Pandemic hampers houses of worship as faithful stay home

Pandemic hampers houses of worship as faithful stay home

Houses of worship across the U.S. are increasingly worried about declining attendance and revenue as the coronavirus pandemic spreads in what is one of the busiest religious weeks of the year.

The majority of religious organizations in the country have gone completely virtual, connecting with their followers over video platforms like Zoom and Skype. 

However, leaders say the digital spiritual meetings lack the hallmarks of the face-to-face experience, which could discourage financial contributions. 

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“Just like smaller businesses, [small churches] are particularly vulnerable to an experience like this,” the Right Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese in Washington, D.C., told The Hill. 

The pandemic comes as Christians take part in Holy Week and ahead of the Jewish holiday of Passover. Muslims are also in the process of preparing for Ramadan, which begins on the evening of April 23. 

The high-profile holidays typically mark a period of increased attendance and engagement in houses of worship, which often leads to a boon in revenue. 

“Muslims generally give most of their donations during Ramadan because we believe that giving charity in Ramadan, you have that the blessings for giving charity are multiplied,” said Ibrahim Hooper, the national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. 

“That’s going to be an issue for everyone,” Hooper added. 

The economy is also likely to take a toll on many worshipers as unemployment skyrockets and salaries are cut. 

Financial giving often fuels the operations of a house of worship, including for facility upkeep, gatherings and community outreach.

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More than 50 percent of pastors said financial giving was “significantly down,” while four out of five said it was lower, according to a poll conducted by the evangelical polling firm Barna Group. 

“Like a business, the parish has to take a look at what the priorities are,” said Father Dominique Peridans, rector at the Church of Ascension and Saint Agnes, an Episcopal church in Washington, D.C. “When you have to tighten the purse strings, you have to decide what is more important to pay. What becomes second, third tier? What do we put on hold? We’re having to do that.” 

Roughly 80 to 100 people typically fill the pews at Ascension and Saint Agnes on an average Sunday, which helps pay off the church’s monthly operation cost of $62,000.

The impact from the coronavirus has also threatened the financial well-being of Jewish Community Centers (JCC), which serve as a focal point for many Jewish communities. 

“The longer the period of closure, the more JCCs are going to be furloughing or laying off the large majority of their staff and trying to maintain a skeleton crew that basically will keep the operation going for reopening when we finally get to the other side,” said Doron Krakow, the CEO of the JCC Association of North America. 

Still, Krakow said that individual synagogues may likely be insulated from the immediate financial impact of the crisis.

JCCs, along with individual synagogues, churches and mosques, qualify for loans from the Small Business Administration. 

And while the loans may not be enough to help the organizations, a number of faith communities are reporting glimmers of hope amid the trying period.

“We are learning, however, that while we are physically apart, we can still be spiritually connected,” said Rabbi Jeremy Wiederhorn of The Conservative Synagogue in Westport, Conn. “More people have participated in our online services and programs than ever before, which has certainly been a silver lining.” 

Jewish communities, who are normally in close contact over the Passover holidays, have had to adjust their plans, in many cases foregoing an in-person Passover Seder in favor of a virtual gathering. 

Rabbi Robert Tobin, of B’nai Shalom in West Orange, N.J., plans to post a YouTube tutorial for members looking to learn how to hold their own Seder. 

All services at the synagogue, including the Shabbat and those surrounding Passover, have been moved to Zoom. 

“We are supporting each other and are stronger as a result,” Tobin said. 

For Muslims, the five daily prayers, also known as Salat, can be done at home. The Islamic Society of New Hampshire (ISNH), located in Manchester, N.H., has worked to mitigate the absence of an in-person congregation through weekly online sessions with local Islamic scholars. 

“They’re able to share some religious benefit, some reminder, speaking about religious texts, tying it back to the current time and the pandemic we’re under,” Sheraz Rashid, the secretary of ISNH’s board of trustees, told The Hill.

“And people absolutely love it,” he said. “In fact, in someways people anticipate it.” 

“If we have any sort of technical problems, someone will be like ‘No, I need to hear them. I need to see someone'. It’s that kind of thing. It’s become a necessity in this situation,” Rashid added. 

Additionally, the ISNH created a fundraising committee as apart of the mosque’s COVID-19 crisis management team. 

“Our community definitely delivered for the past month,” Rashid said. "We were able to cover rent by using a crowdsourcing campaign.” 

In the Christian community, smaller parishes are also moving to a more virtual space. 

“We’re moving online more than we ever would have otherwise,” Peridans, of Ascension and Saint Agnes, said. “Some of that will remain, I think, because people will become more versed than that. And it is a way for our spiritual life to be fed sort of in between.” 

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“But nothing can replace actually getting together,” he added. 

Edgar Budde presided over Palm Sunday Mass in an unusually empty National Cathedral last week.

The Washington landmark would be packed on any other Palm Sunday, which marks the start of Holy Week in the Christian season of Lent. Instead, Edgar Budde presided along eight other on-camera participants, including a sign language interpreter, all socially distanced. 

However, the cathedral’s virtual space was packed, drawing more than 70,000 views as of Tuesday morning. 

“We’re about to enter Holy Week, which corresponds to Passover in Judaism, and these are stories of trial and passion and struggle,” Edgar Budde said. “We read them and we experience them in profoundly different ways when, when it speaks to our immediate life context.

“These are the times that spiritual traditions are for."