Amid raging coronavirus pandemic, churches & synagogues reimagine holiday services — and their messages of faith

Martin Lally, a priest at Holy Family Catholic Church in Denver, said of this holiday season: “The message of the Scriptures is ‘Hang in there, God is with us.” Rachel Woolf / for NBC News

On the first night of Hanukkah, hundreds of people show up at Temple Micah for a latke cooking competition. Families bring their menorahs, light candles, feast on potato pancakes, award prizes and sing.

It should come as no surprise, as the coronavirus pandemic rages, that this year’s celebration will be virtual.

“We’ll have some people demonstrating latke cooking online,” said Rabbi Adam Morris. “I envision the Zoom screen with all the Hanukkah lights lit.”

For communities of faith, Covid-19 has upended traditions and placed annual festivities at churches and synagogues on hold, forcing rabbis, pastors and priests to reimagine Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations and rethink their messages to the faithful.

“I think my basic message is that we don’t have control,” said David Thatcher, a priest at Holy Transfiguration of Christ Orthodox Cathedral. “We have certain delusions as Americans that we have control of all of this stuff. Any catastrophe, any cataclysmic event in our lives and our hope is in our God.”

With cases surging across the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued strict guidelines for gathering in houses of worship. For those still offering in-person services, instead of hundreds of people in sanctuaries, there are only dozens, and they must social distance and wear masks.

Almost 300,000 people in the U.S. have died from Covid-19, and their loved ones are mourning, tingeing the holiday season with sadness and loss, faith leaders said.

“It’s easy for me to say, ‘Look on the bright side,’” said Rabbi Evette Lutman of B’nai Havurah. “We’re experiencing all kinds of grief, all kinds of loss. The worst thing you can do when you’re experiencing grief is to whitewash it over and say, ‘I’m fine with that, and let’s move on.'”

Lutman, who is holding this year’s Hanukkah songfest on Zoom, said she tries to help members make some sense of these trying times.

“How sad it would be if we missed this unique place and time to recognize the opportunity to make the world better,” she said, “to use the wound as an opportunity to heal.”

Morris, the rabbi at Temple Micah, likened this holiday season to a chocolate chip cookie without the chocolate chips — it can still taste good, but it’s not the same.

“It’s been lacking that kind of unspoken quality of what you can do with a touch or a glance or where you feel spirit,” he said. “When you have a room of people singing together, there’s something happening. We’ve missed that.”

Not all churches have been willing to accept government restrictions on gathering. Two churches in the Denver suburbs, Community Baptist Church and Denver Bible Church, sued the state to continue worshipping indoors.

A federal judge ruled in their favor in October, saying the state cannot force congregants to wear masks or limit gatherings. The following month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that restrictions on capacity at houses of worship and religious events are unconstitutional.

Colorado conceded this month that the high court’s decision made it unlikely the state could enforce restrictions.

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SOURCE: NBC News – Vicky Collins

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