On March 22, members of the Calvary Community Church in Nebraska City congregated. Despite the coronavirus pandemic and the drizzly weather, they put on their Sunday best, got in their cars, and pulled into the church parking lot like they would on any other week. It was business as usual... Except on this day, they never left their vehicles.
Instead, they turned on their radios to hear the pastor preach, says Aaron Madsen, 38, the church’s worship director. Despite the social distancing measures the government has put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19 — which has sickened at least 536,100 people and killed more than 24,460 worldwide — the evangelical church found a way to continue meeting. All they needed was a localized FM radio transmitter and a whole lot of faith.
The idea was inspired by drive-in movie theaters. The pastor stood on a platform under an awning in the parking lot and spoke into a microphone. The service was also streamed via Facebook Live. “This is our way of still seeing each other and letting everyone know that we’re still a family, Madsen says. “We’re still meeting as a church, but we’re also still respecting the government we’re under. We think we should comply to the best of our ability — as long as they’re not asking us to worship Satan or do something that violates our beliefs.”
The church even went so far as to clear the gathering with the local sheriff’s department.
Madsen says meeting this way during the outbreak is especially beneficial to members of the church community who live alone. “My mom lives out by McClelland, Iowa, and my dad passed away a few years ago,” Madsen says. “She was staying busy seeing my sister and brother-in-law and grandkids, but now she’s stuck in the house by herself… It’s nice to be able to get people in situations like that out, even if we can’t talk directly to them or interact, except seeing each other through car windows."
They’re not the only religious community that's been adapting their services to work around coronavirus-related restrictions. Yonah Hain, the campus rabbi at Columbia University, tells Refinery29 that the school's Hillel (a campus organization that serves Jewish students) is taking their work online. The Columbia/Barnard Hillel has been hosting “coffee conversations,” where students can connect virtually to the rabbi and other professionals one-on-one. The group is also hosting group community hours and services via Zoom, a video conferencing platform.
Becca Tanen, 29, who keeps a traditional Jewish Sabbath, says some services she attends in Washington, D.C. have been canceled. What's more, it would be impossible to host them virtually, since some observant Jews don't use technology during Shabbat.
"However, many non-denominational, conservative, and reform groups and synagogues like Adas Israel have been live-streaming services, including on Sabbath. A lot of my communities have also been having Zoom calls for communal candle lighting on Fridays before Shabbat starts, as well as Havdalah — the ceremony to close out Shabbat — on Saturday night," Tanen says.
“My biggest concern right now is Passover, which starts in less than two weeks," she adds.
Mazen Chehab, the chairperson of the board of trustees at the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Michigan, says the ICA has stopped holding in-person functions with the exception of very limited funeral services. Chehab says that Islamic prayer services aren't conducive to an online streaming format because they specifically call for the Imam (Cleric) to pray in front, with congregants, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in rows, praying behind him.
"Prayer (Salat in Arabic) is the second of the five pillars of Islam," Chehab says. "Prayer for a Muslim involves uniting mind, soul, and body in worship; so, a Muslim carrying out these prayers will perform a whole series of set movements that go with the words of the prayer — that's why we're not able to perform the prayer online." However, Chehab says that, given the circumstances, the ICA is encouraging families to practice their traditional daily prayers from home instead.
Like many other religious communities, the ICA is also using digital platforms to provide their community with a grounding sense of connection. “Being at home may affect our mental health, and so we have also added a daily lecture by our religious scholars through Facebook and YouTube,” Chehab says. “We hope these talks help our congregation to stay connected spiritually to their path… We are blessed to have learned individuals in our communities who are reminding us to be strong in our faith, and providing words of encouragement.”
“In a time of uncertainty and feeling like everything is out of control, it’s nice to know that God is in control”
Although the rapid transition to virtual services has been difficult for many, some are looking for silver linings. Bethany Burrell, 26, of Lincoln, Nebraska, tells Refinery29 that “watching church” on Facebook Live has been a blessing in disguise — especially as the mother of a 10-month-old. “She can be loud; I mean that in a sweet way, but still really loud,” Burrell laughs. “Since she’s been born, going to church has been hard because I can’t listen to the sermon because we’re trying to keep her quiet, occupied, and happy... But on Sunday, it was nice because we were sitting on the couch with the laptop and she was playing on the floor with her toys. I could actually listen. I could also hit pause if I needed to.”
She says she’s grateful to be able to virtually connect and share a sense of community during this stressful, sometimes frightening time. “Church is a very encouraging environment, so when you’re not in the actual building with the congregation, it’s nice to see the Facebook comments other people are posting in reaction to what the pastor is saying,” she says. “It’s interesting to see that others are struggling the same ways as you. I’ve been anxious about all of this. But seeing what’s on people's minds as they’re commenting is reassuring. It makes you feel like you’re not alone.
“In a time of feeling like everything is out of control, it’s nice to know that God is in control,” she adds.
Despite the uncertainty, communities continue to adapt. At Calvary Community Church in Nebraska City, for instance, congregants have found a new way to say “Amen” during services. Now, they honk their car horns.
“It started out as a ‘honk if you can hear us’ kind of thing,” Madsen says. “As we kept going, if people felt inclined to give an Amen, they’d honk. The pastor and I were joking that we should tell everyone: One honk is an Amen, two is ‘praise the Lord…’ Then, ten honks for ‘the sermon’s going a little long and I’m getting hungry.’”
Honk to that.