Virtual religion: Denver houses of worship go online after coronavirus closures

At Central Presbyterian Church last Sunday, Pastor Louise Westfall stood in a strangely empty sanctuary, lit a candle, and delivered a livestreamed service.

“If you’re watching via Facebook, check in regularly during the broadcast. Those little emojis scrolling up the screen provide a way to connect with virtual touch,” the pastor told her distant — and social-distancing — congregation.

Elsewhere in downtown Denver, a kansho, or bronze bell, sounded outside the Denver Buddhist Temple, the traditional start to a Sunday dharma service. But last week’s service there, too, was digital, posted to the temple’s Facebook page, Instagram account and YouTube channel.

On Wednesday night, Chris Griggs , pastor of Denver Baptist Church, clipped a lapel microphone to his polo shirt, sat at his dining room table, placed a Bible in front of him, and looked into a camera.

“Our mission statement isn’t dependent on a building. We don’t need these things to make disciples and advance the Gospel,” he said early in a 28-minute video that was later uploaded to Vimeo.

Across the city, state and country, houses of worship have been closed indefinitely almost overnight, victims of a global pandemic unlike any in recent history. But with the tools of modern technology at hand, faith leaders soldier on, delivering the wisdom of ancient texts via Facebook, Zoom, Vimeo and YouTube.

“We never thought that we would be doing first-century church — in other words, church at homes — through digital connections, in the way that we are right now,” said Pastor Marty Lettow as he adjusted his glasses and spoke, via video, to members of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church on Wednesday night.

At Temple Sinai, Rabbi Rick Rheins hosted a virtual class on the Talmud on Thursday afternoon. Congregants joined via Zoom, allowing them a break from the solitude this bizarre week brought. The chat was interactive, with laughter and heartfelt hellos and jokes about who wasn’t wearing pants.

“My goal,” Rheins said then, “was for everybody to be able to share and see each other. Because one of the parts of being in isolation is that we feel so alone.”

That is especially true for elderly Coloradans who live alone and for whom religious services are a source of great comfort. Online services, for those with the technical know-how to access them, can be a connection to a familiar and friendly weekly routine that has been dramatically upended this month.

“It’s hard to adjust,” said Iman Jodeh , a spokeswoman for the Colorado Muslim Society, which streams services on Facebook. “People look forward to going to the mosque. It’s a place of solitude and sanctuary and when that’s taken away from a lot of folks, it’s hard. Especially for people who are there every day.”

In an attempt to replace that solitude and sanctuary, leaders of congregations large and small, of faith systems Western and Eastern, sat or stood in front of a camera this week and did what centuries of their predecessors did before them, during times far more trying than this. They read aloud holy words from holy works.

Some did so in sacred spaces that now sit empty. Others spoke from a home office or living room couch, the sounds of their children and dogs in the background. Still others did so from a kitchen table or back patio. But all carried a similar message: We, as a people and a religion, have survived worse, and we will survive this.

“There is a fear around us right now,” said Father Sam Morehead during a pre-recorded Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. “There is this unknown disease, the coronavirus, in our community. We should be very prudent, very smart in how we handle our health, but we must not be ruled by any fear. Not ever.”

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