‘Faith will not be canceled’: Places of worship work to digitize practices, maintain community amid COVID-19

Local faith-based communities are aiming to minimize the disruption from the novel coronavirus by leveraging digital platforms to maintain a sense of community.


Jenna Galligan for The Daily Iowan =

First United Methodist Church is seen on Monday, April 6. Parishioners can comment on prompts introduced during the service via Facebook Live, but the pews remain empty.

Mary Hartel, News Reporter

Classic music and hymns greeted churchgoers signing on to the virtual Palm Sunday services at the First United Methodist Church of Iowa City. As more people logged on to the Facebook livestreamed worship, people began to comment messages normally said face-to-face — “Good morning, everyone” and “Happy Palm Sunday.”

The time-honored sermons reverberating from Pastor Barrie Tritle established a comforting tone of normalcy throughout the digital audience. Messages of faith familiar to those watching remained unwavering despite being contextualized in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic — an illness that has crippled Americans with fear and uncertainty.

Toward the end of the service, the pastor told his congregation, “even though we’re a dispersed church, we are one in love with God, and God is in love with us.”

Virtual worship, funeral livestreams, and studying religious texts via Zoom are some of the many routes that religious communities in Iowa City and throughout the country have chosen to take as they adapt tradition amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Outbreaks of the novel coronavirus have led Iowans to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to self-isolate and social distance — causing an unprecedented disruption within religious institutions and communities.

As the number of coronavirus cases and mitigation measures continue to rise, religious sects and organizations within the UI and Johnson County community are working to establish a new normal by providing different opportunities for their members to advocate and practice their faith.

“We’ve gone into a routine of shifting from in-person to digital relationships, that’s the big thing,” said Tritle, the pastor at First United Methodist Church in Iowa City.

Tritle’s most recent headline in the church’s newsletter stated simply, “hope will not be canceled.” He said he wanted people to remember that even if the church is not physically gathered, it will celebrate once it’s together again.

“In the meantime, even though the world seems to have canceled everything right now, as the people of faith let us remember — caring will not be canceled, love will not be canceled, acts of kindness will not be canceled, relationships will not be canceled, hope will not be canceled, music will not be canceled, reading and studying will not be canceled, self-care will not be canceled, and faith will not be canceled,” Tritle said.

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Pastor Roger Dykstra, senior pastor at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Iowa City, said the church has conducted all of its meetings and bible studies via Zoom, and live-streamed its worship ceremonies.

Dykstra’s focused on keeping continuity within his readings and not trying to make everything related to COVID-19, he said.

“… As you preach or as you teach, the context is always there,” Dykstra said. “We’re trying to … lift up the messages that remind people that fear isn’t something we need to be leading from, remind people of the hope that is ours, remind people [that] we need to care for each other at this time… We’re also just trying to keep it as normal as we can when nothing is normal.”

Dykstra added that the church had already altered its communion and greeting practices to avoid spreading disease because of the flu season, which eventually coincided with the novel coronavirus.

One particularly difficult disruption caused by the virus has been applying mitigation measures to events such as funerals, he said. Up to 10 people are allowed to gather, Dykstra said, but the rest may only be present virtually.

Father Steve Witt, a pastor at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Iowa City, said the church quit distributing wine for communion in January as an initial effort to mitigate the spread of diseases.

Nearly all gatherings have since shut down, Witt said. The only activities currently held at the church are reconciliation by appointment and individual prayer, he said.

“People can come in and pray if they wish. We ask them to sanitize where they were and we provide them with wipes and things to do that with,” Witt said. “But as of Monday, we will be closed completely.”

St. Mary’s has been celebrating mass online, Witt said, through YouTube.

Reverend Robert Cloos, a pastor at St. Mary’s in Oxford and St. Peter’s in Cosgrove, said social distancing has been tough among their tight-knit community.

Cloos said the church sent out a list of information to its members regarding where on the TV and internet they can find mass and additional resources to keep in touch with their faith.

He added that he has been calling to check up on church members, especially those struggling with health issues.

Sameer Ansari, a third-year University of Iowa student and vice president of the UI Muslim Student Association, said the need to social distance has caused a major disruption within the Islamic community because people are unable to attend daily activities and prayers at their local mosques.

In most towns, mosques are where many Islamic community members come together for different prayer rituals and everyday programs, Ansari said. They’re essential for building that sense of community.

In light of COVID-19 mitigation measures, Ansari said, people are unable to gather at their local mosque. For the first time he can remember, Ansari said routine Friday Jummah prayers, including the one the Muslim Student Association hosts weekly in the IMU, are being canceled.

Ansari said Muslims are able to complete their required five daily prayers from their homes, but it’s not always easy to stay motivated when you lose that sense of community.

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“Sometimes it becomes more difficult trying to push yourself to be ritual or spiritual when you don’t have people behind you,” Ansari said.

Just this past year, the UI Muslim Student Association was able to obtain another room for a total of two set aside for daily prayer in the IMU, Ansari said.

“That prayer room gave us the ability to get people together and use it as a good influence to be religious and spiritual,” Ansari said.

Ansari added that the Muslim Student Association’s board members have been working toward finding opportunities they can provide remotely to UI students through digital platforms such as Zoom.

First-year law student Gada Al Herz, president of the UI Imam Mahdi organization, which focuses on Shi’a Muslim students, said shrines and places of worship are shutting down around the globe, regardless of sect or origin.

Al Herz said the trend among Islamic leaders during this time has been to encourage people to stay home, spend time with their families, keep clean, social distance, and take care of themselves.

“Generally, Islam as a religion, kind of demands that everyone play their part when it comes to helping the overall community, and that’s something that people have really focused on lately,” Al Herz said.

Ashley Carol-Fingerhut, executive director of Iowa Hillel, the foundation for Jewish life on the UI campus, said the organization has undergone a dramatic shift since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Now, we’re just working on creating community in a virtual world,” Carol-Fingerhut said.

Iowa Hillel’s main priority during this time is adapting and providing resources to students so they don’t feel alone, Carol-Fingerhut said.

Not being able to hold the weekly Shabad dinner on Fridays has been one of the biggest barriers for Iowa Hillel, Carol-Fingerhut said.

Carol-Fingerhut said Hillel International has put together a virtual program called Hillel@Home which brings in speakers from around the world to give talks students can watch without having to leave their homes.

In an effort to piggy-back off of this initiative, Iowa Hillel is working to create a “HawkeyeHillel@Home” screen-free, bingo board, a Netflix bracket challenge, and a book club, Carol-Fingerhut said. Current Jewish-learning fellowship classes that Carol-Fingerhut has been leading will resume online as well.

Carol-Fingerhut said she’s seen a big shift to utilizing online resources within the Jewish community as a whole.

“… We talk about now the idea of self-isolating and being away from people, but that doesn’t mean that the community that you had that brought you strength and friendship and everything else is gone, it just looks different,” Carol-Fingerhut said.