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COVID-19 forces changes to upcoming religious celebrations

Sometimes even the houses of God must be shuttered, even on holy days.

Gov. Ralph Northam’s stay-at-home order prohibits gatherings of more than 10 people in any setting, an order that has forced most religious organizations to suspend in-person services, classes and other activities.

The governor’s order is effect until June 10. That’s problematic for many religious people hoping to celebrate upcoming holidays: Easter falls on April 12, Passover runs from April 8 to April 16 and Ramadan begins April 23 and continues to May 23.

“The definition of a church in the New Testament is a gathering of people interested in following Christ,” said the Rev. Rob Pochek, of First Baptist Church Park Street, in Charlottesville. “When you can’t get together, it isn’t the same. We’ve made a lot of adjustments and continued to livestream our services. It’s a challenge.”

Most local churches, temples and masjids beat the governor’s final order, closing down their person-to-person fellowship and moving services online shortly after Northam’s March 12 declaration of emergency regarding the spread of the coronavirus.

“The mitzvah of Pikuach Nefesh, ‘saving a life,’ is a paramount Jewish value, which in our tradition overrides all other commandments,” leaders of Congregation Beth Israel wrote on the congregation’s website. “At this moment, it is clear that one of the most important acts that can be taken in order to ‘flatten the curve’ and slow the spread of the coronavirus is social distancing.”

“We recognize the importance of contributing to the community-wide measures in preventing the spread of the virus,” leaders of the Islamic Society of Central Virginia said on their website. “We need your help in accomplishing this by taking all precautions.”

“We do not know how long these policies and restrictions will be in effect, and they will change in response to the evolving public health situation,” leadership of the Church of the Incarnation, an Albemarle County Catholic church wrote on their site.

Most local churches have moved their services online. Holy Comforter Catholic Church in Charlottesville joined Church of the Incarnation in putting regular Mass celebrations online for parishioners. Some Protestant churches are livestreaming or recording services and placing them online.

Not all the faithful have internet access, however. Pochek said that led his church to set up contact lists of congregants on whom clergy calls.

“We’re working hard to contact all of our folk, to see if they need anything, talk to them about what’s going on, ease their fears and give them facts. There’s a lot of wrong information out there about COVID-19,” Pochek said.

Covenant Church in Charlottesville has been holding drive-in services, where congregants park their cars in a lot and listen to music and a sermon.

Senior Pastor Harold Bare Sr. said the church has held services every Sunday for the past 38 years and didn’t think about closing its doors — they just had to figure out how to adjust to meet health department requirements by asking people to spread out and by serving communion in self-serve cups.

“It’s novelty, partly, but it’s also the feeling of being connected to something,” Bare said. “We believe the church is pivotal in reminding people there is a God in heaven and reminding them that we still need people.”

Bare said the church plans to continue the drive-in option for Palm Sunday and Easter services. He noted plans are always subject to change, but that he was confident the church would find a way to meet people’s needs.

“It’s a whole lot more than can we drive up and use some speakers in the parking lot,” he said. “We have to make sure we’re connecting to the human spirit and giving people hope that we can get through this.”

No matter the arrangement, for Christian congregations, traditional services during Holy Week and for Easter Sunday are going to be untraditional.

“It won’t be the same, but sometimes you have to sit back and look at what you can do that’s different, things you couldn’t do otherwise,” Pochek said. “We thought about that and decided that since we’ve been livestreaming our services from the church, we’d do something a bit different on Easter.”

Pochek said the church reached out to the Lydia Mountain Lodge in Greene County and will set up its livestream on Easter morning from the cool, scenic woods.

“It’s going to be different than anything we’ve done and it will give it a different feel, which is what you want on Easter,” he said. “It will give our members a little something extra since we can’t be together.”


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