Local Houses Of Worship Adapt To The COVID-19 Pandemic

Sep 24, 2020

This week marks the High Holy Days in the Jewish religion, stretching from Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which begins Sunday evening. It comes at a time when people of all faiths are restricted in worshiping together indoors. California Governor Gavin Newsom ordered the restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19. It has forced congregations to rediscover what it means to be communities of faith.

KAZU’s Doug McKnight spoke with Cantor Margaret Bruner, the religious leader of Temple Beth El in Salinas, and Reverend Father Peter Crivello, Pastor of St. Angela Merici Parish in Pacific Grove and Vicar General for the Diocese of Monterey, about what it’s like for religious communities during shelter in place.

 

Both began by using the technology they are most familiar with — the telephone. Father Crivello, who likes to be called Father Pete, called parish members and asked them to call others and form a telephone tree.

 

“Call some of the people from the parish that you know, reach out to fellow parishioners, friends, neighbors, family members, and just check in with other people and tell them a joke,” he said. “Laugh together, share what you're doing, share what you're cooking for dinner. And that was kind of a beginning.”

For Cantor Bruner, there were lots of calls.

“I can't make enough phone calls in one day to check on people. People need rides,” she said. “People need food delivered to their homes. We look to one another to care for each other. And we really have a new broader need and understanding of the value of community.”

Both agree that in many ways, orders to socially distance are actually bringing their congregations closer together.

 

An illuminated cross is mounted outside St. Angela Merici Church in Pacific Grove. The cross was constructed as a beacon during the pandemic.
Credit Doug McKnight

“The church building is shut down. But parish life, Christian life has not stopped. And it's helped them to say, my faith really matters to me and not just my personal faith, but coming together and belonging to a community of faith,” Father Pete said. 

“A lot of synagogues I've spoken to, and some churches, have said they are getting more people on Zoom because people are craving community,” Cantor Bruner added. 

But that is not to say shelter in place has always been easy.

“The most difficult thing is socially spacing the Jewish people from one another,” Cantor Bruner observed. “That's not their forte. They like to keep close together. And when you read the Torah, you're very close to looking at it and reading it.”

The issue for Father Pete was technology. He tells the story of trying to do a mass on 21st century equipment.

“We initially had a camera to film mass for Sunday, you know, on top of a pile of furniture without a tripod,” he said while laughing. “We had to boost up internet service for our church. And finally came up with buying a camera and learning how to use it.”

But he figured it out and now streams a weekly Saturday night mass and holds a socially distant outdoor Sunday service on the Parish preschool playground. 

Temple Beth El is taking a different approach.

“My synagogue is probably completely crazy. We are going to experiment with a drive-in parking lot bar mitzvah. People will be in their cars attending and tuning to an FM channel in their car to hear,” said Cantor Bruner with a laugh.

Some have argued that the closing of houses of worship is anti-religious and a violation of freedom of religion. Father Pete doesn’t see it that way. He says closing St. Angela is an act of charity.

“We're offering this time for the safety of other people,” he said. “We want to maintain safety, especially for the vulnerable, those who have compromised immune systems and the elderly, and have really tried to keep people safe. “

Father Pete added the church must do its part by putting the safety of others ahead of a congregation's desire to meet in person.