ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Coming weeks will bring significant religious observations. Christians will observe Holy Week and Easter, Jews will celebrate Passover and Muslims will begin the holy month of Ramadan.
The emergence of a pandemic has created unprecedented challenges and, some believe, even opportunities. With restrictions against gatherings of more than 10 persons, religious groups are devising ways to provide spiritual sustenance and fortitude in fearful times. Mandated social distancing means embracing technology to create virtual spiritual communities.
In St. Petersburg, the Rev. Louis Murphy of Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church will begin livestreaming his sermons this Sunday. It was a tough decision to cancel services. "We are just trying to make sure that people are safe, as much as they can be safe," said Murphy, whose predominantly African American church welcomes about 1,500 to 2,000 worshipers each Sunday.
The Pinellas County Board of Rabbis recently met to discuss a unified approach to the pandemic. In a March 12 letter, Rabbi Michael Torop of Temple Beth-El said the group had agreed to "invite worshipers to stay at home and join Shabbat services via the livestream, video conferencing or other online video platforms."
Bishop Gregory Parkes of the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg suspended public Masses for his flock across Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando, Hillsborough and Citrus counties. He, too, saw the efficacy of technology to knit the area's almost half-million Catholics together.
"At this critical time when people are experiencing fear or anxiety, the Catholic church is working to find creative ways of continuing to reach out to the faithful," he said. "This includes using available technology, but also recognizing that human interaction is still necessary and valued."
Bishop Pedro M. Suarez of the Florida-Bahamas Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America recommended in a March 13 letter that churches "abstain from congregational gatherings at least for the rest of this month." But Friday, with rising concern about the virus, he extended the date May 12. "My recommendation is that we stream, and that's what most of them are doing," Suarez said.
But some, like the elderly, could feel isolated in a tech-savvy world. Murphy said his church makes robocalls to connect with members and also provides CDs or DVDs of services. "We are just going to use all of the tools we have to try to stay in contact with our members, he said.
Not all public worship has been canceled. Friday prayers were held as usual at the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay Area mosque in Tampa, though with a much smaller crowd, said Hassan Shibly, CEO of the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Florida, who gave the sermon. Most of the participation was online, he said. Those in attendance had their temperatures taken and were given masks and hand sanitizer. Rules posted beforehand required hand washing and stated that any person with flu-like symptoms would not be admitted. Shibly said the day's message emphasized charity and thoughtfulness, especially at times like these.
"Some mosques are closed down for the prayers and people are encouraged to stay home and pray with their families," he said. "Islam is a communal faith and it encourages finding opportunity in every challenge. One of the opportunities here is for people to do the prayers with their families at home."
Ramadan, expected to begin on April 23, is likely to take place within the confines of coronavirus restrictions. "I think that people will be sad not to be able to break the fast as a community," Shibly said.
Passover, the Jewish Festival of Freedom, which begins at sunset on April 8, could also be affected by the global pandemic. "Passover is a time of family and community gathering," said Rabbi Philip Weintraub of Congregation B'nai Israel in St. Petersburg. "Under the circumstances, things will change rapidly. We are working on contingency plans, but have already canceled our community Seder."
He said the synagogue will share Passover resources with members, including a downloadable Haggadah, the book that gives the ceremonial order of the Seder. "We will also prerecord online videos of Seder songs to help people feel connected. We are working on connecting those who can safely host and those who can safely be hosted. It is very stressful for all involved," Weintraub said. "Passover is a story of Jewish peoplehood. It is a story of triumph against overwhelming odds."
Bishop Dabney T. Smith and other leaders of the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida met electronically this week to discuss the next steps in coping with the coronavirus. They addressed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 10-person limit.
"Ten chairs tops for any worship, education, pastoral care. Use your parish halls with 10 chairs each placed 6 feet apart," the bishop and his advisers said in a March 17 letter. They also looked ahead to Easter, which falls on April 12. "Start making initial plans for Palm Sunday and Easter," the letter said. "Plan spaced seating arrangements and smaller processions."
Without a physical gathering, passing the offering plate is not an option. Episcopal leaders encouraged churches not yet able to do so to set up online giving. Suarez noted that offerings can be mailed or given at the next regular worship service.
Parkes, in his letter announcing the suspension of public Masses, thanked Catholics for their generous support of parishes, the diocese and Catholic Charities and asked them to continue doing so to enable the diocese to "continue its ministries and to serve the poor during this time of crisis."