Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker can see everybody’s mouths moving, but the only singing she hears is her own.
That’s a lonely sound when you’re in the people-gathering business, said the spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Ami, Clark County’s largest Jewish temple. She has been leading Friday night worship services online over Zoom in the year since the pandemic curtailed gathering in person.
“I can see people singing along, and that’s nice, but I miss hearing everybody’s voices,” Dunsker said. “There’s something powerfully spiritual about singing together. For me, that’s been one of the biggest losses.”
Other Clark County faith leaders also said they miss the warm feeling of community that comes from gathering together in the house of God. They said technology can’t quite replicate that sense of connection, although it has helped in surprising and satisfying ways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is how we reach the world,” said the Rev. Annette Nettles of Washougal’s Love at the Cross, who streams Sunday services to her tiny congregation via Facebook Live. “(The pandemic) is a really sad thing, but I could see the blessing in it as well. It has forced us to use new skills to reach out. It has forced me to find other ways of hugging.”
Some local faith leaders are back in the pulpit and leading limited services today. Others are waiting out a real return to normal despite the arrival of life-saving coronavirus vaccines along with Passover and Easter, those life-affirming spring holidays.
Dunsker wishes she was leading Passover services now, she said, but isn’t eligible to receive a vaccine yet. That’s true of plenty of members of her congregation, too, she said.
“We are not even close to having a conversation about reopening,” she said.
‘It seemed ludicrous’
Early last year, nobody knew what to make of reports about a new virus overseas.
“I remember making jokes about it,” admitted the Rev. Daniel Fusco of Crossroads Community Church in Vancouver. “It sounded like a disease named after a beer.”
The Rev. David Whiting of New Heights Church in Walnut Grove recalled attending a leadership retreat where shifting services entirely online was briefly discussed.
“It seemed ludicrous,” he said.
The ludicrous became true within days. New Heights offered its March 15, 2020, worship service online only.
“Not because the government mandated it – we do believe in religious liberty – but for the reason of community health, we thought the mandate was reasonable,” Whiting said.
Few anticipated that many church services would remain remote a year later.
“We were thinking it would be for a short time,” Nettles said. “We knew people were going to be scared. How do we reach to them, encourage them, motivate them?”
Technology proved to be a big part of the answer.
“We let everybody know we were immediately shifting to digital, online gatherings,” said Fusco of Crossroads. “We’ve been streaming services for five years. We were already pretty established in the digital realm.”
Between new services and pre-recorded ones, Crossroads started uploading content for its sprawling congregation seven days a week, he said. Before long, streaming worship services were reaching farther than live services ever had.
While the transition was smooth for Crossroads, other churches started with less tech savvy.
“I don’t do real well with computers and devices,” Nettles said. “I’ve never done anything like that before, but I got some help from people in the congregation.”
The shift into the online realm enabled St. Joseph Catholic Church in central Vancouver to reach people who had previously been unable to attend Mass, the Rev. Gary Lazzeroni said.
“Homebound people, ill people – that was a learning experience for us,” Lazzeroni said.
After a few months of streaming by iPhone, St. Joseph installed permanent, high-quality cameras.
“We have made the decision to keep streaming even after we’re totally back to in-person,” Lazzeroni said.
Not everyone can receive the stream. That’s one of the social inequities underlined by the coronavirus pandemic: Many people are not sharing today’s internet wonders. To reach them, old-fashioned telephone calls became routine.
“We divided up the parish list and started calling people we knew were homebound or ill,” Lazzeroni said. “Then we broadened it and got assistance from the Knights of Columbus group to make phone calls.”
The outreach volunteers sometimes ended up grocery shopping or running other errands to help, he said.
“You have to stay connected to their land lines,” Nettles said. “I was calling people once a week. I had some elderly I was just checking in on: ‘How are you doing? What’s your need?’ People appreciate that personal touch.”
A select few who were dealing with serious emergencies or losses kept getting personal visits, Nettles added. She helped one woman with her banking nearly every day, she said.
Office hours, Zoom groups
Many congregations strived to duplicate all their programs and offerings online, from private counseling to youth classes to community forums.
“We found there was a lot we could do – care appointments, premarital counseling. We had pastors who did weddings and funerals digitally. We haven’t been able to do baptisms in person for a year, but we’ve had pastors talking family members through baptisms online,” Fusco said. “There’s an expression: ‘Blessed are the flexible, for they will not break.’ ”
Rabbi Dunsker started holding daily online office hours and found them very popular at first, but then they slowed down.
“I had this idea that everybody was going to feel so alone, and in the beginning we all did,” she said. “But I think we have figured out how to live through this.”
New Heights Church has 1,400 adults meeting in Zoom community groups once a week, Whiting said. “That’s where our primary relationships happen.”
When Whiting called a member of his congregation who is dying of cancer to ask what he could do, he couldn’t have been more pleased by the response: “My group is taking care of everything I need.”
Some ministering just couldn’t be done, however. Pandemic safety precautions prevented Lazzeroni from administering an important Catholic sacrament, the anointing of the sick.
“We couldn’t go and be with people in the hospital. We couldn’t even go be with them in their homes,” Lazzeroni said. “The most painful was last spring when there was no opportunity to do funerals for people who had died.”
The best Lazzeroni could do was wait in his car for the gravediggers to leave the scene before walking over to pray, he said.
Comfort and struggle
As painful as moments like that were, he and other church leaders The Columbian interviewed said the coronavirus pandemic revealed new opportunities and a surprising amount of community resilience.
“We cannot believe how many new people have come to our church since COVID,” said Whiting of New Heights. “I think people are coming into relationship with Jesus, looking for hope and peace, because life has been out of control.”
The pandemic has put people through “a kind of death and resurrection,” Lazzeroni said. “We’ve experienced losses individually and as a community. (This Easter is) a unique opportunity to talk about how we have gone down into the depths of the tomb together, and are slowly rising together as well.”