People attend a candlelight service of remembrance in 2018 at the First Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto. Photo courtesy Kara.
Last Sunday, the leadership at First Presbyterian Church of Palo Alto, like at many local faith communities, discussed how to respond to the coronavirus epidemic in light of the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recommendations against large public gatherings.
The very next day, that decision on what to do was all but made for them when they heard from a group that rents space at the Cowper Street church.
“We were informed by a tenant that less than two weeks ago a member of their group, who tested positive for COVID-19, attended a meeting on the FPCPA campus. We were also informed that a relative, who had yet to be tested but had been in close proximity was present just three days ago. As far as we understand both individuals were only in one classroom,” the church wrote in an online message to the congregation.
“With this news, late into the night on Monday, the Session (church governing body) decided that, in addition to a deep clean of the facilities, with an abundance of caution and care, we would close down the FPCPA campus and that all FPCPA gatherings and meetings would take place online through the end of April.”
The decision to suspend face-to-face worship is particularly difficult because of the impending Holy Week and Easter, among the most important times of Christian worship when many people come together, Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow told the Weekly by phone on Wednesday.
But more than 60% of First Presbyterian’s congregation is over age 60, a demographic the CDC says is at higher risk of complications and death from COVID-19. While it was difficult to make the decision to close his church campus, “once we realized this is not about us, this is a public health issue, it became very easy to make that decision,” he said.
Faith communities across the country are wrestling with how best to serve their members while also keeping them safe from the coronavirus, which is now designated a pandemic by the World Health Organization.
In-person worship is giving way to live-streamed services; meetings and classes are going digital. Even in churches continuing to meet, many are foregoing the tradition of shaking a pew neighbor’s hand with a greeting of “Peace be with you”; donations are no longer being collected in baskets handed from parishioner to parishioner. And communion, a most revered sacrament of wine and bread, is now coming in sanitary, prepackaged containers.
The social and structural changes necessitated by COVID-19 pose a challenge to faith communities’ basic identities as places to congregate, some faith leaders said.
Faith communities are places “where people want to go. … When they are going through a hard crisis, we want to tell them, ‘Come here,'” said Ellen Bob, executive director of Congregation Etz Chayim in Palo Alto.
But now these same places of solace and community are telling people to stay away.
The coronavirus outbreak has even forced one congregation out of its place of worship. James Bailon, director of operations for Grace Presbyterian Church of Silicon Valley, said his church rents space at Palo Alto High School. The school has ended all of its rentals to outside groups until the end of the school year, he said.
With 150 to 250 members, his church has been holding two services at Paly, and the small staff is looking at all alternatives, including pre-recording and broadcasting Sunday services. They are also looking for another site to rent, he said.
Plenty of other faith communities are also turning to tech. First Presbyterian’s Reyes-Chow led a Zoom conference with 70 other pastors and staff from various faith communities to discuss how they can best transition to technology. As a church, First Presbyterian has been using social media for a long time and is currently planning to make its whole religious service accessible via Zoom. Smaller groups that formerly met at the church will also use the Zoom platform, he said.
The transition might be harder for some in his congregation, however — especially the many members who live in retirement communities. The church is sending out “tech deacons” to help people access services and communicate with the church, he said.
The church is also stepping up its outreach strategy.
“One pastor’s job is making sure we don’t forget anyone,” he said.
Rev. Kaloma Smith, pastor of University AME Zion Church in Palo Alto, said his church has also suspended services and face-to-face meetings. AME Zion has offered live-streaming of its Sunday services for the past two years and now is doing the same with all of its small-group meetings.
“Faith is absolutely critical at this time,” he said, noting the importance of creating virtual spaces.
His staff is focusing on digital efforts that give the community “a safe haven in a storm,” such as through the community-based Faithlife Equip, an online and social media tool for managing congregations.
Staff is also reaching out to seniors and those who are most vulnerable, who may be isolating themselves to stay away from the coronavirus, to see if they need help with shopping or errands, he said.
Other religious congregations are taking precautions but trying to keep a semblance of normalcy. Rabbi David Booth of Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto said so far his synagogue is continuing its services, but it has canceled activities geared toward older members of the congregation.
The synagogue did live-stream its Purim services so that congregants had an option if they didn’t want to attend in person. There are also virtual options for classes.
“We do have a lunch and we’re having volunteers serve rather than have an open-buffet line. We’re paying attention to Santa Clara County’s guidelines,” he said.
Kol Emeth also has a volunteer squad to check on elderly members, and Booth has also urged parents through social media to talk to their children to help dispel fear about the coronavirus.
Kol Emeth is also using its ongoing kindness program, which helps to build a more positive and connected community. Booth has asked the congregation to engage in one small act to help people feel they can be proactive and positive even at a time when they might feel fear.
“Think of something kind that someone did for you and something kind you can do for someone between now and the next time you wash your hands,” he said.
Bob said her small congregation isn’t canceling its services or meetings yet — Etz Chayim’s classes have five to 15 students — but there’s a sign on the door asking all who enter to wash their hands first before entering.
The congregation still had its Purim pizza party on Monday, with a Purell hand sanitizer station at the front of the line. Staff watched closely to make sure people used it before grabbing a pizza slice, she said.
“We’re trying to balance prudence and living,” she added.
Etz Chayim’s leadership is working on a contingency plan if they do have to close. There are many questions yet to be answered: How will they redefine what it means to congregate and to help their members in a crisis? How do they balance public safety with their mandates as religious communities? What would constitute an “essential activity?”
Bob is especially concerned with this question and how the age of the coronavirus could change the fabric of society.
“Is a funeral an essential activity?” she asked.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula’s response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and Almanac here.
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