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How Religious Groups Recovered Community during COVID-19

by Sarah Gibson

One key resource that religions as a concept can provide is that of community with others. In some sects, such as Quakerism, the community serves as a core tenant of the religion itself. Most religions base themselves around some sort of regular gathering to sit with others and practice their religious traditions together.

So when a pandemic shakes the globe and keeps religious groups from gathering, how does one foster that community? How can you be together when you’re not?

It’s a problem that every gathering religious organization has had to confront in the past year. According to the Pew Research Center, those who regularly attend religious services tend to belong to older generations. This puts religious gatherings at particularly high risk for putting their attendants in danger. However, while this has led to creative alternatives for religious gatherings, it has also led to a burst in religious-based service to those communities who cannot gather.

One such example of this is from Matthew Falcone, the Senior Vice President of the Rodef Shalom congregation in Pittsburgh. While the Synagogue has been open only for small bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies, those running the synagogue have offered their empty rooms to the school across the street in order to allow the school to social distance more easily.

“For us, one of the big ways in which we thought we were able to help is by forming a partnership with Falk Laboratory School, which is affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh,” he said. “They’re an elementary and middle school, and they didn’t have enough space in their building to have in-person education, so we reached out to them and helped broker an arrangement by which the middle schoolers would be moved over into our school for the year, which would allow them to come back and engage in socially-distant education.”

Another example comes from the Pittsburgh Quaker meeting group, which still has remote library committee meetings, and is currently looking into providing a safe way to make their library collection available to Friends (The official Quaker term for members of the Quaker faith). According to a statement from a member of said library committee, they are taking inspiration from the operation of Pittsburgh’s own Carnegie Libraries. According to the statement, most services since March have been virtually conducted with the opportunity for a small group of people to worship outside of the Meeting house.

“This is an endeavor that we take seriously,” the representative said. “Because it’s always been important that we help people however we can, especially when they are trying to educate themselves,” they said.

But what happens, then, for those regular service-goers who had lost their own services and opportunities for the community? For Marjorie Hillwig, a florist from Bruin, Pennsylvania, the community came in cars and in the old lot of a closed down grocery store.

“Well, the old Friedmans shut down within the last few years or so. We’re a smaller church, and a little more old-fashioned. We like seeing each other. So, Pastor Floyd came up with the idea to do drive-in church in the old Friedman’s lot. We didn’t do that for a long long time, but it was fun. At least I was able to see everyone, even if it was from the passenger seat.” she said. According to Hillwig, the services offered by her methodist church have gone back to being in person, with social distancing and mask-wearing.

“There wasn’t a lot of us in the first place, so it’s very easy for each group to stay more than ten feet away from each other. We also don’t do communion like we used to,” she said.

While Hillwig’s small-town brought back church with a blast from the past, for younger people in larger cities, coming up with creative solutions begets ushering in the future.

For Olivia Ciotoli, a Christian coming from the greater Pittsburgh area, a weekly Sunday service was transformed from pews to pixels.

“During Covid, I stopped attending church in person. I’m very fortunate that my church and many others have implemented virtual church, whether it is live-streamed or pre-recorded. It’s kind of fun watching church on the couch in my jammies, but I do miss the feeling and atmosphere of an in-person church.”

Ciotoli’s church has also returned to in-person services, but she has yet to attend herself.

“My regular church has reopened with covid regulations, like required masks, seating people with a row in between, etc, but I’m personally too nervous to attend quite yet.” She said.

The online festivities do not stop with regular services, either. As we enter the holiday season, more and more religious groups are trying to find ways to spread the holiday cheer from afar. Just ask Lindsay Carson, a Jewish Point Park alumni who celebrated Yom Kippur as well as Hanukkah from her own living room.

“Yom Kippur is one of the high holy days, which normally means we go to temple. We couldn’t do that this year, but they put the services on a livestream, which was just the rabbi doing the service.”

While it has provided a substitute for the real Hanukkah services, Lindsay notes that it doesn’t feel the same.

“We normally celebrate Hanukkah with my grandma, but we were still able to have Hannukah dinner with latkes and everything. I’ll Facetime my family, but it’s what you have to do during a pandemic,” she said.
Hillwig noted something similar but stressed that she was trying to take it positively.

“I miss being able to shake hands and hug and go to spaghetti dinners, but I’m just trying to see the bright side. This has taught me to be grateful for those friendships that you have, especially at my age. […] When I get vaccinated, that’s what I’m looking forward to most,” she said.

This piece is from Multiplatform Magazine Reporting Digital Magazine FALL 2020 Issue “Good Trouble – The New Normal.” 

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