Coronavirus In Ohio: Religious Houses Welcome Back Worshippers

May 26, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic brought about major changes in how people exercise religion and express faith. 

Take, for example, this tweet of a man reading the children’s book "Goodnight Moon" to his child – with a twist. He’s chanting the story to the tune of the traditional Jewish cantillation of the Torah.

It’s one of hundreds of submissions people made to Ohio State University’s Religious Sounds project, which seeks to promote civic understanding of how people conceive of and practice religion.

One way religious leaders found to bring worship outside shuttered houses of worship was through livestreaming online. Ohio State professor Isaac Weiner says those online services inherently come with disrupted flow.

“People dropping out, coming back in, glitchy internet service,” Weiner says. “And all of those sounds of, 'Wait, can you hear me? Wait can you hear me? Am I still there?' become a part of the religious worship service.”

Conducting services online also poses an issue of how to truly engage in community. Since there’s a few seconds' delay in relaying sound over Zoom, it can things like singing a choppy experience.

“Communities have to decide, do we all mute ourselves except for the speaker or the leader?” Weiner comments. “Which then reduces communal worship into an experience of more of like a performance.”

Despite the problems, many have found comfort in these services. Catharine’s Catholic Church pastor Father Daniel Dury says that online masses have helped people face pandemic-related anxiety and stress.

“I can’t tell you how many emails, text messages I have received indicating as much,” Dury says. “It was really overwhelming. I guess I underestimated the fruitfulness that these online services would bring.”

Now that Ohio’s stay-at-home order has come to an end, religious houses of worship are exploring how and when to re-open their doors to the public.

Welcoming With Caution

The Catholic Diocese of Columbus will allow churches to start offering public mass on Memorial Day. But churches will look noticeably different to those familiar with the space.

St. Catharine's Catholic Church installed hand sanitizing stations throughout the worship space to promote cleanliness.
Credit Adora Namigadde

Dury installed hand sanitizing stations and closed off certain pews around the church to promote hygiene and social distancing. The first Sunday mass will have a team of greeters welcoming people outside and handing out masks, which are encouraged but not required. 

“So that, in a sense, (people coming to church) feel like, ‘Yeah, I am part of a family that desires me, that welcomes me. That loves me.' And we are,” Dury explains.

Other churches have no set plan to reopen. On their website, Vineyard Columbus senior pastor Rich Nathan says the church will remain closed at least through the month of May. The message reminds people that church is more about the people than the building.

“What if we were more focused on the things we were supposed to be focused on, not the frills of church life?” Nathan asked in an online sermon May 16. “What if we came through it and we were kinder to each other at the end than we were at the beginning?”

This weekend was also Eid, a religious holiday celebrated by Muslims throughout the world, marking the end of Ramadan.

At Noor Islamic Cultural Center, one of the largest mosques in Central Ohio, interfaith and outreach director Imran Malik says they've been encouraging people to pray the five daily prayers, collectively known as Salat, at home. Now, the mosque is working on re-introducing public services in phases.

“Everybody’s aching for it. Everybody has a huge appetite for getting back to normalcy,” Malik says. “But also people realize these measures are to keep everybody safe.”

Phase one will require attendees to pass a temperature check before entering the mosque, to bring their own prayer rugs and wear masks during prayer.

Rethinking Community

Michigan State University professor Amy Derogatis, who's part of the Religious Sounds project, says that being forced to worship from home allowed some to engage in religious tourism.

“If you’ve always wanted to visit the National Cathedral, this might be your moment,” Derogatis says. “Or if you’ve been interested in Buddhist meditation, maybe you’ll be able to go to a Buddhist temple that you might not have.”

While the closure of religious houses has separated the community, Weiner hopes the collective pandemic experience encourages leaders to think outside of the box when they re-open.

“I think what Amy and I are really interested in and excited about are the ways this moment is providing an opportunity to rethink what community is, and imagine different ways of being in community,” Weiner says.

Several religious houses that did not livestream services before the pandemic plan to continue doing so, even as in-person services resume, to promote accessibility.