From outdoor worship to text messages, congregations find pandemic-friendly ways to connect
Written by Elise Goldstein
Dozens of people gathered under a group of old maple trees at the tip of Door County’s peninsula every Sunday morning during the months of April through October. The people spread out on the lawn beside the white building, spreading their blankets and lawn chairs out on the grass at a safe distance from their fellow congregants at Bethel Baptist Church.
“There’s a lot of people that are third, fourth, fifth generation that have lived up here and worked up here, which is kind of an unusual thing because it’s such a transient area of people coming and going,” says Joel Rose, the church’s pastor.
The tight-knit setting in Door County allows congregations there to work in cooperation with one another to serve their communities. When the local fire department asked Rose and a local Moravian church pastor to organize a way to help those who might be lonely or more susceptible to the coronavirus, the pair set up a phone call system among churches in the area to offer a friendly and helpful voice to their most vulnerable neighbors.
Churches and synagogues across Wisconsin have established unique ways to foster a sense of community since the outbreak of COVID-19 has limited people’s access to houses of worship as a quarter of adults report their faith has become stronger, according to a Pew Research Center study.
Religion has a material side, a physical side and an essential side, says Ulrich Rosenhagen, the director of the Center for Religion and Global Citizenry at UW–Madison and an ordained Lutheran pastor. This means that materially, communities might celebrate religion with singing, liturgy and prayer. Physically, religions have a meeting place and religions have an essential aspect of their faith, such as weekly Shabbat for the Jewish community.
“So now the question is, what is there now instead of that regular experience of before?” Rosenhagen asks.
“You can’t go and celebrate in a religious community and put yourself at risk or put other people at risk,” Rosenhagen says. “You just can’t. Putting someone else at risk would be totally unethical.”
Now that it’s too cold to be outside, Bethel Baptist Church has moved services inside to its gymnasium and main sanctuary, while still following all protocols and precautions at 25% capacity. While other religious organizations might wish to consistently serve their communities in person each week, it’s not possible under current COVID-19 conditions based on their locations and environment.
Faith beyond walls
There are approximately 100 students involved with Chi Alpha, a Christian organization at UW–Madison. The group strives to live by the motto “everyday, everywhere, always,” meaning that they live for Jesus wherever they are.
“I do believe that the church of Jesus Christ is not bounded by walls,” says Chi Alpha student leader Gaven Foster. “It’s more of a lifestyle and how you live, and the building is just a place where we meet.”
The members can now join “connect groups” on Zoom, with more than 15 gatherings based on students’ hobbies or interests created with the goal of building community with others. The groups — ranging from movie appreciation to cooking and baking to the great outdoors — are able to sustain feelings of community beyond watching a sermon each week.
“We actually do things together,” Foster says.
High Holy Days during COVID-19
This year’s Rosh Hashana was the largest Jewish event ever on the UW–Madison campus for the Rohr Chabad house. In previous years, High Holy Day events at Chabad hovered around 500 students. In September, 718 students broke into pods of four to five people to pick up homemade kosher to-go meals from Rabbi Mendel Matusof and his wife, Henya. Matusof distributed 230 pounds of brisket, 190 pounds of challah, 110 pounds of honey and 85 kugels along with honey cake, rice and vegetables. Students also picked up candles, High Holy Day guides and cards for reflection. Before the dinner, the pods joined together on Zoom to feel the energy of their religious community on campus and to ring in the Jewish New Year.
Chabad uses a new text message system for students to reserve and pick up Shabbat and holiday meals. It’s also used to RSVP to attend a Shabbat dinner, which has a maximum capacity of 25 people with four shift options, and once the shift is full, the texting system automatically closes.
Of course, like many things in the pandemic, countless plans have also fallen through for religious groups. In May, Matusof planned to lead his largest Birthright Israel trip yet, with 162 students signed up to tour the country for 10 days. Looking forward, Matusof is planning one step at a time to stay aligned with campus protocols in hopes of making the trip next year.
Matusof feels that it’s his duty to uphold feelings of unity and togetherness for Jewish students on campus. “If I can do it in a safe way, in a legal way, based on the guidelines, then I think it’s my responsibility to do it,” he says.
Off campus, similar sentiments resonate with the Chabad of Madison. There, Matusof’s brother, Rabbi Avremel Matusof, helps with weekly food distributions for families with children. The effort, which started during the pandemic, supplies a week’s worth of food for anyone who signs up. Chabad in Chicago does the bulk of the packing and then sends it to Milwaukee Chabad, where Avremel picks it up and hauls it back to Madison each Thursday for deliveries.
This year, Chabad of Madison also created 60 “High Holiday Toolboxes,” which were geared towards children to help them experience the holidays with different crafts, challah, sweet treats and shortened prayers to do at home.
“As in any time of uncertainty and a heightened level of stress and worry, it’s crucial for us to sort of be the anchor in everyone’s lives,” Avremel says.
Spreading love through care packages
When the coronavirus crisis hit, 1,000 students in the Witte and Sellery dorms at UW–Madison received snack packages and letters from Blackhawk Church, which has a college-aged ministry to reach youth between the ages of 18 and 25. Students quarantined in hotels and student athletes at Edgewood College were also given the care packages.
“In order to love like Jesus does, and to love the city, we’ve been doing things online,” says Michael Knapstad, pastor of college aged and young adult ministry at the church.
Each week the Evangelical church records a story with worship songs and a brief message and encourages people to get together with their friends or family in their coronavirus isolation circles to watch together on its YouTube channel. Knapstad also includes tools that can help the ministry during this time by sharing different spiritual practices. One week was centered around anxiety, which included the clinical definition and also tied to an ancient practice called “breath prayer.”
Each week, the general Blackhawk community can tune into the Next Steps Podcast on multiple platforms, produced by Blackhawk Church, where they can further explore the message from that week’s sermon and apply it to their lives.
Knapstad says a significant number of people who don’t usually go to church actually feel more comfortable tuning into Blackhawk’s current online events.
“It’s really cool that a lot of people have placed their faith in Jesus, but also a lot haven’t and they’re just like, ‘There’s something here we feel, but we still feel comfortable to watch from our home,’” Knapstad says.
Left and upper right: Small sauce cups are filled for the Shabbat to-go meals at the Rohr Chabad House near UW–Madison. Lower right: A nearly complete to-go meal for Shabbat cools on the counter at the Rohr Chabad House near UW–Madison. Photos by Brian Huynh