Virtual platforms have become a gathering place for many religious groups in New England during the coronavirus pandemic. Faith leaders are tweaking the experience to bring a sense of human contact or address community needs.
Pastor Brent Damrow still leads services every Sunday in the big sanctuary of the First Congregational Church in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. It’s just him and a few others, including musicians, standing at safe distances.
Damrow's husband operates the camera that live streams the service via YouTube. Their six-year-old son ferries slips of paper to the pulpit with the names of congregants who have texted that they’re watching.
"Then during the words of welcome, I issue a special welcome by name," Damrow said. "And people have said they find great joy in hearing other names be lifted. We also invite them during the middle of the service to text in prayers of joy, or prayers of concern or worry."
Damrow also holds virtual office hours several times a week, when he sits in front of his computer on an open Zoom connection, available to his congregation. But he said it’s not just the pastor — the person with a title — who can help people through the pain of this pandemic.
"We're all called to be shepherds, and we're all called to care for one another," Damrow said. "And likewise, we're all called to be sheep, and bleat out when we are facing issues or struggles."
Or deep despair.
"I don't know what to say to someone when they say I can't get on a plane and come to my own mother's funeral. What do you say to that?" asked Rabbi Neil Hirsch of Hevreh of Southern Berkshire.
Hirsh said that while he may not have the answer, he talks through painful decisions with congregants so they know they're not alone.
Hirsch's temple combats isolation now by using online platforms for services and classes – but only if they're interactive. The temple also holds informal gatherings like virtual coffee or a nightcap.
"The remarkable thing is it has been people gathering who would otherwise have no reason to get together," said Hirsch. "Different generations are gathering together, people in different towns are signing on, people at different stages of their careers. And everybody's sharing about what they're going through. And they're making connections that they wouldn't otherwise make."
And he said people participate from out of state: New York, Texas, Florida and North Carolina.
Many faith groups say their virtual services not only draw people from far away — but larger numbers of people. A Buddhist group in Easthampton reports double the number of people attending Dharma talks or sermons. An A.M.E. Zion church in Worcester says it has had four times as many worshippers.
But not every group has congregants who have what they need to connect.
"Either don’t have wifi, or don’t have a computer, or don’t know how to use one," said Samuel R. Saylor Sr., the pastor at Gardner Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church in Springfield. He uses conference-calling to loop people in who can’t join online.
"Telephone conferencing gives them at least the audio," he said.
Saylor's congregation comes from mostly middle- and low-income households.
Throughout the pandemic, his church is still preparing hot meals for people in need every Wednesday — hot dogs, hamburgers or turkey sandwiches. Although the elderly women in his church who usually do the cooking are at home now, others have stepped in.
"We feed the community that comes by for a meal," Saylor said. "We have it ready for them at the door [to] take home. And they come and get that because they count on it."
More than half of his congregants are over 70 and many of them live alone. Now, he said, they're “alone alone.” So he and others phone the elderly members — a lot.
Saylor said as the church pastor, he’s trying to be a cheerleader, and inspire people to help each other.
"Just trying to, you know, keep reminding our members that we have a responsibility, but we also have a God that is able," he said. "And that we can, as a community, even though we're separated right now, be touching one another in spirit and in love."
Saylor said his church helped raise funds to buy 40,000 disposable gloves for homeless shelters and first responders.
Other faith groups are also emphasizing helping others. The Islamic Society of Western Massachusetts in West Springfield is delivering groceries, toilet paper and hand sanitizer, donated by their members, to the elderly and the disabled even if they’re not Muslim.
Wissam Abdul-Baki, the imam, said when it comes to the pandemic, we’re all in the same boat.
"You see, the virus does not say you are Muslim and you are Christian and you are Jewish," he said. "All people together are one in the boat."
Abdul-Baki sees COVID-19 as a kind of test from God that people seem to be passing.
"They pray, they change, they improve, they correct their mistakes," he said. "And I believe this pandemic made us closer and closer to the all-merciful God."
Tara Mulay, the interim guiding teacher at the Insight Meditation Center of Pioneer Valley, said the center is teaching more about Buddhist core beliefs like mindfulness, compassion and loving kindness.
"And we're doing so, so that we can support people as they try to cope and understand the current situations," she said. "As they try to cope with fear, as they try to cope with uncertainty. We are experiencing, I believe, collective grief over some of the losses. And it strengthens us to face them together."
Mulay said a relevant Buddhist concept is that everything is impermanent, including things we have taken for granted before, like the ability to be together.
Another thing that’s not permanent is the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some faith leaders are thinking about what they’ll do when it’s safe to meet again.
Hirsch wants to hold a public gathering for people to offer prayers and blessings, and name what they’ve gone through. And he said he'd like to hold a memorial service for people who have not been able to properly mourn the loss of a loved one in the midst of the crisis.