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Hindered By A Pandemic, Religious Leaders Prepare For Holidays

The Saint Ann Catholic Church in Washington, D.C., on Sunday night set up a livestream of a Eucharistic Adoration service on Sunday, March 29.

As the coronavirus pandemic intensifies across the country, many churches, synagogues, temples and mosques are temporarily shutting their doors to all public services.

Although there are exemptions for some religious services, congregations are still expected to follow state stay-at-home orders and limitations on gatherings.

That caused some initial confusion in Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statewide order to designate religious services as "essential," joining other states in doing so.

"Mayors have had to have sessions explaining that the doors are not open for the churches to gather," said Jesse Rincones, Executive Director of Convención Bautista Hispana de Texas — a collection of over 1,100 Hispanic Baptist congregations in Texas.

Like other clergies still working to serve their congregations, the organization is trying to preserve a sense of community amid a loss of routine, ritual and, at times, a sense of peace. Rincones, a pastor of 18 years, has been helping other churches' leaders move their services online.

The technology aspect has been easier on the United Hebrew Congregation in St. Louis, says Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg. UHC, which serves over 900 families, already had its livestreaming services set up for the homebound and college students, the rabbi said. Still, it's a different experience.

"I know for many congregants it has taken some getting used to not being together and just sitting in their homes and listening and feeling like they're watching as opposed to participating," she said.

The virtual transition will be particularly challenging during the Jewish holiday of Passover, which begins on Wednesday. The St. Louis synagogue is encouraging its congregants to allow for some flexibility with normally strict traditions. This year, the United Hebrew Congregation will be hosting its Passover Seder online.

"Whereas we may not be utilizing technology on a normal Passover, we are going to be using it this time so that we can connect," Rosenberg said.

In New York City, a hotbed in the outbreak, the pandemic has hit close to home, said Imam Suhaib Webb, a scholar in residence at New York University's Islamic Center. One of his colleague's mother-in-law died this past week.

"We've had to deal also with the blunt of people calling us and saying that they can't bury their dead because there's too long of a line to bury people at the Muslim graveyard," Webb said.

Some Muslims are unable to carry out certain Islamic burial rituals, he said, compounding the grief of losing a loved one.

"We have to come in now as pastors and ministers and then also explain to them religiously that that's OK," the imam said. "So walking them through the process that theodicy brings about mercy."

Here's more of what the three faith leaders had to say about how they're helping their congregations cope during the coronavirus outbreak, speaking in an interview with Weekend Edition:

Imam Suhaib Webb serves as the resident scholar at the Islamic Center of New York University in New York City.
/ Courtesy of Suhaib Webb
Imam Suhaib Webb serves as the resident scholar at the Islamic Center of New York University in New York City.

Imam Suhaib Webb, of the Islamic Center at NYU's Manhattan campus, on how religious services extend beyond the spiritual

We had everything already in place for kind of the virtual setup. So I think what we learned from this is that people need more from religious institutions than just religion. So we have a program on the arts, we have a program for yoga. I run private programs for youth — we have 1,000 young people signed up in our 13 to 15-year-old demographic. So it allowed us also to realize how valuable, if you will, the mosque, the synagogue and the church is in people's lives in ways that aren't explicitly spiritual.

Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg of the United Hebrew Congregation in St. Louis, Mo.
/ Courtesy of Brigitte Rosenberg
Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg of the United Hebrew Congregation in St. Louis, Mo.

Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg, on how her congregation is dealing with observing a very different Passover this year

I know in my congregation, there's that initial sense of mourning that Passover is not going to look like what it has looked like in previous years. We have moved our congregational Seder over to the virtual platform....

Maybe the rules — that always seem a little bit strict — we have to relax them a little bit in order to allow ourselves to find that space to celebrate this holiday. So, whereas we may not be utilizing technology on a normal Passover, we are going to be using it this time so that we can connect.

Imam Suhaib, on what he's advising as Ramadan approaches this month

You know, religion has been dealing with this for centuries. And Muslim tradition in particular, the Bubonic plague is something that waylaid Egypt, waylaid Palestine, waylaid Syria. So you will find within our tradition ... what we call dispensations and acts of worship. One of them is Ramadan, you know, for people who are actually sick — they're not expected to fast....

We're seeing people talk about BYOI — bring your own Iftar — Iftar is the dinner that people have when they break their fast. And people would be virtually, say three, four hundred people on Zoom, you're all looking at each other and someone makes the call to prayer and makes the supplication. So it's an opportunity to see how churches, synagogues and mosques and other houses of worship can really adapt in unique ways.

Jesse Rincones, the executive director of Convención Bautista Hispana de Texas — a collection of over 1,100 Baptist congregations in Texas
/ Courtesy of Jesse Rincones
Jesse Rincones, the executive director of Convención Bautista Hispana de Texas — a collection of over 1,100 Baptist congregations in Texas

Pastor Jesse Rincones, on how his congregations might recognize Holy Week and Easter

I've heard pastors suggesting that for Palm Sunday that they place palms on their front doors together or others have recommended on Easter morning when they would normally gather at their church, at say, 6 or 7 o'clock in the morning, to maybe step outside of their of their homes and and and share a prayer or do a prayer walk around their neighborhood.

So we're definitely exploring how we can continue to be the church, which has been a constant message — that we are the church, not because we gather in a building or in a facility, but wherever our presence is, we should continue to minister and serve our communities.

On a story or a line in scripture the leaders are holding on to that's helping them get through this difficult time

Jesse Rincones:2 Corinthians 9:8 says that God is able to bless you abundantly so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. I think it's easy for us in these moments, when there is a shortage of everything ... to think that our lack might keep us from continuing to fulfill our faith. But that promise allows us that no matter what the circumstance, we can continue to bound in every good work.

Brigitte Rosenberg:In our community, what we've been drawing on as we prepare for Passover is just this notion of how we've been here before. Thinking about the story that we're going to be telling next week, the story of our redemption and exodus from Egypt — what were our ancient ancestors sitting there thinking on that night, thinking: When is this going to pass? When are we going to be free? And all of this anticipation. And yet as they sat as they listened to Moses, as they followed God, you know, eventually they found that redemption.

And so, in that message, one of the things that we have been saying is, what is it that each of us can do? Some of that is as simple as "stay at home." And then from the confines of our homes, just as we've been hearing from everybody else, how can you reach out to others? And then when we're all working together, that's when we are going to help get ourselves through this, which will very much feel like that redemption from what we're experiencing right now at this moment.

Suhaib Webb: I was lucky enough to see a large number of our congregants who are actually working in emergency rooms. ... It's profound to see the extension of your religious faith exercised by your congregants, if that makes sense, in ways that are more powerful than perhaps I engage it theoretically or intellectually — to be awed by your congregants. It's something to see the grace of God shined back at you.

And then there's this very beautiful prophetic tradition that Muhammad said: Somebody who is acting as a nurse or a physician in today's terms, as long as they are standing to serve the sick, they are recipients of transcendent mercy. So when I see these people really sacrificing their lives for us, that tradition really kind of has impacted me.

NPR's Hiba Ahmad and Melissa Gray produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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