Q&A: W.Va. Rabbi And Pastor On Faith During A Pandemic

Apr 24, 2020

In times of turmoil, people often seek comfort in places of worship, but those places are inaccessible now because of social distancing requirements. 

Our folkways corps reporter Zack Harold guest hosts Inside Appalachia this week.  He spoke with faith leaders Rabbi Victor Urecki, of the B’nai Jacob synagogue in Charleston, W.Va. and Pastor David Johnston, of Concord United Methodist Church in Athens, W.Va., to see how things had changed and how they were adapting. Both congregations recently began offering their services online. 


***Editor's Note: The following has been lightly edited for clarity.

Zack Harold: Rabbi Urecki says his digital services are reconnecting his synagogue with former members who have since left the state. 

Victor Urecki: Religion by its nature is community-oriented. It's to be together. The word religion means ‘to bind oneself.’ And I've always thought to bind oneself not necessarily to God but to each other. The very fact that this pandemic has made it that we cannot be together has forced us to rethink and re-imagine what religion can be in the 21st century under these circumstances. 

Harold: Rabbi Urecki says before the coronavirus, the Sabbath was always observed in very specific ways. But doing things over the internet has forced the congregation to evolve.

Urecki: The Sabbath, for example, in our traditional Jewish world, we do not use electronic devices. But in order for us to stay connected, we're going to have to use that.

Harold: Despite how foreign this was to Rabbi Urecki and his congregants, B'nai Jacob began offering services through the video conferencing app Zoom. In Mercer County, W.Va., Pastor David Johnston started out trying to stream his services live.

David Johnston: That First Sunday, we just got on Facebook Live. But I'm here in southern West Virginia, and the internet isn't always what one would hope it would be. So we found it a little bit too choppy.

Pastor David Johnston of Concord United Methodist Church in Athens, W.Va.

Harold: So instead, Johnston switched to doing pre-recorded videos of his services, which he then posts on Youtube. 

Johnston: If I thought Zoom was something that would work for us here, I would love to do that, because I think it better approximates what worship is. Which is about us gathering as a community to worship God to tell these stories that make us who we are.

Harold: One major adjustment for both the pastor and the rabbi has been continuing to observe religious holidays, even though they can’t see their faith community face-to-face. On Palm Sunday, for example, Pastor Johnston delivered palm branches to the porches of his church members’ homes.

Johnston: So what I did is to try to help people think about where they are as being a church, even though they're not all gathered with people and some of them are on their own. But I gave them the liturgy so they could read that story and start outside their home.

Urecki: I created a Zoom Seder with some contemporary components, where people could either record it and then use it in their Seder later on that night, or they could do it live. So they would have in front of them the same objects that I have in front of me as I did it. Or they could add new stuff to it, or they could just listen and visualize the story. 

What I try to emphasize for my congregation quite a bit is that while ritual is very important, in our tradition, the importance of the story is equally important. And I think the pastor will agree on that. It's the story of Jesus. It's the story of the Exodus from Egypt. And it's also the story of disciples who down through the centuries have explored, studied, used ritual and used their imagination to keep that story going for the next generation. It is not lost upon me as we're recording this, that tonight we begin Yom HaShoah, which is Holocaust Remembrance Day, and Jews were able to remember the exodus from Egypt, even in the concentration camps. 

Now, obviously they didn't have the provisions we had in front of us. And yet, they passionately, vibrantly and with a great deal of enthusiasm, celebrated even in the most horrible of conditions. What I told my congregation is they were able to tell the story and their stories that we now have through the memories of survivors, become powerful reminders of how religion is maintained, even under the most adverse situations. The very fact that we can't take communion fully, the very fact that we can't celebrate Passover fully, adds to the fabric of the telling of the religious stories that are meaningful. So the stories of 2020 will be part of the fabric of 2021, 2022, or 2023 where we'll be talking about, ‘Do you remember what we did and how we kept the traditions of our people going?’ 

And who knows, one day I will be, hopefully may I live and be well, telling my grandson who was too young to experience the Passover fully and didn't know what was going on, but I’ll say, ‘When you were just a baby, this is how we celebrated it in 2020.’ I know it sounds weird, but that's how important that celebration was to us. And we did some really interesting things. And those become part of his narrative that he will tell his children, God willing, one day about how his grandfather, a blessed memory, kept the tradition going. 

Harold: That’s a really beautiful thought about the ritual connecting us to the story. Rabbi, as you were talking I kept thinking of how the story of the Passover is the story of people huddled in their houses waiting for God to do something. And the story of Easter, the disciples go and hide away and wait to see what happens. So in both stories, there’s this element of people being closed in, away from everybody else. Do you think that having to practice this social distancing has maybe brought the stories a little more alive in the hearts and minds of your congregations?

Urecki: What I would like to look at is what it has done for congregants who have maybe taken for granted the stories and the rituals  —  things that we do because we know that's what we're supposed to do. We kind of go through the motions. 

This year, we didn't go through the motions, we had to reimagine and recreate. Next year, God willing, and hopefully there's a vaccine by then and life will turn to somewhat normal, I think we will look back on this moment with a greater appreciation than of the things that we've been taking for granted. So maybe, precisely because of these hunker down moments that's how religion becomes reawakened. We’ve taken it for granted for too long. 

And we need these moments to reset it and remind us of why we're really doing it, why it's important to us, and how we keep translating and reimagining. I'm reimagining and rethinking what Judaism needs to be for this congregation. We're a small mom and pop congregation because the Jews were very small here in Charleston. We never thought we needed anything electronic to be Jewish in West Virginia. 

Now we're discovering, ‘Well, you know what, there is a great thirst among people that maybe are too far away to be a part of our community.’ That is a reawakening and something we kind of took for granted and we didn't think it through. And so these are going to be, again, from the challenges will come opportunities. 

Harold: Eventually it will be safe to go back to church, to go back to synagogue. But I wonder, do you have any vision about what that’s going to look like? Is this experience of delivering services online going to change the way it looks when you’re face-to-face? 

Johnston: This online presence we now have is something that I hope we can continue because it helps us reach more people and different people than we would before. Even before this, I had congregation members with compromised immune systems who already during flu season stay home and just miss church for four or five months out of the year. They have been so thrilled that they've been able to come back to worship and before they would have otherwise. 

And like I said, since we've connected with people who don't normally come to church. A lot of churches were already online and they know this, that there are people who will watch for a certain amount of time online before they ever, ever darken the doors. And it's really made me think about something my dad told me. 

Some years back, he was very active in going on mission trips to Cuba with the Methodist Church of Cuba. A lot of their church buildings were not much more than a picnic shelter. I mean, it was a roof with half walls, open air bench seats, and when we would hold church it was packed out. People were standing outside, but there would also be quite a lot of people walking up and down the street, which was not normal because we were around the church helping fix it up other days. 

What my dad told me is that one way the church there has reached new people is because in Cuba it's hot, and they don't have air conditioning. So the windows are usually open. But it means the music and the message and what's going on, kind of walks out and people can look in, without having to come in. And that's what I think this turn to digital has done. It's opened windows into what we do, where people who are curious can look in without that sense of risk of having to step through the door. I hope we can keep the windows open so that people can stay curious about these stories that we tell.

Urecki: It almost takes something cataclysmic to force us to rethink and reimagine. I think that's kind of what happened here. This is the way we do it. This is our version. This is how we practice. And it took something like this to say, well, temporarily, we have to do something different. And we're reluctant. We don't want to do it. I'm thinking back to myself in terms of, ‘Oh my gosh, how is this going to happen on Sabbath and festivals?’ And yet, because we were forced kicking and screaming into this new reality, at least temporarily, we started to discover there's some opportunities here. There are people outside of West Virginia who want to be a part of our community still, and will always be a part. There are people as the pastor said, that cannot for whatever reason, come to services. And we kind of said, ‘We're too small to do that.’ Well, now we're discovering we're not too small to do that. We're big enough to do a lot of neat things. And so I think, post the coronavirus pandemic, we're going to look at the pieces here and not say, ‘Okay, well I'm glad this is over. Now let's go back to normal,’ but, ‘Wow, there were some really neat things that happened during this time. How do we incorporate that into the religious life of our community?’ And as a result, we will be I think, a stronger community.