Streaming church, Zoom seders: How coronavirus has pushed Easter and Passover services online

Coronavirus-Basilica Of the National Shrine
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 17: Pope Francis will celebrate Mass next week for 25,000 people on the east portico of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception at the Catholic University of America September 17, 2015 in Washington, DC. Francis will begin his visit in the United States with a three-day stop in Washington during which time he will visit Congress, the White House and celebrate the Mass at the basilica. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images

During a typical Easter Holy Week, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., also known as Mary’s Shrine, welcomes roughly 50,000 visitors. As the largest Roman Catholic church in North America, the shrine serves as a focal point of observance for the largest Christian denomination in the U.S. during the religion’s most important holiday. But for the first time ever this year, coinciding with the shrine’s centennial anniversary, no outsiders will be allowed in.

“This year the shrine is going to be empty,” says the Rev. Monsignor Walter Rossi, the shrine’s rector. Only a few participants—and no in-person audience—will be permitted inside the basilica’s halls to celebrate the conclusion of Lent. “Like a lot of churches throughout the country, we’ve turned to social media and television and modern technology,” he says. Monsignor Rossi calls such tools “a great blessing.”

The ravages of the coronavirus pandemic have forced churches, synagogues, and other places of worship across the country to rethink their rituals. In time for Easter and Passover, Catholics, Protestants, and Jews have begun turning to new technologies to celebrate ancestral faiths. With practices ranging from old-school telephone outreach and television broadcasting to more innovative methods, like Internet live-streaming, “drive-in” services, and virtual seders, this year’s holidays may be the most technologically advanced ever.

And despite the near-national quarantine (or maybe because of it), it’s also bound to be a big year for religious observance. Between Masses broadcast on the Catholic-themed cable station Eternal Word Television Network, and recordings either live-streamed on or uploaded to YouTube and Facebook, services at Mary’s Shrine have already garnered half a million views—and that was just on Palm Sunday.

Guidance from on high

Last month the Vatican issued a decree directing churches to adapt or abandon certain rituals given the unusual circumstances of the pandemic. For instance, the washing of feet, a Holy Thursday practice harking back to the New Testament, was ordered to be “omitted.” On Good Friday, genuflecting in front of the cross will replace kissing it. On Easter, baptisms of aspiring Catholics are to be postponed.

“When people watch the live stream or on TV, they’ll be very surprised. Where is the fire? Where is the procession?” says Laura Bertone, director of the office of worship at the Archdiocese of San Francisco. “We’re simplifying. It will be a stripped-down version of what we normally do.”

Instead, people seeking a grander event will most likely tune into ceremonies conducted at the Vatican or administered by high-ranking bishops, says the Rev. Andrew Menke, executive director of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. But for worshippers who prefer more intimate familiarity, he says, local parishes and priests will be streaming far and wide, “even if the production value isn’t so great.”

Technical aptitude and resources vary across the clergy, and some priests are more prepared to commune online than others.

“I must confess I thought I overdid it a couple of months ago after purchasing several wireless microphones that connect with mobile devices, because I was barely using them,” says Father Gabriel “Gadget” Gillen, a former Wall Street stockbroker who heads the Dominican Friars Foundation. (His nephews gave him the techie nickname due to his affinity for electronics.) But since then, Gillen notes, “we have been using all these contraptions with the three daily live streams” at the Rosary Shrine of Saint Jude in Washington, D.C., where he serves as the director.

Reaching a critical mass

Other Christian sects are also making changes this year.

As states have issued stay-at-home orders, most of the country’s more than 300,000 churches have, one by one, closed their doors. The drop-off has been precipitous: Between March 1 and March 15, the number of Protestant churches convening congregations dropped from 99% to 64%, according to a survey of 400 Protestant pastors conducted by Lifeway Research, an Evangelical Christian research group based in Nashville. A week later, on March 22, 11% remained open, and in another week, only 7%. Only the smallest congregations—and, in some cases, the most defiant—are still meeting.

Scott McConnell, Lifeway’s executive director, says the biggest surprise is how quickly the vast majority of churches have gone virtual. Just 8% of the churches surveyed said they had not done any video in March, which is pretty astounding, McConnell says. “There were a lot of churches who had not done video before and who probably wouldn’t have even considered it” were it not for the coronavirus, he adds.

But shutdown orders have inspired churches to get creative. For instance, the Tate Springs Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, is hosting an Easter egg hunt using the Microsoft-owned video game Minecraft. Thanks to a partnership with the National Esports Association, which is helping to sponsor the event, anyone will be able to join during the hunt, which is scheduled to take place from 12:15 to 3:15 p.m. Central Time on Easter Sunday. (You can register here.)

A virtual depiction of the Tate Springs Baptist Church and its logo, created by the church’s members in “Minecraft,” the popular world-building video game where the congregation plans to host an Easter egg hunt online on Sunday, April 12.
Courtesy of Tate Springs

The Minecraft egg hunt is intended to be as educational as it is entertaining. The virtual landscape, now under construction, will feature three Easter-related scenes from the Bible: the site of the cross, Jesus’s stone-covered tomb, and an empty tomb, signifying Jesus’s Resurrection.

However, some traditionalists object to the activity. “Sometimes there are questions of whether egg hunts are wise or not, like when it comes to any cultural thing,” such as Santa Claus for Christmas, says Pastor Jared Wellman, one of the egg hunt’s organizers. “We’ve had people on both sides of this saying, ‘This is creative, good job!’ And the other side saying, ‘This is pagan, bad job.’”

Wellman’s hope is, fundamentally, that the effort gets the Easter message out, especially to younger audiences. The church plans to provide resources within the virtual event so participants can connect with their local churches afterward, he adds.

Honk for Jesus

Just as the digital divide is wide, and it’s important to meet churchgoers where they are, not all the innovation in this year’s Holy Week will be online. Some churches are finding clever ways to keep up their congregations in the flesh.

The Spring Woods United Methodist Church in Houston, for instance, has turned to the retro-tech of “drive-in” theaters, and over the past several Sundays, the Rev. Steffon Arrington has delivered sermons in the parking lot of his church.

Last weekend 130 people convened in about 75 cars outside, all spaced at least six feet apart to comply with social distancing guidelines. They parked in a semicircle facing the preacher.

Coronavirus-Priest Parking Lot
The Rev. Peter Gower walks out to the parking lot to spread incense to worshippers sitting in their cars during a Mass he is celebrating from the front door of Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church on March 29, 2020, in Johnston, R.I.
David Goldman—AP Images

“We’re like the Transformers movie,” Arrington says. Except instead of forming a giant alien-battling robot, like Optimus Prime, the cars form a place of worship, he says. His favorite part, he says, is when people honk their horns in lieu of saying “amen.”

“If a liquor store is opened for mental health, I look to it as God’s house on the parking lot should be open on Sunday for us,” Arrington continues. “If the police and sheriff’s deputy show up, then we’ll just say we’re waiting in line, that this is the staging area for Whataburger across the street,” he jokes, referring to a local fast-food chain.

Church and state, separated by six feet

While leaders of many faiths, including Catholicism, Islam, Mormonism, and branches of Judaism have closed their doors and urged people to participate online, not everyone is complying with quarantine.

Before prohibitions on large gatherings were announced, 60 singers gathered for a choir rehearsal in Skagit Valley, Wash., a meeting that proved fatal to some members. A megachurch pastor in Tampa was recently arrested on charges of assembling worshippers in defiance of stay-at-home orders. Police continue to break up crowds at funerals for recently deceased members of New York’s tight-knit Hassidic Jewish community as the mourners flout social distancing measures.

The impulse to seek spirituality in the proximity of peers puts lives as risk. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the biggest branch of Judaism in the U.S., says extremists in any religion can be dismissive of restrictions viewed as impeding the expression of faith. “It’s deadly,” Jacobs says. “Our tradition is very clear that preserving the health and well-being of the communality is paramount.”

Jennifer Stofman, director of synagogue consulting for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the other major Jewish sect, points to a repository of online resources her team developed for rabbis and their congregations this recent Passover. Among the materials are guides for using Zoom software to host virtual seders, a downloadable Haggadah, the holiday’s sacred text, and tips for making one’s kitchen kosher.

“If you have to make adjustments or simplifications of holiday observances to stay safe and keep your family safe, that’s what we do,” Rabbi Jacobs says. That should not take anything away from the experience.

“This holiday is called the festival of liberation, and we’re seeing a lot more freedom of how people are choosing to express and celebrate the holiday,” he adds, calling it a “wellspring for creativity and change.”

Celebrating the Resurrection

By all indications, this holiday season will be a quieter affair—and in some cases a somber one—compared to years prior.

But church leaders are already thinking of what’s ahead. “Next year we’ll go back to having a big fire, which is normally so spectacular and fun,” says the Archdiocese of San Francisco’s Bertone. “This year we can deny ourselves, do it simply, and then have the big opulence next year and celebrate.”

Like many other places of worship nationwide, Mary’s Shrine will also endure an atypical bout of solemnity over the Easter holiday. But its principals are optimistic about a rebounding interest in faith, once the pandemic clears.

“I’m hoping that after all of this is passed, we will see a resurgence in church participation,” Rossi says. “It’s like anything else. Once you don’t have it, you miss it and you want it.”

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