The COVID-19 pandemic has posed an unprecedented challenge for religious leaders, forcing most services to go remote and fragmenting once tight-knit communities. The logistics may have been a challenge, but their faith is stronger than ever.
St. Kateri’s Catholic Church
Father Bob Longobucco of St. Kateri’s Catholic Church in Niskayuna is greeting people outside in 20 degree weather, who pull up in their cars, run in to receive the body of Christ, and hurriedly put their masks back on as they run away.
It’s a drive-by sacrament if I ever saw one.
“These people are a little hesitant about being inside,” Longobucco said, “Which is understandable and I
would never judge anybody about that.”
Earlier that night, Father Longobucco held an in-person Mass as well – with reserved and distanced assigned seating, hand sanitizing stations in all the aisles, and a drained-dry holy water fountain.
Longobucco says the changes are worth it to be able to see his parish in person.
“When you’re a priest, this is your family that’s gone away from you and that’s really hard. And some of them are still away,” Longobucco said. “And I want everyone to feel the most comfortable as possible, and we try to make accommodations that’s why we have a livestream Mass, but I just miss them so much. There’s just something that’s kind of missing in my life.”
Amy Mengel is a member of the pastoral council at St. Kateri’s. She has two children: her 8-year-old daughter Harriet and 6-year-old son Felix. She says they used to attend Sunday School every weekend but had to switch to online learning. Vacation bible school over the summer was canceled, as was the church’s children’s choir her daughter is in.
“My daughter was supposed to make her first communion on Mother’s Day weekend,” Mengel said, “And we ended up having to delay it but she was able to do it in October with a mask with far fewer people in the church but we were so glad that she was able to receive that sacrament.”
Mengel pulled 6-year-old Felix off a Zoom learning session to speak with us.
Felix tells me that he’s been doing Sunday school on the computer and that his many stuffed animals normally attend too. He adds that his parents have gotten creative during the pandemic.
“At Easter we painted our window and we painted it exactly like the windows at church,” Felix said. “Except, the windows at church – the paint doesn’t come off.”
We circle back to Spots the giraffe and Lucky the uni-panda before landing on what Felix is most looking forward to after the pandemic. It’s not Mass.
“Fly in an airplane. I’ve never done that before,” Felix said.
I ask him where he wants to go.
“Canada, Africa, the Savannah, Antarctica,” Felix said. “I especially want to see a thorny devil and a serval.”
While those of us like Felix are already dreaming about reopening, Father Longobucco is still trying to get his flock through the here and now.
He says COVID-19’s cruelest trick is how hard it is to comfort those in need.
“We’ve lost some great parishioners who’ve died over this during this time and it’s sad that they can’t
mourn in the normal way,” Longobucco said. “But even for me personally, it just, seeing the widow of 60 years and not being able to embrace them... That’s the hardest thing I’ve had to do.”
Congregation Beth Emeth
Rabbi Scott Shpeen, Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Emeth in Albany, says his synagogue has been closed to the public for months, but they’ve probably had an easier transition than most.
“All of our worship services are being done virtually through livestream,” Shpeen said. “Fortunately, our congregation has been used to that because we’ve offered livestreaming services for many, many years.”
Shpeen says the lack of in-person services might be hardest on the younger members of the synagogue, as most of them already have “Zoom exhaustion” from remote learning. Shpeen says he worries about the kids losing part of their Jewish culture.
“Coming to temple every week is the way they get to socialize with other Jewish kids that they might not be able to have that community in their own school districts,” Shpeen said.
Paul Lurie is an 8th grader at Bethlehem Middle School and a member of Beth Emeth.
“I definitely feel like online you don’t learn as much. But in school, I feel more focused and get more stuff done,” Lurie said.
Lurie says he was able to have his Bar Mitzvah just before the pandemic and made great memories, but his
friends aren’t so lucky.
“You just got to be there with my cantor and my rabbi and they were both amazing,” Lurie said. “It was super fun. I got to see a bunch of my relatives there. Then the party was just amazing with good food, great dancing, a really cool DJ. I got to see all my friends. Now looking back at other people’s I feel so bad. Now looking back, I really appreciate having a Bar Mitzvah and not taking it for granted.”
Shpeen says the temple has hosted “drive-bys” where people can simply drive through the parking lot and wave at each other, shouting from car windows.
“We did a drive-by for Hanukah that was well, well attended by hundreds of members of the congregation just to be able to sit in the parking lot and roll down your windows and feel like you’re part of the community again,” Shpeen said.
Shpeen says the hardest part of the pandemic has been funeral services.
“Weddings can always be postponed. A Bar/Bat Mitzvah can always be postponed or done by Zoom in such a way – there’s options. But when you have a death in your family, that can’t be postponed,” Shpeen said. “And I think that’s been the most heartbreaking because the limitations of the pandemic have really hit them hardest with those families – especially when they’re not able to visit or be with their loved ones in a nursing home or assisted living or a long term care facility or in the hospital at the time of their death.”
Al-Fatemah Islamic Center
Imdad Imam is the President of the Al-Fatemah Islamic Center in Colonie. He says funerals have been challenging for them as well – saying about half a dozen members have died during the pandemic.
He says normally the funeral ritual involves washing the body, wrapping it in fresh cloth, and bringing it to the mosque for prayers. But now, an abbreviated version of that takes place with distancing outside – in the parking lot.
“Because we have to follow that social distancing 6 feet apart,” Imdad said. “Then we take the body to graveyard, cemetery, and we bury there and also we don’t invite everyone in the community. We only invite the closest people to the family because we are trying to restrict the number of people who come for the prayer.”
There are about 500 members of the Al-Fatemah Islamic Center, and Imdad Imam says they come from Afghanistan, Iraq, India, Pakistan, Africa – all across the Middle East and Europe. Services are in English and Urdu, and sometimes Farsi – and Imdad Imam says they used to offer services about three times a week plus community dinners. Imdad Imam says all of that is remote now.
Ramadan is coming in April, and they will likely still be remote, which he says is a big change for people used to kneeling next to each other in prayer.
Imdad Imam says in the early days of the pandemic, they tried to keep in-person services going.
“We put markers all over the mosque six feet apart and arranged for all the safety things and social distancing and reduced the number of events quite a bit,” Imdad said. “Then we went to 25 men and 25 women – not 400 or 300. Only 50 at the most.”
He says as COVID spread in the Capital Region worsened, they went fully virtual, and have been for months now. Imdad Imam says the hardest part of the pandemic is that members of the Islamic Center simply miss each other – they used to have social events about 80 days of the year.
“We used to have dinner. Every event we used to have dinner. 200 people, 300 people who get together and have dinner together. We don’t do that in this time,” Imdad said. “So I would say we are missing the socialization part of our activity.”
St. John’s Church of God in Christ
Reverend McKinley Johnson is President of the Albany African American Clergy and pastor of St. John’s Church of God in Christ, in Albany’s South End. He has been a reverend since 1958.
“I’ll tell you I’m 38 backwards,” Johnson jokes.
Johnson has served the entire time in Albany and says he’s never seen anything like the pandemic. Johnson says the pandemic has hit the Black community hardest: without the same access to technology as other demographics, it’s hurting their ability to unite.
“We have to be more closely tied and we are finding ways -- but not enough,” Johnson said. “So it’s been a trying time, a hard time, but it’s also been a learning experience.”
Johnson says there are about 100 people in his congregation but those numbers have dipped during the pandemic. He says it’s been hard to connect with people. They’ve become more active on Facebook, where they advertise their weekly Zoom bible study and service.
“Zooms and telephone conference calls. We have prayer every morning at 6 and then prayer at night at 6:30 so that we can keep people together, connected, and unified and still provide inspiration, education and information to our members as we go,” Johnson said.
Johnson says they haven’t held an in-person service for months and isn’t sure when they can safely resume.
Johnson says if the pandemic has taught the community one thing:
“There’s nothing too hard for God,” Johnson said. “And also it teaches us we have to be conscientious of our neighbor. When we say ‘neighbor’ the bible means ‘people.’”
Johnson says people should reach out to each other right now, even if just over the phone. And everyone needs to be more mindful of those who are struggling to put food on the table or safely isolate.
“Especially in the Black community, there’s a lot of people that are dying. Much more percentage-wise than even in our area,” Johnson said. “The grieving part has been extensive and very challenging because you couldn’t go to the hospital to be with loved ones.”
Johnson says God is teaching a lesson, even if we can’t see it yet.
“We know that God knows everything and, of course, he’s allowing this. And it’s a purpose that we do not know completely,” Johnson said. “Because, some things is for our experience, to teach us humility and teach us to be mindful of others and teach us that no matter what happens, God always provides for us and looks after us.”
One thing all of the religious leaders I met agree upon: a whole lot of uncertainty.
The holy month of Ramadan is just around the corner. Imdad Imam says one of his favorite traditions is that FBI agents usually come to dine with them. He’s not sure if that can happen this year.
“In the month of the holy month of fasting, Ramadan, we meet there every day. 30 days in a row,” Imdad Imam said.
He’s not sure how they will do the sacred month justice.
Rabbi Shpeen says without knowing when the population will be fully vaccinated, or what the new normal will look like, he’s just trying to keep his community together.
“The one thing upon which we all lean when we go through challenging times in our lives is our faith community, and that which brings us together to provide support and assistance and care and comfort for those around us -- and here we’re robbed of that because we cannot meet in person, we can’t be together,” Shpeen said. “Hopefully, in a short time we’ll all have been able to be vaccinated and we can start to pick up our lives in whatever the new normal will be.”
Reverend Johnson is hoping for the same.
“Hopefully this will be where we can start moving, in April, at least in a much different light. Maybe not every Sunday, but at least getting on some kind of even keel,” Johnson said. “I’m hoping the vaccinations will make a lot of difference.”
But Johnson also says the mistrust of the vaccine in the Black community runs deep, which he’s working to change.
“It’s been hard to trust society when it comes to people of color because most things were fitted, designed, policy setup for other than people of color and we’re very conscientious of that,” Johnson said. “So, some people are being negatively affected for not taking it but hopefully they come around.”
Father Longobucco says he will continue to do what it takes to keep his congregation safe – even if that means waiting in the cold to give people communion in a gym.
“Now everybody’s kind of gotten into more of a routine, and this is what they expect, and they’re OK with that,” Longobucco said. “And they realize, well we still figured out a way to do this… and share this gift.”