Listen

Hindered By A Pandemic, Religious Leaders Prepare For Holidays

Apr 5, 2020

As the coronavirus pandemic intensifies across the country, many churches, synagogues, temples and mosques are temporarily shutting their doors to all public services.

Although there are exemptions for some religious services, congregations are still expected to follow state stay-at-home orders and limitations on gatherings.

That caused some initial confusion in Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statewide order to designate religious services as "essential," joining other states in doing so.

"Mayors have had to have sessions explaining that the doors are not open for the churches to gather," said Jesse Rincones, Executive Director of Convención Bautista Hispana de Texas — a collection of over 1,100 Hispanic Baptist congregations in Texas.

Like other clergies still working to serve their congregations, the organization is trying to preserve a sense of community amid a loss of routine, ritual and, at times, a sense of peace. Rincones, a pastor of 18 years, has been helping other churches' leaders move their services online.

The technology aspect has been easier on the United Hebrew Congregation in St. Louis, says Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg. UHC, which serves over 900 families, already had its livestreaming services set up for the homebound and college students, the rabbi said. Still, it's a different experience.

"I know for many congregants it has taken some getting used to not being together and just sitting in their homes and listening and feeling like they're watching as opposed to participating," she said.

The virtual transition will be particularly challenging during the Jewish holiday of Passover, which begins on Wednesday. The St. Louis synagogue is encouraging its congregants to allow for some flexibility with normally strict traditions. This year, the United Hebrew Congregation will be hosting its Passover Seder online.

"Whereas we may not be utilizing technology on a normal Passover, we are going to be using it this time so that we can connect," Rosenberg said.

In New York City, a hotbed in the outbreak, the pandemic has hit close to home, said Imam Suhaib Webb, a scholar in residence at New York University's Islamic Center. One of his colleague's mother-in-law died this past week.

"We've had to deal also with the blunt of people calling us and saying that they can't bury their dead because there's too long of a line to bury people at the Muslim graveyard," Webb said.

Some Muslims are unable to carry out certain Islamic burial rituals, he said, compounding the grief of losing a loved one.

"We have to come in now as pastors and ministers and then also explain to them religiously that that's OK," the imam said. "So walking them through the process that theodicy brings about mercy."

Here's more of what the three faith leaders had to say about how they're helping their congregations cope during the coronavirus outbreak, speaking in an interview with Weekend Edition:

Imam Suhaib Webb serves as the resident scholar at the Islamic Center of New York University in New York City.
Courtesy of Suhaib Webb

Imam Suhaib Webb, of the Islamic Center at NYU's Manhattan campus, on how religious services extend beyond the spiritual

We had everything already in place for kind of the virtual setup. So I think what we learned from this is that people need more from religious institutions than just religion. So we have a program on the arts, we have a program for yoga. I run private programs for youth — we have 1,000 young people signed up in our 13 to 15-year-old demographic. So it allowed us also to realize how valuable, if you will, the mosque, the synagogue and the church is in people's lives in ways that aren't explicitly spiritual.

Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg of the United Hebrew Congregation in St. Louis, Mo.
Courtesy of Brigitte Rosenberg

Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg, on how her congregation is dealing with observing a very different Passover this year

I know in my congregation, there's that initial sense of mourning that Passover is not going to look like what it has looked like in previous years. We have moved our congregational Seder over to the virtual platform....

Maybe the rules — that always seem a little bit strict — we have to relax them a little bit in order to allow ourselves to find that space to celebrate this holiday. So, whereas we may not be utilizing technology on a normal Passover, we are going to be using it this time so that we can connect.

Imam Suhaib, on what he's advising as Ramadan approaches this month

You know, religion has been dealing with this for centuries. And Muslim tradition in particular, the Bubonic plague is something that waylaid Egypt, waylaid Palestine, waylaid Syria. So you will find within our tradition ... what we call dispensations and acts of worship. One of them is Ramadan, you know, for people who are actually sick — they're not expected to fast....

We're seeing people talk about BYOI — bring your own Iftar — Iftar is the dinner that people have when they break their fast. And people would be virtually, say three, four hundred people on Zoom, you're all looking at each other and someone makes the call to prayer and makes the supplication. So it's an opportunity to see how churches, synagogues and mosques and other houses of worship can really adapt in unique ways.

Jesse Rincones, the executive director of Convención Bautista Hispana de Texas — a collection of over 1,100 Baptist congregations in Texas
Courtesy of Jesse Rincones

Pastor Jesse Rincones, on how his congregations might recognize Holy Week and Easter

I've heard pastors suggesting that for Palm Sunday that they place palms on their front doors together or others have recommended on Easter morning when they would normally gather at their church, at say, 6 or 7 o'clock in the morning, to maybe step outside of their of their homes and and and share a prayer or do a prayer walk around their neighborhood.

So we're definitely exploring how we can continue to be the church, which has been a constant message — that we are the church, not because we gather in a building or in a facility, but wherever our presence is, we should continue to minister and serve our communities.

On a story or a line in scripture the leaders are holding on to that's helping them get through this difficult time

Jesse Rincones: 2 Corinthians 9:8 says that God is able to bless you abundantly so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. I think it's easy for us in these moments, when there is a shortage of everything ... to think that our lack might keep us from continuing to fulfill our faith. But that promise allows us that no matter what the circumstance, we can continue to bound in every good work.

Brigitte Rosenberg: In our community, what we've been drawing on as we prepare for Passover is just this notion of how we've been here before. Thinking about the story that we're going to be telling next week, the story of our redemption and exodus from Egypt — what were our ancient ancestors sitting there thinking on that night, thinking: When is this going to pass? When are we going to be free? And all of this anticipation. And yet as they sat as they listened to Moses, as they followed God, you know, eventually they found that redemption.

And so, in that message, one of the things that we have been saying is, what is it that each of us can do? Some of that is as simple as "stay at home." And then from the confines of our homes, just as we've been hearing from everybody else, how can you reach out to others? And then when we're all working together, that's when we are going to help get ourselves through this, which will very much feel like that redemption from what we're experiencing right now at this moment.

Suhaib Webb: I was lucky enough to see a large number of our congregants who are actually working in emergency rooms. ... It's profound to see the extension of your religious faith exercised by your congregants, if that makes sense, in ways that are more powerful than perhaps I engage it theoretically or intellectually — to be awed by your congregants. It's something to see the grace of God shined back at you.

And then there's this very beautiful prophetic tradition that Muhammad said: Somebody who is acting as a nurse or a physician in today's terms, as long as they are standing to serve the sick, they are recipients of transcendent mercy. So when I see these people really sacrificing their lives for us, that tradition really kind of has impacted me.

NPR's Hiba Ahmad and Melissa Gray produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

How are houses of worship dealing with the coronavirus pandemic? Many states and cities have issued orders for residents to stay at home, but there are exemptions for religious services. In Virginia and Maryland, for example, there's a limit to the number of people that can be in attendance - only 10. And while some churches, synagogues, temples and mosques have decided on their own to stop holding services, clergy are still very much serving their congregations, struggling to maintain a sense of community amid a loss of routine, ritual and, at times, a sense of peace.

Joining us now to talk about that are three leaders from three different faiths. First, Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg of the United Hebrew Congregation in St. Louis, Mo.

Welcome to the program.

BRIGITTE ROSENBERG: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Next, we have Imam Suhaib Webb. He serves as the resident scholar at the Islamic Center of New York University in New York City.

Welcome to you.

SUHAIB WEBB: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And finally, we have Jesse Rincones, executive director of Convencion Bautista Hispana de Texas, a collection of over 1,000 Baptist congregations in Texas.

Welcome to you.

JESSE RINCONES: Pleasure to be here, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So Rabbi Rosenberg, I'd like to start with you. You and your staff at the United Hebrew Congregation serve over 900 families, as I understand it. And St. Louis County is under a stay-at-home order but with an exemption for religious gatherings. Have you transitioned to virtual services? And what has that experience been like?

ROSENBERG: Yes, we did transition to virtual services. We did so after the stay-at-home order. Actually, I believe we did it right beforehand. Transitioning to virtual services itself was pretty easy, as we had already been livestreaming our services for the homebound or when people needed it. I know especially college students often would listen to our services. But I know for many congregants, it has taken some getting used to, not being together and just sitting in their homes and listening and feeling like they're watching as opposed to participating.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Imam Suhaib, you normally serve at the Islamic Center on NYU's Manhattan campus. But because it's now been closed for almost a month, you've also transitioned to all-online. Can you just describe a little bit of what that's been like?

WEBB: Since we're under the purview of kind of NYU, we kind of were able to jump in front of everything, especially being in New York City. So we shut everything down early on. As the rabbi mentioned, we had everything already in place for kind of the virtual setup.

So I think what we learned from this is that people need more from religious institutions than just religion. So we have a program on the arts. We have a program for yoga. I run private programs for youth. We have a thousand young people signed up in our 13- to 15-year-old demographic. So it allowed us also to realize how valuable, if you will, the mosque, the synagogue and the church is in people's lives in ways that aren't explicitly spiritual. So that's been something that we learned.

I think the second thing is, being in New York City, one of our colleagues' mother-in-law died this week. So we've had to deal also with the blunt of people calling us and saying that they can't bury their dead because there's too long of a line to bury people at the Muslim graveyard.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what do you say?

WEBB: I mean, we have to come in now as pastors and ministers and then also explain to them religiously that that's OK because there's this duality. There's the loss. And then there is this - does the religion expect me now immediately to follow everything that the religion - in Islam, we bury people pretty quickly - so walking them through the process that theodicy brings about mercy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jesse, I'm going to bring you in. You were a pastor for 18 years. And now you had an organization that oversees over 1,100 individual Hispanic congregations across the state of Texas, which is a huge area. You've been helping pastors through the steps of transitioning online. I understand it looks very different from where you're sitting than the two stories we just heard.

RINCONES: That's correct. The vast majority of our congregations are smaller congregations, 50 and under. On average on a Sunday morning, the churches, besides the pastor, tend not to have any part-time or full-time staff. So although some were already practicing online streaming or video streaming their services, many of them - this was not even on their radar. So we've spent a lot of our time early on resourcing and helping and encouraging those pastors that, in turn, have to turn around and do the same for their congregations.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jesse, also, in the state of Texas, Governor Greg Abbott has deemed religious services as essential and that people are encouraged to hold services virtually but are still allowed to gather. Is that confusing to people and also to pastors?

RINCONES: Yes, it was. It was pretty clear before that announcement most churches were resorting to streaming and video and telephones. But then when that announcement was made, it made it sound as if the churches could convene if they couldn't do livestreaming. But what they were actually referring to was permitting churches to do the drive-in type of churches where they could drive up into the parking lot and park in their cars and listen to those.

So I've actually seen - they've done it here in San Antonio and other communities where the mayors have had to have sessions explaining that, you know, the doors are not open for the churches to gather. But unfortunately, it was taken that way just because the churches were deemed essential.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Rabbi Rosenberg, I want to come back to you because, of course, Passover starts this coming Wednesday. And just listening to specifically what Imam Suhaib was saying about how religious organizations have to function on so many different levels - but, of course, Passover is an enormously important moment in the Jewish faith. How is your congregation dealing with the fact that you all won't be able to physically come together this year?

ROSENBERG: I know in my congregation, there's that initial sense of mourning that Passover is not going to look like what it has looked like in previous years. We have moved our congregational Seder over to the virtual platform. So on the one hand, I think people are trying to work through it.

I do know last night, a group of us had met. And we really talked about, just as the imam had said, how can we say to ourselves these aren't normal times? And so maybe the rules that always seem a little bit strict - we have to relax them a little bit in order to allow ourselves to find that space to celebrate this holiday. So whereas we may not be utilizing technology on a normal Passover, we're going to be using it this time so that we can connect.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Imam Suhaib, this is, of course, something that you're going to face as well. Ramadan starts later this month. That also consists of big family meals, long nightly prayers. And that doesn't seem like it's going to be possible for the foreseeable future. What are you advising or doing?

WEBB: Well, I think also, just kind of piggybacking on what the rabbi said, you know, religion has been dealing with this for centuries. In Muslim tradition in particular, the bubonic plague is something that waylaid Egypt, waylaid Palestine, waylaid Syria. So you'll find within our tradition these dispensations - what we call dispensations in acts of worship. And one of them is Ramadan. You know, for people who are actually sick, they're not expected to fast. There are other things that are happening. So we're seeing people talk about BYOI - bring your own iftar.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

WEBB: Iftar is the dinner that people have when they break their fast. And people would be virtually - you know, like, say, three, four hundred people on Zoom. You're all looking at each other. And someone makes the call to prayer and makes the supplication. So it's an opportunity to see how churches, synagogues and mosques and other houses of worship can really adapt in unique ways.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jesse, as you know, we're entering Holy Week. The president has said in a press briefing early on that he'd like to get the country back to normal by Easter. He's now walked that back. I can imagine that got people's hopes up for a moment.

RINCONES: Oh, absolutely. You know, Christmas and Easter - the highlights of Christian celebrations. And I've heard pastors suggesting that Easter morning, when they would normally gather at their church at, say, 6 or 7 o'clock in the morning, to maybe step outside of their homes and share a prayer or do a prayer walk around their neighborhood. So we're definitely exploring how we can continue to be the church, which has been a constant message - that we are the church not because we gather in a building or in a facility. But wherever our presence is, we should continue to minister and serve our communities.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'd like to ask each of you now if there's a particular story or a line in Scripture or just something that you are holding onto that is helping you get through this difficult time. And Jesse, I'm going to start with you.

RINCONES: Second Corinthians 9:8 says that God is able to bless you abundantly so that in all things, at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. And I think it's easy for us in these moments, when there is a shortage of everything from toilet paper to eggs and milk, to think that our lack might keep us from continuing to fulfill our faith. But that promise allows us that no matter what the circumstance, we can continue to abound in every good work.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Rabbi Rosenberg.

ROSENBERG: In our community, what we've been drawing on as we prepare for Passover is just this notion of how we've been here before, thinking about the story that we're going to be telling next week, the story of our redemption and exodus from Egypt. What were our ancient ancestors sitting there thinking on that night, thinking, when is this going to pass? When are we going to be free? - all of this anticipation. And yet as they sat, as they listened to Moses, as they followed God, you know, eventually, they found that redemption.

And so in that message, one of the things that we have been saying is, what is it that each of us can do? Some of that is as simple as stay at home. And then from the confines of our homes, just as we've been hearing from everybody else, how can you reach out to others? And then when we are all working together, that's when we're going to help get ourselves through this, which will very much feel like that redemption from what we're experiencing right now at this moment.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Imam Suhaib.

WEBB: So when this happened, I was, you know, lucky enough to see a large number of our congregants who are actually working in emergency rooms - one of them, Basharata Ali (ph), who was an elderly gentleman who lost his life serving people. It's profound to see the extension of your religious faith exercised by your congregants, if that makes sense, in ways that are more powerful than perhaps I engage it theoretically or intellectually, to be awed by your congregants, to see the grace of God shined back at you.

And then there's this very beautiful prophetic tradition that Muhammad said. Somebody who is acting as a nurse or physician in today's terms - as long as they are standing to serve the sick, they are recipients of transcendent mercy. So when I see, you know, these people really sacrificing their life for us, that tradition really kind of has impacted me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Imam Suhaib Webb, resident scholar at NYU's Islamic Center in New York City, Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg of United Hebrew Congregation in St. Louis, Mo., and Jesse Rincones, executive director of the Convencion Bautista Hispana de Texas in Texas.

Thank you all so very much.

WEBB: Thank you.

ROSENBERG: Thank you so much.

RINCONES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.