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Keeping the faith amid crisis

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For Christians around the world, the holiest days of the liturgical calendar began this week, with Palm Sunday, April 5, and will conclude this weekend with Easter. For Jews, the annual week-long observance of Passover began Wednesday, April 8.

Easter celebrations typically center on large church services with congregates often dressed up in new clothes and possibly hosting a children’s egg hunt over the weekend, while Jewish practice includes gatherings of families and friends around traditional meals that feature specific prayers and religious stories.

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This year, however, the COVID-19 pandemic and the related stay-at-home order by the governor are curtailing traditional programs and activities. Local faith groups have not held face-to-face services for several weeks now, adopting alternative ways to worship and come together. For Christians and Jews, that means incorporating holiday observances amidst the changes, while all religious groups have found themselves adjusting to a new normal.

Some are taking their worship services online, with sermons posted on YouTube or Facebook or with groups coming together through video conferencing technology, while others make home worship materials available for their parishioners.

Daria Schaffnit, the new pastor at First Presbyterian Church, said she’s “fairly low-tech” herself, and she’s adopted a combination of methods for reaching her congregants. While she records a weekly video sermon, which she posts on YouTube, she also distributes via email a worship packet that includes not only a written text of the message, but also prayers, a children’s activity and songs, with links to music videos.

The musical selections can range from traditional hymns to tunes by such contemporary musicians as singer-songwriter Tom Waites and crooner Michael Buble.

“It’s fun to mix it up,” Schaffnit said in a recent phone interview.

She said church leaders considered presenting a live-stream of Sunday services each week, but the technological requirements seemed too burdensome. Most, if not all, congregants have email, however, so that seemed the most inclusive way to reach people, Schaffnit said.

At the same time, the church’s board has met through the Zoom video conference website, and she’s trying to keep in regular touch with members by phone. Church members are checking in with each other, too, she said.

Schaffnit said her weekly sermon focus hasn’t changed drastically with the changes in daily life, as she continues to follow the Presbyterian lectionary.

But she has “been trying to highlight hope and lightness,” she said.

She suggests that people consider “the possibility of what we can be pro-creating with God as we come out of” the current crisis time. She said she is deeply aware of the hardships and worries related to the pandemic, but she also sees an opening for systemic changes based on “love and connection and justice.”

Maintaining connections with people is one of the biggest challenges facing religious communities during this stay-at-home time, practitioners of various faiths agree.

Several local groups, however, are finding a stopgap through video conference technology.

Len Kramer, of Yellow Springs Havurah, said the Jewish group, which typically meets the first and third Saturday at Rockford Chapel on the Antioch College campus, tried Zoom for the first time March 21.

The normal order of service, which features “a lot of singing and chanting,” was challenging, Kramer said, as Zoom has a slight delay that makes group singing difficult.

At the same time, “the sense of community was palpable,” Kramer said. “And it was way better than the alternative of nothing.”

MJ Gentile, a trustee of the Dharma Center, expressed a similar sentiment after the Buddhist center held its first meditation gathering via Zoom. While sitting in separate spaces felt awkward, “it felt good to see the faces” of other practitioners who she missed, Gentile said.

The local Quaker Meeting is also finding Zoom to be a viable alternative for its worship services, as well as a way for practitioners to check-in with each other after the service. Overall, the video conference platform has been “a positive, helpful way to stay socially and spiritually connected,” according to the current presiding clerk, Bruce Heckman.

In addition to the normal Sunday worship times, the Meeting has implemented half-hour worship gatherings every morning beginning at 8:30 a.m., also through Zoom.

First Baptist Church, St. Paul Catholic Church and Yellow Springs United Methodist Church are each offering a variety of streaming and online worship services.

“This will definitely be a memorable Holy Week,” Father Andrew Cordonnier wrote in a recent message to parishioners. Cordonnier is also pastor of St. Brigid in Xenia and St. Augustine in Jamestown. He and assistant pastor Father John Madanu are conducting Mass at St. Brigid and posting a live stream on YouTube each day for all three congregations. A reported break-in at St. Brigid last Saturday night did not stop the Palm Sunday Mass.

The priests also continue to hear confessions at specific times.

The cancellation of public Mass by the Archbishop for southwest Ohio is “unprecedented,” according to Cordonnier.

“To my knowledge, this has never happened before,” he wrote.

The Rev. Rick Jones, of Yellow Springs United Methodist and Fairborn UM, observed that a positive outcome of the online postings is outreach to nonmembers.

“Others are tuning in,” he noted in a recent YouTube offering, which he posts each Sunday morning under the title “Living Room Church.” The local UM church also posts a daily devotional link on its Facebook page, and has additional offerings planned this Thursday and Friday for Holy Week.

In his Palm Sunday video, Jones noted that “normally, we would be celebrating with a bunch of palm leaves. We canceled all that, but that doesn’t mean we’re canceling our time together.”

During this time, many church leaders are reminding congregants that the church is not the building where they worship, but the people who come together in faith.

Jones stresses that the building is not the focus.

“Find a place in your house that is your new altar, a new place that you can go and you can speak to God,” he said in a recent message. “We can all have one.”

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