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People often turn to faith for comfort during a crisis. How can churches help from behind closed doors?

The coronavirus is forcing faith leaders to find creative ways to virtually minister to their communities

A view of the empty San Simpliciano church in Milan, Italy, Friday, March 13, 2020. Italians have been experiencing yet further virus-containment restrictions after Premier Giuseppe Conte ordered restaurants, cafes and retail shops closed after imposing a nationwide lockdown on personal movement. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause more severe illness.
Luca Bruno, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — It’s not unusual for people to seek out worship services during times of crisis. What’s odd is for them to have nowhere to go.

That will be the case this weekend in many cities after the COVID-19 pandemic led some churches to temporarily close their doors.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has canceled all meetings worldwide. Catholic churches will be shut down in Salt Lake City, Seattle and other cities. The governor of Kentucky urged houses of worship in the state to move their services online.

Regular churchgoers aren’t the only people affected by these almost unprecedented actions. Anyone looking for spiritual comfort could now have a harder time finding help.

“When people are faced with a kind of existential crisis of sorts, you see them returning to faith to make sense out of and find meaning in these types of events,” said Jamie Aten, executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College.

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, church attendance rose by around 6%, according to a Gallup Poll cited in a 2011 study. Similar increases in worship participation have been observed after major hurricanes, mass shootings and even the Ebola crisis, said Aten, who has conducted multiple surveys on the role of religion in disaster relief.

“During major crises, more individuals turn to faith and local churches for help and assistance,” he said.

Sometimes, they’re looking for material goods like food and clothing. Houses of worship often make these resources available to community members long before the American Red Cross or Federal Emergency Management Agency makes it to town, as the Deseret News reported last year.

But in many cases, people who are feeling scared or anxious go to churches for less tangible sources of comfort. They want to pray with a pastor, sing familiar hymns or simply be around some friendly faces for an hour or two.

“People are seeking help that ranges from care for their physical needs to care for their psychological or social needs,” Aten said.

The surge in interest in religious services during a crisis typically doesn’t lead to a permanent growth in church membership. However, that doesn’t make the interactions between congregations and newcomers seeking support any less important, he added.

“The way churches navigate these sorts of situations in their communities can forever change the way they relate to others and how others relate to them,” Aten said.

Some religious leaders are so concerned about leaving people hanging that they’ll hold services this weekend against the wishes of local government officials and health experts.

The Rev. Robert Jeffress, the senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, explained his choice to remain open to a local Fox station by saying “worship is essential.”

“I know some people are saying, ‘Well, the NBA is canceling games. Why don’t you cancel church services?’ What we do is more important that what the NBA is doing,” he said.

One Catholic priest in Rome was so horrified at the idea of canceling church services that he defied the orders of his own diocese.

“Home should always be open to its children,” said Cardinal Konrad Krajewski to Crux. “I don’t know whether people will come or not ... but their home is open.”

But making the decision to stay open isn’t the only way to serve people in need, Aten said. Churches that have closed their doors due to the coronavirus can use cellphones, social media and live-streaming technology to reach out to those who are “hungry for community,” he said.

In Seattle, University Presbyterian Church, which began live-streaming its worship services last weekend, has encouraged members to use video conference software to hold small group meetings and Google docs to collect prayer requests.

A young adult in the congregation is planning to organize food deliveries for homebound members, said the Rev. George Hinman, the church’s senior pastor.

“Our mission is to love our neighbors. This is still a great time for us to do that,” he said.

The Rev. Layton E. Williams, a Presbyterian pastor based in Charleston, South Carolina, has already started brainstorming how to virtually minister to her community despite the fact that her church will remain open this weekend. She knows she needs to be prepared to do far more than simply make videos of church services available online.

“My church’s membership skews older,” she said. “A lot of people aren’t that digitally connected.”

Someone who doesn’t have a Facebook or Twitter account won’t benefit from tweets with comforting Bible verses or a Facebook video of the Rev. Williams saying a prayer.

“Those of us who hate talking on the phone ... may have to be willing to have phone conversations. It could be a crucial way to reach people,” she said.

Many churches already have programs in place that come in handy during bans on in-person meetings, like at-home Bible study resources or prayer guides. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints encouraged members to minister to one another regularly and discuss church teachings at home long before the coronavirus pandemic began.

“The church is people. It’s not a building,” the Rev. Hinman said. “We’re still the church when we can’t meet together like usual.”

A phone call or Facebook messenger group chat may seem like a poor replacement for an in-person church service, but these forms of outreach can make a huge difference for people feeling lonely or isolated, Aten said.

He still feels grateful to the friends and community members who regularly texted, called or replied to his tweets a few years ago when he was undergoing cancer treatments.

“They reminded me that I wasn’t alone. That people were still thinking of me,” he said.

If there’s a bright side to this month’s church closures it’s that religious communities will be able to practice skills that don’t always come naturally to them, the Rev. Williams said. Virtual ministry techniques developed this month can still be used long after the coronavirus crisis ends.

“If we face this moment with courage and faithfulness, we might rediscover some old ways to connect and find new ways of being in the community,” she said.

The Rev. Hinman offered similar thoughts, noting that he’s glad to have a chance to get out of his worship comfort zone.

“This is opening up new neural pathways for us,” he said. “We wouldn’t have been smart enough without this crisis to discover some of these opportunities.”