First Congregational is working to keep its community outreach going safely during the outbreak. The South Portland church, for instance, is maintaining its food pantry, though in a way that allows elderly volunteers to give away food without coming face to face with the public.
On Sunday, Maddox asked her church’s children to be there for their neighbors in the coming weeks. If someone is alone or sad, try to comfort them in a safe way, she said. If a neighbor is unwell or at high risk of infection, offer to pick up errands that they can’t run themselves.
“We’re trying to look after one another,” she said, “and not just ourselves.”