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Changes to religious practices expected post-pandemic
Dr. Mansoor Pirzada was in Dubai mid-March when he received a worrisome text message.
As president of the Muslim Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, he’s in charge of the operation of the province’s only mosque, Masjid Al-Noor on Logy Bay Road in St. John’s.
He had only been in Dubai for a few days. He didn’t realize how quickly the COVID-19 pandemic would take hold in this province.
“I got a text from our executives that the government has announced close-down. So, basically I texted them back, I said, ‘Look, if the government is saying it, there’s no other way around it — go and close and lock the main gate, and chain it.’ They sent me a picture of the chained front door which was very upsetting, and very disturbing because it has never happened, and people were quite sad and upset about it.”
Downtown at Gower Street United Church, Rev. Pamela Jones-Fitzgerald also had a heavy heart.
On March 14, the church was set to host a big party celebrating inclusion of people of all gender identities and sexual orientations. A band was hired. There would be face painting for the children. Roughly 400 people were expected to attend.
“I remember there was a report that came out from Health Canada, and I don’t know why — it really hit me hard, and so I called the other members of the team who were planning this event, and said, ‘What are we going to do?’
“We were expecting a lot of people from the downtown community which would include people who are marginalized and vulnerable, and I thought, ‘This is not the right thing for us to do right now to have this.’ And when I think of what happened with Caul’s (funeral home cluster) — that was just a day after — I’m so glad that we cancelled that event.”
She said the church board quickly decided to cancel worship for the next two weeks, but by the time those two weeks were up, everything had changed.
“We had all decided that we had to come up with a different way to do worship. And then within the next week we had worked out a plan, and now we’re worship experts online,” she laughed.
“When I think about signing up for being on YouTube, that just was never in my wildest dreams.”
Jones-Fitzgerald said everyone who would normally be a part of Sunday worship tapes their portion of the service from their home and sends it to a technical person in the congregation who edits the clips into a seamless video that people can watch from home.
Ironically, she said the videos now garner more views than the number of people that would normally attend church on Sunday.
“I don’t know if we could ever go back to the way it used to be ... I’m sure we’ll figure it out as time goes on, but it gives you lots to think about with regards to how to be the church in this new normal.”
Responding to challenges
For Ven. Terry Caines, executive archdeacon of the Anglican Diocese of Central Newfoundland, the big challenge for clergy is reaching the many seniors who might not be connected through social media.
Caines said the clergy in that diocese have logged over 3,000 phone calls to parishioners to see how they’re doing. They’ve also created colouring books for children, and reading materials which they leave on people’s doorsteps.
At the same time, he said almost all of the parishes are also offering virtual services through Facebook.
One of the biggest changes for Anglicans during the pandemic has been the sudden halt on celebrating the eucharist, which involves sharing and consuming bread, and drinking from a common cup.
“What that’s going to look like moving forward after the pandemic is something that the bishops are wrestling with right now to try and see what that looks like in keeping with provincial regulations around COVID-19,” said Caines.
“And what that means because the Anglican church is a sacramental church where eucharist is such a big part of our worship. How do we move forward with that when this is over? That’s sort of like the million dollar question right now.”
It’s often in the midst of a challenge that opportunity is born, and that’s indeed been the case for the three faith leaders.
For Pirzada, it was a Zoom fundraising telethon held by MANAL during Ramadan that raised more than $135,000. He said people from all over the province participated.
For Caines, it’s seeing shut-ins who are normally unable to participate in a Sunday service at church now be able to view the service online.
For Jones-Fitzgerald, it’s being able to reach a wider audience through YouTube videos.
While Sunday worship was always live-streamed, she said she’s heard from people all across the country who are enjoying the more personal home video style services. Every week, the church includes members of the congregation and Sunday School children by asking them to film something from their home and send it in to be a part of the service.
She said it’s a more personal touch that’s been missing from worship for a long time.
“It would never, ever have happened with just doing what we’ve regularly been doing for the last hundred years.”
Future of religious gatherings
Alert Level 3 is set to take effect next week if the number of new cases remains low, and faith leaders are beginning to think about how they’ll adapt — once again — when they’re able to reopen the doors.
Jones-Fitzgerald said there’s a lot to consider.
“We have a big sanctuary, but I don’t know how many people we’ll be able to have in there spaced apart. We thought about having two sets of worship on Sunday morning so that so many people could come at 9 a.m., so many people could come at 11 a.m., but then all of the physical space has to be deep cleaned in-between.
“People have to sign in when they come to worship with the time that they entered, and their phone number for contact tracing.
“There’s no singing. If we have a strong soloist, we have to be aware of how far the vapours from that person’s singing will reach other people, and stay in the air. So, there’s so many things that just weren’t a part of being a church on Sundays that’s going to come into play now.”