Within hours of Gov. Jay Inslee’s order restricting gatherings of more than 250 people, Bishop Reggie Witherspoon was working on a plan to break Sunday services at his Central District church, which normally attracts up to 400 people, into two smaller sessions.
The services at Mt. Calvary Christian Center Church of God in Christ wouldn’t be quite the same. No more would he ask parishioners to shake their neighbor’s hand, or walk around the church greeting everybody by touch. Laying hands on people’s foreheads to pray for them, that was out, too.
“What it will feel like, I don’t know.” But he said it would not be the typical, interactive African American experience of the church.
Faith communities across the region were grappling Wednesday with how to adjust to Inslee’s order — an attempt to stem the coronavirus crisis that the same day was officially labeled a pandemic. While some are finding creative, even positive ways to maintain spiritual connections, others say it’s a challenge at a scary time when such connections are more important than ever.
Some leaders simply called off services altogether, including Seattle Archbishop Paul Etienne, who released a video announcing the cancellation of masses in all of Western Washington.
“Going to church is where I get my spiritual food,” said William Hayden, 90, who planned on going to Mt. Calvary Christian Center as usual. He was unaware that Witherspoon, in charge of his denomination’s churches statewide, planned to tell seniors and those with health conditions to stay home.
The crimp on religious gatherings also comes in the run-up to some big religious holidays: Easter for Christians, Ramadan for Muslims and Passover for Jews.
Many churches, mosques and synagogues had canceled services even before the order.
Muslim Association of Puget Sound (MAPS) in Redmond, for instance, last week called off its Friday afternoon prayer service at the mosque, which normally draws about 1,000 people. It’s the most important service of the week and a religious obligation for men, noted Aneelah Afzali, who heads an outreach and advocacy arm for the state’s largest mosque.
But the prayers, in light of coronavirus, are especially problematic. “Everyone lines up. You’re supposed to leave no gaps between any two people,” Afzali said.
While MAPS hasn’t formally canceled this Friday’s services again, it is likely to do so, president Hyder Ali said.
Overlake Christrian Church, also in Redmond, started relying on a digital approach last weekend. The church, which normally gets 500 to 600 worshippers per service, encouraged people to stay home and watch a livestream, Pastor Phil Chenery said.
“We didn’t lock the doors,” he added, for fear of intensifying panic. Some 100 people showed up. He said the church would continue with that approach, while maintaining smaller ministries, such as for people in recovery, and looking for ways to help those in need.
Rabbi Yohanna Kinberg, who had no choice but to cancel services for her small congregation after the building it uses in Kirkland closed, said she soon would be taking her “show on the road.” She planned to tell members of Kol Ami: A Center for Jewish Life that she could come to their homes with Jewish story books and look after their kids for a while.
She didn’t yet know what would happen to a bar mitzvah — a religious rite of passage for boys who have turned 13 — scheduled a couple weeks away. Maybe that could be livestreamed, too.
One ritual she said is gone forever: Everybody touching the egg bread known as challah before breaking off a piece. “We’ll never go back to doing challah that way again.”
Tim Gaydos, a former pastor who now leads a civic organization called Together Washington, sees the new restrictions as an opportunity to get back to a simpler Christianity, one less focused on organizations like megachurches and more on getting together with neighbors. He hoped to hold a small gathering in his home Sunday and had already talked to one of his neighbors.
“You guys want to come over?” he asked. “We’ll have brunch, get some mimosas going.”