Easter and Passover come in early April this year. Both holidays typically mean churches and synagogues crowded with congregants. Easter dinners and Passover seders are often celebrated with large gatherings of family and friends — and a jaw-dropping amount of food.
But the coronavirus pandemic will change how the faithful observe and celebrate these holidays.
Yet even as religious communities across the state have been forced to scale back the size of gatherings due to COVID-19, President Donald Trump’s call for “business as usual” by Easter has been roundly questioned by health experts. Gov. Phil Murphy has said he will not lift state restrictions prematurely. And while Trump claims he’s only interested in jump-starting the economy, some critics say his Easter goal is also an attempt to court faith-based supporters.
Respecting earthly authority
Faith-based organizations in New Jersey appear to be following the state’s directives on crowds, and in turn, Murphy and his leadership team have expressed a willingness to work closely with them. In a recent press briefing, State Police Superintendent Col. Pat Callahan mentioned ensuring that a family could follow their religious observances after a loved one’s passing.
Nationally, there’ve been isolated reports of religious groups defying government-mandated restrictions on meeting size. One Florida pastor has said he’ll continue in-person services and encourage parishioners to shake hands, while in Louisiana, another minister defied a state ban on meetings with more than 50 people; 305 churchgoers attended his March 17 service.
In other years, Rabbi Yaacov Leaf of Chabad of Montclair would be delivering specially ordered matzoh to homes and preparing for public seders that typically drew 35 to 50 people a night. This year, home deliveries have stopped, replaced by calls to ensure people have the seder supplies they need. The public meals have been canceled.
“… We decided we would not have in-person events for the foreseeable future,” says Leaf. “We said, ‘OK, we’re not having the community matzoh baking or the public seders, but we can reach out to families and connect individually. The circumstances we’re in forces you to narrow your focus.”
Rev. Jerry Scott, pastor of Faith Discovery Church in Washington (Warren County), is also changing course. His Good Friday and Easter Sunday sermons will be delivered from the pulpit — but before empty pews and livestreamed to the congregation. “Honestly, I don’t know what Easter Sunday will be like — we’re considering some different options — but it will be very different,” he said.
Rev. Dave Butler, lead pastor of Oasis Church, says his congregations in Clark, New Brunswick and Union have been and will continue following the state’s directives, but he has mixed feelings nonetheless.
“I understand why this is being done and wouldn’t fight it — it’s not as though any denomination is being singled out,” he said. “We need to be sure, however, that once the coronavirus pandemic eases, that our rights are restored. As we’ve seen in other areas of the world, once the genie is out of the bottle, it’s hard to put it back.”
Social distancing and crowd limitations, believes Leaf, are among the most spiritual actions people can take during these unusual times. “The Jewish faith emphasizes preserving life,” he says. “Each of us is interconnected, and everyone, through their individual actions, can help bring this outbreak to an end.”
When doors reopen, will worshippers return?
Several religious organizations are relaxing their usual rules and adapting their ways of working in light of the coronavirus. The Vatican, for example, recently told bishops they can offer general absolution to groups as an alternative to individual confessions, and dioceses, including some in New Jersey, changed the way parishioners receive communion and greet each other during the sign of peace. The food pantry ministry of Faith Discovery Church still serves those in need, but only two at a time can be inside, and they receive a prepacked bag rather than choose items from the shelves.
With restrictions on large in-person meetings, many congregations are using email to send sermon outlines to parishioners; taking prayer requests by text instead of holding prayer meetings; populating websites with coronavirus-related information, such as Coronavirus Nixed Your Seder Plans?; streaming live feeds of their worship services; and posting recorded services online. Small groups and Bible studies continue to meet through Facebook Live and apps such as Zoom.
The Oasis churches have been longtime users of a variety of digital tools and strategies. While the three congregations collectively have a few hundred in-person worshippers each week, Oasis leverages podcasts and online apps to reach about 10,000 people weekly worldwide.
“Zoom is especially popular right now among our 20 small groups, which aren’t currently meeting in person, because you can see everyone in their home environment and feel connected,” says Butler. “Community-building is key, not just the ability to post a service. I believe that within Christianity, we’re trending away from the megachurch model and becoming more decentralized in favor of more intimate, personal faith-building experiences.”
The congregations that use livestreams tend to be larger ones, but according to The Barna Group, the average Protestant church has about 89 attendees. Without the money to invest in technology or, in congregations composed primarily of seniors, the expertise, these groups might face serious challenges if meeting restrictions continue for weeks or months. The conversations Scott has had with pastors of smaller congregations indicate concerns about their flocks’ fate; in their favor, he says, is that many of these churches’ members have family connections, which could help them rebound.
But once meeting restrictions are lifted, will people physically return to houses of worship in the same numbers as before? Already, according to the Pew Research Center, the frequency of religious service attendance in the U.S. is declining. In a 2009 Pew survey, 52% of respondents said they attended services once or twice a month, compared with 47% who said infrequently or not at all. The percentages reversed in a 2019 survey, with 45% saying they attended worship monthly.
After the coronavirus crisis subsides and the state lifts its crowd-meeting restrictions, congregations will see in what numbers the faithful return or even if new members, drawn to faith in troubling times, will start or resume attendance.
“People might become accustomed to watching a streamed service from home,” said Scott. “To me, though, there’s something about gathering in a building with others that says, ‘I worshipped.’”
Looking to precedent for lessons
While these are unfamiliar times for today’s clergy, in addition to looking ahead, they can also look back. Historically, Americans, including the religious community, have experienced public health crises before — most notably, the yellow fever outbreak in 1793 and the Spanish flu in 1918. Nathan Jérémie-Brink, L. Russell Feakes Assistant Professor of the History of Global Christianity at New Brunswick Theological Seminary, describes the religious landscape in relation to both events.
“Yellow fever hit Philadelphia particularly hard, killing about 5,000 of 50,000 in the city,” he says. “The knowledge about medicine and infectious disease was nowhere near what we know today. Not only were churches kept open — they were mostly packed as people turned to faith to deal with their anxiety.”
African Americans — in another misconception of the day — were believed to be immune to yellow fever, and doctors sent their clergy, as community leaders, to the front lines, says Jérémie-Brink. They performed tasks such as bloodletting and carrying the dead. Some of those first-responder clergy were also founders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which today has about 2.5 million members worldwide.
Slightly more than 100 years later, as Spanish flu gripped the nation, local and state governments imposed restrictions on large gatherings, including worship services. The reaction from churches varied. “Some churches, especially in Washington, D.C., and New York, held open-air services in parks and other outdoor venues,” notes Jérémie-Brink. “Other clergy became supportive of the meeting ban, and the Christian Intelligencer, a publication of the Reformed Church, records several church closures in New Jersey.”
After the 1918 influenza epidemic subsided and meeting restrictions were lifted, Rev. Francis J. Grimke, a Washington, DC-based African American Presbyterian minister, published a pamphlet asking many of the same questions on people’s minds a century later, such as why some recover and others don’t and what can be learned from a public-health crisis. Grimke also comments on government edicts: “There has been considerable grumbling, I know, on the part of some, particularly in the closing of the churches … I said to myself, ‘Why worry? God knows what He is doing.’”