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'Social distancing' a challenge for religious services

A congregation, by definition, is a group of people who come together. In a time of mandated "social distancing" to slow the spread of contagion, religious congregations are grappling with how to keep people apart and yet still connected to the spiritual support of their faith community.

Local houses of worship have been making and re-making plans for modified weekend services or canceling them immediately. Services that were still on as of Thursday were canceled on Friday, as clergy and congregational leaders reacted to the latest news and advice about COVID-19, the coronavirus spreading quickly in the United States.

Religious groups must contend with the inherent contact that comes with collection plates, greetings of peace and, for many Christian churches, communion services.

As of Friday, some were trying for one more Sunday in church before re-evaluating — for how long, no one knows — what adjustments to make next. Spring is a busy time for religion. Christians are observing Lent and will celebrate Easter on April 12; Jews anticipate Passover and its communal seders in a month. Ramadan, Islam's holy month of fasting and charity, begins April 23.

Believers look at the problem through the lens of their faith.

At  the Church of the City in New London, Pastor Antonio Vargas said Friday that as a majority Latino congregation, "this is not only a health problem. It's a culture shock." Members of the church are used to hugs and emotional greetings, and then going out to lunch together after service.

The challenge he said, is "to keep on building community" while making adjustments. One way will be technology: live-streaming services from the church to worshippers at home.

"The Church more than ever is called to be together in this season," Vargas said. But it may not have to be in church. "Fellowship in history is not necessarily in sacred places. You meet in a home or somewhere, and God comes in, and you transform those spaces into sacred spaces."

Mosque leaders statewide took a similar stance, recommending that Muslims pray at home on Friday, the day of the week traditionally devoted to communal prayers in the mosque. Two regional synagogues, Congregation Beth El and Temple Emanu-El, have canceled Shabbat services for as long as necessary and Temple Emanu-El will not hold its communal seder April 8, citing "the anticipated size of the gathering, inherent risk in serving food to a large crowd, and the impossibility of social distancing in such a setting," according to a statement sent to synagogue members. It encourages congregants to observe the holiday in small groups.

All the religious groups say they want to follow the law of the land and the advice of public health officials, but as the Rev. Carolyn Patierno of All Souls Unitarian Universalist in New London noted, isolation is a health problem, too.

All Souls is one of many congregations making the change this week from modified contact and hand-washing to a cancelation of all services. Another is the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, which re-evaluated its just-made plans late in the week. Both have made extensive plans for keeping in touch with members, to avoid leaving anyone without social contact or resources they may be unable to get on their own.

As of Friday afternoon, Catholic churches in the region were waiting for counsel from the Diocese of Norwich as to modifications or cancelations this weekend and going forward. A spokesman for the diocese said that until Friday, decisions were being left in the hands of individual parishes, but that the diocese might be preparing additional directives. On the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the president, Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angelese, offered a prayer.

Late Friday, the diocese announced on its website that while all of its schools would be closed for at least two weeks, there were no plans to cancel public Mass. However, those "who are ill or experiencing symptoms of illness are dispensed from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass." It said pastors are to reassure those who are ill of this dispensation and encourage them stay home "so as not to expose others." 

Additionally, the diocese has commuted the obligation to attend Sunday Mass for people considered vulnerable — those who are over age 60 or have chronic illnesses, immune system deficiencies or underlying health conditions — and those who care for them, as well as their children. That means that, instead of attending Mass, they can follow directives listed on the diocese's website at bit.ly/NDCVpd.

Pastors say that most of their congregations have been supportive of unfamiliar arrangements, although the elderly who form a significant percentage of members may not use social media or livestreaming devices. Plans are being made in some congregations to match them up with deacons or volunteers to check on them. For many churches, that is nothing new. The pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in Niantic said no major changes are underway, at least for now.

"God still has everything under control," said the Rev. Paul Scheyder. "This is our daily walk." 

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