The coronavirus pandemic will have many faithful in the Capital Region worshiping from home this month. Adhering to social distancing guidelines limiting gatherings of more than 10 people, many churches, synagogues, and mosques have shuttered their doors ahead of their biggest religious holidays.
"Blessed are those called to the supper of the lamb," declares Fr. Scott Vanderveer. Holding out a chalice and a piece of alter bread, he leads the room in communion. "Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof. But only say the word and my soul shall be healed."
Before COVID-19, this Palm Sunday service at The Church of Saint Patrick in Ravena, New York would have packed the pews. Instead, Fr. Scott Vanderveer kicked off the start of the Christian Holy Week with about four people in the room, and over 1,900 views on YouTube. Spokesperson Mary DeTurris Poust says all of the Albany Diocese’s parishes received instructions on how to livestream their services after the Diocese decided to shut down public Masses starting March 16.
“Only one priest celebrating the mass, [a] camera or phone operator if they need someone to record, they’re allowed to have maybe a cantor for some music...and social distance at all times," she notes.
DeTurris Poust says Bishop Edward Scharfenberger will stream his Holy Week services leading up to Easter Sunday - Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil on Saturday - from the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany. Aside from changing Sunday Mass, Fr. Vanderveer, who also leads St. Mary’s Church in Coxsackie, says his parishes have been forced into full-on mission-mode, with staffers rethinking their positions to better address their community’s needs.
“So one of the people who handles education became what we’re calling, for shorthand, ‘FEMA,'" says Vanderveer. "He’s the coordinator of several things, like a kind of a cottage industry that’s making medical masks for anybody who’s an essential employee.”
Vanderveer says both parishes are open during the day, and anyone wishing to pick up or donate a (new) homemade mask - as well as other hard-to-find essentials, like toilet paper and hand sanitizer - can do so in the sanctuaries’ back pews. Vanderveer says his parishes have actually seen an increase in involvement amid the pandemic, with 65 members participating in Zoom prayer groups - but with the pews empty for perhaps the biggest donation time of the year, he expects the churches to face a budget shortfall.
“We are receiving a lot of donations in the mail, but what’s more important is to have people give electronically to us, because it’s what allows us to be able to budget and know we’re going to be able to make it through," explains Vanderveer.
Haroon Sarwer, President of Masjid As-Salam on Albany’s Central Avenue, says his mosque is preparing to ask for online donations as well. He says the four major mosques in the Capital Region (Masjid As-Salam, the Islamic Center in Schenectady, Masjid Al-Hidaya in Latham, and Masjid Al-Arqam in Waterford) collectively closed to the public early on in the pandemic. Sarwer admits the decision may have shocked worshippers, but given the mosque’s almost 1,000-strong crowds for Friday services and heavy foot traffic the rest of the week, it was necessary.
“The mosques are open every single day of the week for seven days, and people come for five daily prayers from bright early morning until late in the night, so we have a flux of people coming in throughout the day," says Sarwer. "Everything has to stop, because the Islamic principle is if you save one life, it is equivalent to as if you saved the whole humanity.”
Sarwer says the mosque moved weekend educational programs for children online, and also set up a phone line of volunteers willing to bring groceries to seniors. He lists limiting attendance at funerals as one of the mosque’s greatest challenges (for the time being, Masjid As-Salam is only conducting small cemetery services for 10 people or less), as well as the holy month of Ramadan set to start April 24th. Sarwer says the mosque’s nightly dinners, which sometimes draw about 400 people, will likely not happen.
“Again, we’re collaborating with the other mosques in the area and preparing videos and all that to bring a comfort to people’s hearts, saying that ‘We understand how important this is to you, but these are challenging times’...Your safety is more important," notes Sarwer.
While Ramadan is on its way, Passover is here, beginning at sundown. Rabbi Dan Ornstein of Congregation Ohav Shalom on Albany’s New Krumkill Road says Co-Rabbi Rena Kieval will host a second-night Seder dinner on Zoom.
“Well, I mean we can’t eat together literally. But what we can do together is sing, discuss the Passover story - which, of course, is a critical part of the ritual, it’s about sort of extending and expanding upon the story and talking about the meaning of the story in our own lives today in the world," explains Ornstein. "And so all of that can be done on Zoom.”
Ornstein says the synagogue moved all operations and programs online - and like Vanderveer, he says the pandemic has actually driven people to get more involved, albeit remotely. As the pandemic nears its peak in New York, Ornstein urges those particularly stressed to remember Psalm 23.
“‘Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me,’ speaking to God, of course," says Ornstein. "And even if you don’t believe in God, or you’re an agnostic...it doesn’t mean that there aren’t others around you in community and your own strength in your own family, walking through that valley every day with each of us.”
The Albany Hindu Temple on Albany Shaker Road is also closed to visitors, and is livestreaming its morning and evening prayers on Facebook.