Even if they can’t gather for services, spiritual leaders across Berkshire County are tending to their congregants in the anxious era of the COVID-19 outbreak.
With daily life in Berkshire County in an eerie state of suspension due to the closure of businesses and schools, clergypeople across the region are thinking about how they can best be of service.
“I think it’s just the raw uncertainty of it all that is really the most difficult thing for people to wrap their minds around, and I think what we’re doing more than anything else is to say, yeah, what you’re feeling that’s normal – because this is unprecedented," said Erik Karas the rector and pastor of Christ Trinity Church in Sheffield, Massachusetts. “We don’t know from day to day, sometime hour to hour, what news is going to come and what new restrictions and guidelines we’ll hear. We haven’t, unfortunately, gotten a whole lot of great information that’s consistent, and that adds to some of the anxiety.”
Social distancing is transforming congregational life. Karas says Christ Trinity is moving services online and is utilizing conferencing software to continue programming.
“We’re doing our studies – we have a book study going for the season of Lent – we’ll do that via Zoom now," said Karas. "And then we’re just going to try to make sure that people in the congregation, we check up on each other a couple times a week as we’re distancing ourselves from one another and make sure everyone’s OK.”
Karas cited a quote from Ecclesiastes he’s been turning to.
“There’s a time for everything, and one of the lines in that is, there’s a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing – and this is a time to refrain from embracing," he told WAMC. "And so that sort of gives a little bit of comfort in that there have been other people who have been in this kind of situation and they have found the other side of it eventually as well, so that gives a little hope.”
Monsignor Michael Schershanovich is pastor of the Roman Catholic Church of St. Joseph’s in downtown Pittsfield.
“The one that comes to mind to me is Jesus saying, ‘I am with you always. Even to the kind of time,’" said Schershanovich. "And I keep telling that to people, over and over, and to pray pslam 23, pslam 22, ‘The lord is my shepard.’”
With the pews empty, Schershanovich and his colleagues in the Berkshire Deanery pray as a unit to end the pandemic at 3 p.m. every day. He makes 20 to 30 calls to congregants a day, and also holds a private mass every day at 4 p.m.
“And then every evening I put something on my Facebook, it’s like a little devotional for the liturgy of the next day, the gospel, reading a little prayer for intercession and asking people just to be safe,” he told WAMC.
“I think the big thing everybody’s looking for is some measure of hope," said Dave Anderson, pastor of the First Baptist Church of North Adams. “There’s a lot of unknown. We don’t know where this is all going, we don’t know how long this is going to last, and people tend to struggle when they feel they have no sense of control over anything.”
He says the social distancing has proved a challenge to his community.
“We this past Sunday started streaming our worship live on Facebook Live and I’m going to be doing a Tuesday and Thursday evening meditation on Facebook Live starting 6:30, probably 20 or 30 minutes," said Anderson. "But we just kind of want to be out and about in that manner.”
First Baptist is reaching out to elderly and infirm congregants and setting up weekly check-ins.
“In the book of Philippians, one of the things I’ll be talking about in the coming days is ‘do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and petition," Anderson told WAMC. "With thanksgiving, present your request to God, and the peace of god which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and mind in Christ.’”
Anderson says he’s focusing on peace in his teachings during the crisis.
“Peace is not the absence of turmoil, because we’re all going to have turmoil and trouble throughout our lives," he said. "So peace is not the absence of turmoil, peace is rooting ourselves to Christ in the midst of these challenges.”
In the Jewish community, adversity is nothing new.
“We think about the villain who we learn about in the Torah named Amalek," said Rabbi Liz Hirsch. She is the spiritual leader of Temple Anshe Amunim, a reform congregation in Pittsfield that’s also holding online services.
“One of the reasons why we say that Amalek was such a bad villain in our history is he didn’t attack the Israelites when they were wandering in the desert from the front," explained Hirsch. "He attacked from behind. He attacked the most vulnerable people in our society. And this action that we’re taking to keep everyone separate, to keep people at home even though many of us may be healthy and able to continue with the things that we can do is to protect the most vulnerable in our society.”
Rabbi David Weiner, of Pittsfield’s conservative Knesset Israel congregation, says that along with prayers for healing and teachings about compassion in times of strife, he’s turning to a classic instruction from the Ten Commandments.
“The value of respecting your elders and respecting your parents is so central to Judaism and is such an important thing to teach right now," Weiner told WAMC. "This virus is unusual in that it seems to be striking the elderly more significantly and in more dangerous ways, and the way that younger people – whether it’s our children or whether it’s ourselves – keeping their social distance from each other may protect the elderly.”
His congregation is also going online, using group video chats to chant prayers together despite the social distance.
“Faced with adversity and fear and the unknown, human beings can turn into animals – or we can rise towards our highest ideals of caring and compassion," said Weiner. "Faith and spiritual connection can help with that, and I see my job at this moment to help my people find that place of calm and then aim high.”