Keeping the spirit: Religious groups adapt to COVID-19 but challenges persist

A modified seating arrangement at B’nai Jehudah in Overland Park, Kansas. The synagogue remains physically closed, but its rabbis and staff are working to gradually reopen the building to small group meetings and, eventually, full services. (CREDIT: Arthur Nemitoff)

By Jake Holland
Medill Reports

Instead of preaching to a live crowd, replete with white-haired parishioners and toddlers wobbling up and down the nave, Pastor Ryan Kapple has found himself facing the empty pews, delivering sermons via livestream to no one in particular.

High-definition cameras track and record Kapple’s every move and turn of phrase, transmitting his services via Facebook Live to the 300 or so members who frequent Leawood Presbyterian Church in suburban Kansas City.

Like nearly every institution in American life, places of worship — churches, synagogues, mosques and the like — have been hit hard by the novel coronavirus and subsequent social distancing measures.

No longer are Christians able to physically gather as one, to sway to sweet hymnals and nod their heads when a verse speaks to them. No longer are Jews able to join together at the synagogue for weekly Shabbat dinners, and no longer are Muslims able to lay side by side in the mosque to pray.

But amidst the uncertainty and lack of physical meetings, religious leaders have turned to online platforms to practice their faith with community members. These measures are hardly a substitute for in-person worship, but they allow people of faith to find support from their community and their religion at a time when so much else remains up in the air.

“Gathering is essential to institutions of faith, and gathering is part of the human experience,” Kapple said. “It’s been a challenge, definitely, adjusting to our new normal.”

Pastor Ryan Kapple giving a sermon. He said while it’s been challenging for congregants to remain physically distant, he’s encouraged by people’s responses to his livestreamed sermons and more informal Facebook Live chats. (Courtesy of Ryan Kapple)

Having to shift online, fast

For the past 12 years, Kapple has served as the pastor of Leawood Presbyterian Church. He revived the nearly shuttered church, the oldest in the city, and brought on a network of families young and old who normally fill the place of worship every Sunday.

When COVID-19 started to sweep the Great Plains, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly and Missouri Gov. Mike Parson shut down non-essential businesses and instituted a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people.

Kapple, like other faith leaders in the two states, complied with the directives, trusting public health measures as a way to slow the spread of the virus. When the order was announced, Kapple stopped in-person Sunday services and shifted them online.

He said he’s been encouraged by parishioners’ positive reactions to online worship, especially among people in their 70s and 80s who may not be as familiar with the technology. Still, though video services have allowed people to stay connected, a hunger remains for in-person worship and community.

“Everyone is eager to come back and re-shift from digital to face-to-face,” Kapple said.

Like Kapple, Arthur Nemitoff, head rabbi at The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah in Overland Park, Kansas, transitioned all his services online, along with classes and Hebrew lessons.

Nemitoff credits the success of this digital transition to existing infrastructure the synagogue had developed while its main building was being renovated last year — a project that required services be livestreamed while construction was underway.

During the months of renovation (the building reopened in November 2019), Nemitoff and the other rabbis learned what worked and what didn’t when it came to broadcasting services via video.

“The building is nice, but it’s just a tool for being able to do what we do best, which is to nurture Jewish meaning, connection and continuity,” Nemitoff said. “That’s what our purpose is, and we’ll use whatever tools we can to do that.”

Just as churches have adapted their practices based on the individual needs of congregants and the rules of their particular sect, so too have synagogues, said Andi Milens, senior director of community engagement at the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City.

While a Reform synagogue like B’nai Jehudah is able to sidestep social distancing ordinances by streaming Friday services online, an Orthodox synagogue — whose adherents typically do not use any technology on Shabbat — is not able to do so.

“Experiences will vary widely among the different types of Judaism, and so will solutions to the pandemic,” Milens said.

A tale of two cities

Kansas City is actually two cities. There is the better known Kansas City, Missouri, with a population just shy of half a million, and there’s Kansas City, Kansas, with a total of about 150,000. Straddling the Kansas-Missouri border, the entire metropolitan area encompasses over 2 million people.

As in other states, faith is a central pillar of many residents’ lives. In Missouri, 70% of adults said they believe in God with absolute certainty, and in Kansas, 66% of adults said the same, according to a 2016 Pew poll.

Protestantism and Catholicism are by far the most common religions in both states, with 76% of Kansans and 77% of Missourians identifying as some form of Christian, according to Pew’s Religious Landscape Study. Those identifying as Jewish or Muslim make up 1% or fewer of the citizens in both states, though there are a number of mosques and synagogues in the Kansas City area.

Milens, the community engagement director, said most of the region’s Jewish people are of the Reform sect, though there is still a sizable Orthodox population. She estimates that anywhere between 15,000 and 18,000 Jews live in the metropolitan area.

While both states share common demographics, however, their responses to the coronavirus pandemic varied. Kansas declared a state of emergency on March 12, and Missouri declared one the day after. Kansas announced a stay-at-home order on March 28 but Missouri did not declare one until about a week later.

While the government of Kansas City, Missouri, issued its own directives, suburbs on both sides of the border issued conflicting information. In the early days of the pandemic, a citizen of Overland Park, Kansas would have faced a different situation from a citizen of Belton, Missouri, despite the two suburban cities bordering one another.

The realities of living in a two-state metro area go beyond differences in government — they also affect religion. The Catholic Church in the United States is composed of archdioceses and dioceses overseen by local leaders.

The Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, for example, gave churches the go-ahead to offer drive-thru confessions — where Catholics can divulge their sins to a priest while remaining socially distant in their cars. The Diocese of Kansas City-Saint Joseph, on the Missouri side of the border, did not greenlight the practice.

Andrew Mattingly, an associate priest at Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, said his Catholic church in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, has moved its confessions into the main section of the church to adhere to social distancing. Before the novel coronavirus arrived, the church had performed this rite in a traditional confessional separated into two parts by a screen.

The new confession uses two temporary screens to separate the priest from the parishioner, and white noise machines are used to accommodate confessors who wish to remain anonymous, Mattingly said.

“We can’t just set up two chairs because every Catholic has the right to anonymous confession,” he said.

A screenshot of Our Lady of Good Counsel’s website. The church reopened its Masses to the public in mid-May, adding an extra service on Sunday mornings and requiring families to sign up in advance to ensure limited attendance that allows social distancing within the building. (Courtesy of Our Lady of Good Counsel)

Communities also hit by lack of physical connection

The act of praying and worship in a communal building aren’t the only aspects of religion being affected by COVID-19, Milens said.

Community socializing rooted in religious organizations is also suffering from social distancing. Informal chats after services or a hug shared in the parking lot have been effectively halted thanks to social distancing. This can be particularly tough on folks who are older or who live alone, Milens said.

Though the rate of infections across the United States has slowed in recent weeks, the feasibility of Jewish summer camps remains up in the air. These camps are important for social and religious growth for many American Jewish children, Milens said.

Other community groups in Kansas City have continued to offer programming, albeit virtually. The Jewish Community Center of Kansas City, for example, hosts workout classes online and book groups are meeting online. And communities, though physically distant, have continued to provide support for the most vulnerable.

Kapple said Leawood Presbyterian operates a weekly food pantry that serves nearby residents regardless of religious affiliation. Armed with donations from the local Trader Joe’s and from community members, volunteers have been handing out more food “than ever” as the virus cuts into the economic lifelines of millions of Americans.

The church also operates a deacons’ fund that has provided monetary support for churchgoers who have been furloughed or lost their jobs, Kapple said.

Mattingly, the Catholic priest, echoed Milens, saying informal connections among parishioners have been strained due to social distancing.

“We’re blessed that on Sundays after our normal Masses, people will hang out for 30 to 45 minutes on the Church steps and just chat and catch up with other people,” he said. “Those connections have been absent, and a lot of people are missing that communal aspect.”

A sign at Leawood Presbyterian. The church’s volunteer-run food pantry has been handing out more food “than ever” as community members lose jobs, take pay cuts or face other forms of economic uncertainty. (Jake Holland/MEDILL)

New methods bring new challenges

Kapple said one major challenge brought about by online prayer has been donations.

The church’s elders decided not to apply for loans or grants through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, meaning Leawood Presbyterian, like many religious institutions, must solicit donations to continue running.

Kapple said most people traditionally donate in-person when the offering basket is passed around during services. Now that things have shifted online, however, Kapple said the church has had to rely entirely on online giving.

He said the congregation is lucky because it has been working for the past decade to shift donations to online systems and not rely entirely on in-person offering baskets. Still, that doesn’t mean things have been easy.

“When people gather, they give,” Kapple said. “We’re just not gathering now, so we’ve been pushing the message through social media to get donations going, to keep the mission going now more than ever.”

Nemitoff, the rabbi, said while most people have reacted positively to the synagogue’s online services, there remains a group that is unable to partake in online prayer, be it for daily minyan or Friday Shabbat services.

He said some older congregants don’t have computers or cell phones and are thus unable to stream services online. The synagogue still sends out physical mail every time there’s an important announcement for these folks who aren’t able to receive email newsletters, Nemitoff said.

And B’nai Jehudah has had to shutter its preschool since it’s not safe to meet in person, Nemitoff said. Teachers there have been doing a weekly “circle time” online to keep the preschoolers occupied, but they just don’t have the attention span that older kids do.

Small group religious instruction has been moved online, as have Hebrew lessons, Nemitoff said. In the year the synagogue was being renovated, these classes, services and other programming transitioned online, something Nemitoff credits as part of the reason why the Temple’s pandemic-induced shift to Zoom went so smoothly.

The interior of B’nai Jehudah pre-pandemic. (Courtesy of Zachary Ruben)

Doing what they can in person

Our Lady of Good Counsel retained what in-person worship it could during the shutdown. (It has since reopened its main services.) While the main Sunday Mass had shifted online and only 10 or fewer parishioners — mainly staff and their immediate family members — were allowed to attend in person, traditions like confession, Eucharistic adoration and small prayer remained ongoing.

The church was open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to noon, and people could filter in individually during that block of time to look upon the Eucharist as they prayed, as well as engage in the modified confession system Our Lady of Good Counsel had adopted. Mattingly estimates that anywhere between 10 to 30 people trickled into the church each day for Eucharistic adoration while weekend services were closed to the public.

In addition to the main Sunday service that was livestreamed, Mattingly hosted a Mass for nine other people afterwards. That small group was able to pray in person, albeit without all of the main staples of a Sunday Mass, like full music and altar servers.

Mattingly considers himself lucky because he was still able to stay physically connected to the church, unlike other parishioners who were unable to attend due to the 10-person limit.

“Whether there’s one person or a thousand, I still get to say Mass every day, and I still get to receive the Eucharist every day,” he said. “So for me I’d definitely say it’s been a bit easier [transitioning].”

Missing important life events

Disruption to daily or weekly services, however, is only one part of the picture. Significant life events such as baptisms, coming-of-age rituals, weddings and funerals have been put on hold or severely modified for the present to adhere to social distancing regulations.

The synagogue had five students scheduled to perform Bar or Bat mitzvahs between March and the end of June, Nemitoff said, but these children’s families have decided to postpone the ceremonies rather than hold them online.

One feature of a Bar or Bat mitzvah is the child’s recitation of a portion of the Torah, and Nemitoff said, even though these children’s dates have been pushed back, they will be allowed to read the portion of the Torah they had practiced for their original date.

Another ceremony held virtually: a brit milah, or male circumcision, and accompanying baby naming. It was performed at the hospital with only the mother, father, baby and physician present, and Nemitoff called in via video, as did family members.

He hopes the synagogue will be able to perform rites like Bar and Bat mitzvah in the second half of the year, but circumstances remain up in the air.

“Nobody knows what’s going to happen,” Nemitoff said.

The hardest aspect for him, however, has been end-of-life events like funerals. No longer is Nemitoff able to sit with mourners to hold their hand and tell them things will be alright, and he instead must offer condolences and counseling virtually.

“There’s been nothing more painful than knowing that there are funerals taking place with no one there,” said Nemitoff, who organized virtual shiva minyans for people to offer their condolences. “As lovely as these are, they’re no substitute for being able to be there in person.”

Kapple, the Presbyterian pastor, said he has only performed one graveside service since the pandemic began, for a man who had died from cancer.

Only 10 people were allowed to attend, per state guidelines, but he said the family was grateful for that — for the ability to grieve in person and to go through the emotions of loss.

“It was comforting for them,” Kapple said. “The committal service was a sense of closure and reminded us that this man’s pain and suffering are over and that they’d be reunited in heaven.”

The exterior of Leawood Presbyterian Church. Kapple said he and church elders have begun to discuss the reopening process, but added that livestreams will continue regardless for those unable to attend in-person prayer services. (Jake Holland/MEDILL)

Silver linings

Despite all of the challenges inherent in a global pandemic — health-related and otherwise — some religious leaders are able to see at least some good come of it.

Nemitoff said that shifting to the online model has been “a boon” for daily prayers called minyans. Before the pandemic, there were days when just a few congregants drove to the synagogue to participate in a prayer group.

These were held in the early evening, and many people did not attend because of work or family reasons, Nemitoff said. Now, there have been days where 10 or even 25 people have come online to join the minyan.

“We’ve been able to provide an important service, a touchstone, for people,” Nemitoff said. “You don’t have to travel to get there — you can go listen as you’re fixing dinner.”

For Passover Seder, Nemitoff and his wife invited people from all over the country to join in over Zoom, something they wouldn’t have thought to do before the pandemic.

Kapple, for his part, said he was overwhelmed with support for the video messages he posted during Holy Week, the seven days preceding Easter. The series — dubbed “Pursuing Perfection: 7 at 7 and 7” — featured messages from Kapple at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. each day.

Like Nemitoff, Kapple considers himself lucky because he had livestreamed some of his services previously, first with a “janky” iPhone-on-tripod setup he engineered and later with a formal video system installed by one of the church’s congregants.

He said churchgoers who were not previously close have begun friending each other on Facebook and spreading words of encouragement to one another. Though the pandemic has scattered congregants physically, they are in some ways closer to themselves — and their faith — than ever before, Kapple said.

For Kapple, an ardent sports fan, the postponement and cancellation of sports events have allowed him time for reflection. Sports, he said, can easily become an idol and distract from the things in life that matter most.

“I think it’s been good to reevaluate our priorities,” during the pandemic, Kapple said.

A screenshot of the synagogue’s website. Nemitoff said the staff has worked hard to translate in-person experiences into meaningful online connection. (CREDIT: B’nai Jehudah)

The path forward

Though religious leaders have leaned on technology to continue the practice of their faith and maintain the connection of their communities, they said tools like Facebook Live and Zoom are by no means ideal.

Nemitoff said the nature of praying is community, of coming together physically as one. He said while he would love to see everyone back in the synagogue, the continued threat of the novel coronavirus means it will be some time before things go back to normal.

Much like society as a whole — including businesses, restaurants and parks — have reopened in phases, he anticipates B’nai Jehudah will do the same.

“I’m pretty confident it will be a mix of virtual and live daily prayer,” Nemitoff said.

Even once social distancing is eased and congregants are once again able to pray in person at B’nai Jehudah, Nemitoff said the synagogue will continue streaming its daily minyans because many people are unable to meet in person at 5:45 on a weeknight.

“I think that the nature of a praying community is not so much the praying, it’s the community,” Nemitoff said. “And when you’re not in person, you lose a large piece of the community.”

The synagogue plans for one-on-one and small groups being able to meet with physical distancing by June 15, assuming benchmarks set by the county are met. For now, the synagogue will remain closed to more regular activity like in-person services until at least July 6, with a re-assessment near the end of June to see if that target date is indeed possible.

Mattingly, the Catholic priest, said Our Lady of Good Counsel reopened in mid-May. To continue honoring the six-foot rule, the church is requiring non-family members to space themselves out within the building.

The church has added an extra Sunday morning Mass to ensure everyone who wants to attend safely can, and parishioners are now assigned to one of the Mass times to reduce overcrowding and accommodate this spaced out setting.

For Kapple, the biggest concern going forward is making sure everyone feels comfortable. He and church elders have begun to discuss the process of reopening their building, but he said services would continue to be livestreamed for those unable or unwilling to attend in person.

“I’ve been saying this phrase to remind everybody that we’re all on the same page: ‘Whether you’re off site or online, we’re all on mission,’” Kapple said. “We believe God is present in all of our lives, whether we’re in the church building or not.”

Photo at top: A modified seating arrangement at B’nai Jehudah in Overland Park, Kansas. The synagogue remains physically closed, but its rabbis and staff are working to gradually reopen the building to small group meetings and, eventually, full services. (Courtesy of Arthur Nemitoff)