Rabbi Carolyn Braun of Temple Beth El in Portland has been reflecting on what she has learned as Maine’s response to the coronavirus pandemic becomes a year old this week.
Braun’s Deering Avenue synagogue, like many religious institutions across the state, has been operating entirely virtually for 12 months. It has been a big adjustment, but Braun said she has found that for all of the negatives that have accompanied the pandemic, it has had some upside, too.
“Like everybody else, we switched to Zoom and it was a difficult and a good transition,” the rabbi said. “I think we were all surprised how OK we were with it. In some ways, we had more participation than we would have in non-pandemic times.”
Braun’s sentiment is echoed by other faith leaders. The past year has forced institutions that relied on centuries-old traditions to modernize. It has also inspired some people to return to religion in the face of uncertainty brought on by COVID-19.
According to findings published by Pew Research Center last month, nearly 30 percent of Americans report stronger personal faith because of the pandemic. It was the highest share of people in the countries surveyed that responded that way.
But physical distancing guidelines, fundraising without the aid of donations at religious gatherings, and obligations to serve as a community safety net have also proved challenging. And major life events, like weddings and end-of-life services, which often take place at religious institutions, were either limited or completely overhauled as COVID-19 swept the state and the nation.
Additionally, the pandemic occurred at a time when more Americans than ever identify as having no religion. According to a September 2019 report in The Atlantic, which cited data from the General Social Survey, 23 percent of Americans reported being religiously unaffiliated in 2018, up from 14 percent in 1998, and only 8 percent in 1988.
Braun said she was not immune to the stressful uncertainty of the past 12 months. So she connected with members of the Temple Beth El community about it.
“I’m the kind of person who can only preach what’s in me, so if I’m feeling disturbed I will probably talk about that feeling,” she said. “Just being able to talk about it is comforting because we’re all in the same boat.”
Supporting the community
Janet Bowne, senior warden at The Episcopal Church of St. Mary in Falmouth, said she has also seen a duality in the changes required by the past year.
Bowne is a volunteer and described her role as similar to being president of the board of directors at a nonprofit organization. Her goal for 2020, she said, was to “finish the year whole” financially, and not have to dip into the church’s reserve funds to keep operations running during the pandemic.
She was ultimately successful, thanks in part to Paycheck Protection Program loans and donations from parishioners. Some parishioners who typically give quarterly or once a year, for instance, sent in their entire donation at the beginning of the pandemic, which she said was helpful.
Church volunteers also managed to hold several fundraising events safely this year, including the church’s annual book sale and even more than the usual number of fundraising sales.
According to an August report from NPR, U.S. religious organizations received as much as $10 billion in the first round of COVID-19 aid.
St. Mary’s has held religious gatherings in a variety of formats throughout the pandemic, including outdoor services last summer and for Christmas, but has relied on streaming for a large majority. That meant the church lost “loose offerings,” or money that comes from the plate being passed around at Mass.
Parishioners’ generosity, however, extended beyond helping the church. Several asked how they could help families that were struggling during the pandemic, Bowne said.
“Sometimes it was a medical issue that had set them back temporarily and it was helping them pay their rent for the month,” she said. “So it was really, really, gratifying. That was just the best of humanity.”
Bowne said St. Mary’s was also able to give supplemental gifts to its local food pantry and has continued to offer a free dinner open to the community twice a month. The Souper Supper switched to curbside service and staff was also able to include grocery store gift cards with the packaged meals to provide recipients with some extra help.
The dinner, she said, is “no questions asked” and open to anyone for any reason, whether they’re lonely and looking for social interaction, a busy parent with no time to go home and cook dinner for their kids between activities, or someone who is experiencing food insecurity.
St. Mary’s has also continued to host blood drives throughout the pandemic in cooperation with the Red Cross. Bowne said she and other staff members also regularly call on some older members of the congregation who have stayed home since last spring, and she does grocery shopping weekly for some people who are not comfortable leaving their homes because of the virus risk.
Providing food to people in need has also remained a pillar of the area’s Catholic churches. Bishop Robert Deeley of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland said via email last week that the diocese covers 35,000 square miles and includes approximately 275,000 Catholics.
Parishes and schools have had to invest in a “variety of equipment and supplies” during the pandemic to follow state and diocese safety protocols, Deeley said, but parishioners and donors have continued to donate to the churches via online giving.
He said the Portland diocese’s food pantries, soup kitchens, and other organizations that serve the community have continued to run throughout the pandemic and adhere to CDC guidelines.
At Temple Beth El, Braun said community outreach used to involve members compiling donations for organizations like Preble Street. But because of the pandemic, the synagogue has turned its focus to primarily serving organizations in its own neighborhood.
One of its new community partners, for instance, is Maine Needs, a grassroots nonprofit that operates a free community donation center on Forest Avenue.
Braun said when she has asked most Temple Beth El members how they are doing during the pandemic, many answer in a way that compares their experience to people who have become more disadvantaged during this time.
“Pretty much everyone will say, ‘You know what? Compared to a lot of people I really shouldn’t complain,’” she said. “’I’m one of those people who have food or shelter and have an income, so as difficult as this is, it’s the people who have fallen through the safety net (who are especially vulnerable).’”
Bowne, Braun, and Deeley all said that while switching to streaming religious services has not been easy, becoming more digital is a transition their organizations have been planning for years.
For all of them, the pandemic was the catalyst that finally made it happen.
Deeley said the ability to connect online has increased diocese churches’ capacities to “reach out to parishioners in a new way.” For instance, the Rev. Ed Clifford of Bridgton, he said, hosts regular “Fireside Chats with Father Ed” on Facebook Live, which allows viewers to interact with Clifford in real time.
Deeley said clergy have been encouraged to give briefer homilies when Mass is held in-person to limit the length of gathering time, and that the biggest complaint from churchgoers last year was due to restrictions on in-person attendance.
In an email response March 4, Deeley criticized the executive order revised by Gov. Janet Mills in February, which allowed up to 50 people to gather in Maine’s churches with proper distancing. Deeley said of the state’s 141 churches, fewer than 10 saw an increase from former capacity levels due to the executive order, which he called “not helpful.”
On March 5, however, Mills released new guidance allowing Maine churches to hold in-person gatherings with up to 50 percent capacity beginning March 26. Deeley previously said he hoped she would increase the capacity rules prior to Holy Week, or the week leading up to Easter, which begins March 28.
According to the plan, churches will be allowed 75 percent capacity as of May 24.
The ease of digital religious services may, however, be attracting a new demographic.
Temple Beth El streams daily morning prayers online. Braun said the synagogue has more participants than ever before because it allows people to attend from the comfort of their homes.
She also said some Temple Beth El members have grown accustomed to hosting Friday night sabbath dinners via Zoom.
Relying on streaming, however, has not been without its challenges. Braun said virtual services make singing more difficult, and she sometimes feels like an “airline pilot” having to look at 200 boxes on her Zoom screen. She added, however, that for younger people who spend a lot of time on social media, the switch to virtual services has been an attraction.
“I’ve been thrilled with the number of people who have decided to join our community,” she said.
In Falmouth, St. Mary’s holds several discussion groups via Zoom and also posts video prayers on its Facebook page, which Bowne said have become popular because people can watch them whenever it’s convenient.
She said church staff has learned “a million lessons” throughout the past year, but the importance of being more digital is an enduring one, even though the church had been discussing it for years prior to the pandemic.
Both Braun and Bowne also noted that although funerals have had to be held with reduced attendance, Zoom funerals have allowed people in other parts of the country who would typically not be able to attend a service to do so virtually.
Weddings are another major event affected by the pandemic, Braun said, and Temple Beth El is getting ready to host weddings postponed last year on a smaller scale. Bowne said St. Mary’s is also currently available for weddings, after only facilitating one last year on the beach, led by the Rev. Nathan Ferrell.
Ferrell said Monday that despite the changes of the last year, looking back, he has not found it stressful or depressing. Adaptation, he said, is part of life, and the notion of normalcy is a fallacy.
“In general people need to just learn to adjust and adapt and have low expectations for what we can control,” he said. “Because we’re not in control of anything except our own reactions.”