For centuries, religious institutions have brought their members a sense of unity, support and hope in times of crisis. During the Black Plague, the Roman Catholic church organized religious marches (for better or for worse), calling for people to pray for the infected. In 1989, during the AIDS crisis, the Center for Disease Control partnered with more than 30 religious institutions and denominations to spread awareness and information. This partnership distinctly enhanced the CDC’s outreach, as the influence of religious institutions and their resources are vast.
The pandemic has placed religious institutions in an unforeseen and difficult position. The nature of a mosque, synagogue or church is for its members to congregate. Due to the very nature of the coronavirus, attending service has become a dangerous activity.
More so, attendees of religious services are disproportionately older, which puts them at a greater risk for severe cases of coronavirus. In a Pew Research survey of religious groups, with a sample size of nearly 1,000 people, 52% of those who are Jewish are 50 years or older. The same percentage applied to Jehovah’s Witnesses, while 49% of Catholics and evangelical Protestants are 50 years or older. Due to the numerous affiliates who fall into the “at-risk” population for COVID-19, in-person attendance to religious services is unsafe.
How have these institutions in our society coped? Religious leaders have become the newest content creators. Aviah Krupnick, a fifth grade Sunday school teacher at a Jewish congregation in Bethesda, Maryland, spoke to me on the way she has observed the effects of the pandemic on religious institutions.
“Things are kind of weird, it’s really difficult to get kids to stay engaged,” she said of her weekly class. “Their parents want them to be there, and so the kids don’t have a lot of intrinsic motivation to participate in class.”
On participation, Krupnick noted, “Kids are much more self-conscious. Zoom makes you much more deliberate about when you speak and the way you speak. It can inhibit kids from being creative and interacting with their classmates.”
Although there are serious downsides to virtual classes, she has made it her mission to find the silver lining. Krupnick said, “We can do virtual museum tours and the kids can participate in many different virtual activities that weren’t previously available.”
When asked about younger people attending services, Krupnick responded, “No, but comparatively, a lot of older members have been tuning in — more than before. For families spread out across the country, it fosters a sense of community. Grandparents are able to connect with their grandchildren weekly, cheering them on as they sing hymns.”
The technological difficulties that virtual services create are still numerous. “There’s always some mishap, whether someone can’t get their microphone to work, or they lose their connection. Oftentimes, the Rabbi has to call them personally on their cell phone to reconnect,” described Krupnick.
But despite these barriers, members continue to attend. According to a recent study by Pew Research, one third of U.S. adults have watched religious services online or on television. Although multiple attendees don’t mind going to virtual services — 54% of surveyed participants were “very satisfied” with virtual worship — they do not expect this to be a permanent switch. Perhaps that’s why members of religious institutions are so compliant. They recognize that this is the new norm, but they also believe it’s only temporary.
In terms of tangible changes, religious leaders have tried various methods to adapt to the virtual platform. From delivering their messages in a more “TED Talk” style format to investing in expensive audio and recording equipment, congregations have had to up their game to keep their members, especially the smaller institutions.
The local church in my neighborhood, Holy Redeemer, hosts a rummage sale twice a year. It’s a neighborhood-wide event, and proceeds go directly back to the church and its charities. This year, the sale was held outside on the church lawn to adhere to CDC guidelines. Regardless of the change in venue, the rummage sale succeeded in not only raising funds for the church, but it also fostered a true sense of community.
Religion is a source of great comfort for millions. It provides the basis for a community to congregate. But more than that, it gives solace to the endless anxiety that living in a pandemic has brought to the nation. Whether it’s virtual or in-person, spiritual services, without a doubt, will continue. They remain a safe option, and possibly more importantly, a reminder of how faith can prevail in any circumstance.