Churches adapt as coronavirus makes gatherings impossible

With government orders prohibiting large gatherings, the nation’s religious life has been seriously disrupted, and Sunday mornings are very different for thousands of Dayton-area residents. In response, churches are adapting.

On Sunday morning, St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church’s pews may have been empty. But its parking lot was full — or close to it. The church held a parking lot service Sunday — “worship on wheels,” the church called the one-hour service.

Congregants remained in their cars while Pastor Renard Allen Jr. led a service in the lot off North Gettysburg Avenue. A four-piece band, amplified by a pubic address system, accompanied him. Allen said the idea occurred to him during a visit to the famed “Crystal Cathedral” in Southern California. But Sunday was the first time he and his church enacted such a service.

“This is a wonderful, creative and innovative way”  to host a church service, said Sharri Golson as she sat in her top-down convertible on a sunny but windy morning. “It is so important to keep us connected during this pandemic time.” Golson added: “Maybe we can’t touch one another, but we can feel one another’s presence.” Cheryl Burch drove from Huber Heights to attend the service. “I’m here because of God, and his goodness and his gracefulness to all of us,” she said. “And still I want to worship him.” The church is the “awning of society,” Allen said in an interview before the service. Churches must find a way to keep members connected, he believes.

“The church has been listed, and respected enough by our government leadership, to be considered essential businesses,” Allen said. “I think in light of that, we must justify and re-solidify our status as an essential business within society by meeting the essential needs.”

One of the most essential needs people have at the moment is for “meaning,” Allen said. “While we’re sitting at home every day with an increasing level of uncertainty, we’re trying to find meaning,” he said. The Archdiocese of Cincinnati cancelled all masses through at least Easter, a move affecting half-a-million Catholics across Southern and Western Ohio in the midst of Lent.

“This is a step that I wish we did not feel compelled to take,” Archbishop Dennis Schnurr said when he announced the decision. “I realize it is yet another source of suffering in an already trying time.”

Schnurr said he asked parish priests to “keep the doors of their churches open for some time each day so that we can stop in, offer a prayer to the Lord, and be consoled by his presence among us in a time of trial.”

Rev. Satish Joseph, pastor of Belmont neighborhood Catholic parish Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception and St. Helen in Riverside, live-streams mass daily on the web from a chapel, 9 a.m. Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. Sunday. The videos are saved on parish web sites as well as social media accounts (Facebook and Twitter) so viewers can watch them any time.

The two parishes together make up a total of about 1,800 families. But as Joseph celebrates Mass, there are typically just two people with him — a keyboard player and someone tending to technical matters. It’s different, Joseph acknowledged. But he adds: “The church is never closed. But we are learning to be church, or we are being church, in a different way.”

“People can access the sacraments, especially if they are in danger of death,” Joseph said. “There’s no regular confession, but if somebody wants to make a private appointment, I’m still available. I think most priests are still available.”

“We’ve gone back to how Christianity was originally,” he added. “People are meeting in their homes, and the families are beginning to realize, you know, we’re having mass at home. Maybe this is a church.”

Joseph’s bottom-line message: “Don’t be afraid, but be cautious. God is with us.”