The term social distancing is perhaps the polar opposite of a religious worship service where people congregate, shake hands, and eat sacramental food. With the call for social distancing and the cancellation of large gatherings under state and federal states of emergency, religious communities are confronted with a challenging decision. Should religious leaders cancel worship services in response to the coronavirus pandemic when their members may need the support of person-to-person fellowship more than ever?
Karen Foster is minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Northern Nevada and said she hoped they could hold one more service with proper attention paid to sanitation and personal distancing before a hiatus. For her and her congregants, the risk is too high. Reverend Foster described the decision making process.
“What we realized is that we really want to be part of preventing rather than spreading, and so in order to protect those who are most vulnerable in our community, we felt like we had to make the very difficult decision to not meet this week, even though we really just made that decision yesterday to protect those who are most vulnerable.
“Because what we’re understanding is that in other communities, when the numbers of cases are low, that’s the time when prevention can be impacted, rather than in a few weeks when there may or may not be many more cases, we hope not.
“It’s too late to put the things for prevention in place. So in light of that understanding and that information that’s been coming out, we chose to make a proactive decision to protect those who may be most vulnerable to the coronavirus.”
The online Sunday morning worship service will be held at the usual time of 10:30. Reverend Foster explained that the spirit community will expand its outreach activities during the time of cancelled in-person service.
“The thing that really most critical to realize and the point that I would make is that we’re not going to stop being a spirit community. We are stopping in-person services, but we’re not going to stop being a spiritual community to each other.
“And we will try to be that in creative ways, more than ever. We’re going to have some small group things online. We’re taking our service online. We’re launching a program where if people want a phone call, just to be in touch with somebody, they can get on a list. And likewise, if people are willing to make those phone calls, they can get on the list.
“So we’re going to be a spiritual community in ways that we had not foreseen and we’re not going to stop that. We’re going to be spiritual community for each other more than ever, even though we’re stopping our public services.”
When in-person services can be safely held, there is less pressure to develop alternative methods of communication with spiritual community members. In a pandemic, problems give rise to solutions. The First United Methodist Church of Carson City will also hold their Sunday services online until further notice.
“If there’s a silver lining or an opportunity that might come out of this, my hope is that we’ll be creative and innovative and determined, and we’ll learn ways of being together and establishing relationships and communicating in ways we hadn’t really thought of before. And because of that, I believe that we will come out of this time transformed, with new learning.”
The ways in which the coronavirus has and continues to affect peoples’ lives is evolving and surprising, and to a large degree, this unpredictability gives rise to uncertainty and fear. Reverend Foster said the outpouring of offers to help others through this time is an object lesson.
“While people are fearful and have a difficult time living in uncertainty, a great way to counterbalance that is to say, ‘How can I be helpful? How can I help take care of someone who’s maybe more vulnerable or less fortunate than me?’
“We’re seeing that all across the board, and I think that’s really the important piece to remember is that we will find ways to look out for each other in spite of this difficulty.
“In fact, my sermon on Sunday is about living in uncertain times and how do we deal with that through spiritual practice, through making connections, through reaching out to those who may be having a harder time even then we are.”
Companionship is an essential human need. The reliance on other people becomes more acute as we age. The need for a vital and meaningful connection to another person or persons brings a sense of togetherness and greater psychological ease. For Reverend Foster, the task is not only keeping the community together but making it stronger and more resilient.
“Our work is to be connected. I mean, as human beings, we need each other. We need to be in communication. We need to know we’re cared about. We need to know people are thinking of us. And so that’s really the work, to keep the community together. To be a spiritual community for each other, even though we may not be in-person, and that is not going to stop.
“And so really the call and the order is to allow ourselves to take a step back and take care of ourselves, perhaps get a little bit more rest, perhaps make sure we’re getting good nutrition. But also think, how are we going to reach out to those who may be isolated? How are we going to reach out to those who might be feeling more vulnerable right now and to really seek out those ways of being community for each other.
“That’s really the call and the charge for right now is to be community for each other. And I say look ahead to a time when we come out of this and have the expectation that will be transformed because we will have participated in it in a way that will change us, and it may change the way we look at the world and how we do things differently coming out of it.”