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Cupcakes, podcasts and Instagram: How churches are navigating the pandemic


No longer allowed to offer a church service, Fred Rink plans to go door-to-door to provide communion to members of his congregation who are stuck at home because of the spread of COVID-19.

Rink will leave a small cup of wine and a wafer on a napkin at the door, then step back about three metres before his parishioner comes outside.

“Say the Words of Institution, and pray with them and then bless them. That’s basically the long and short of it,” said Rink, the pastor at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Vancouver.

Places of worship across the country are closed because of the pandemic.

As a result, they are taking steps to maintain the spiritual connection with their members and support their communities, while also trying to protect the health of religious leaders and congregations during this tumultuous period.

Maintaining programs

Mosques in Edmonton decided on Thursday evening to close to the public, including the Al Rashid Mosque, which is the oldest in the country.

Spokesperson Noor Al-Henedy said it’s like closing a major grocery store, since it is an essential service for so many people. This is the first time the mosque has closed in its 90-year history, she said.

“It was incredibly difficult. You have to remember mosques are an essential part of every Muslim whether they live in Edmonton or any part of the world. Usually we go to pray in the mosque five times a day,” she said, during an interview on CBC Radio’s Edmonton AM.

Usually about 1,000 people attend the mosque on Fridays. Al Rashid will continue to try to provide some services such as small gatherings for seniors and youth programming. Islamic funeral services will continue to operate, which means people can continue to get a proper Muslim burial. 

They are exploring online options for continuing religious classes, readings from the Qur’an and prayers. 

“It’s a work in progress, to be honest with you,” she said.

Churches are trying to keep the spiritual connection with members thriving. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

The church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, in downtown Toronto, traditionally offers a Friday night drop-in and breakfasts on the weekend. Meals are now takeaway at the door, while the drop-in service is limited.

“As of this exact moment, we are trying to keep the drop-in open with a very hard cap on numbers and strict social distancing policies because people have almost nowhere to go right now. Libraries are closed, communities centre are closed. All the supports they’ve relied on are gone,” said Rev. Maggie Helwig.

The service seems unlikely to continue for very long as COVID-19 continues to spread, but she said there is value in keeping it going for as long as they can.

This will be the second weekend that the Sunday worship will be livestreamed on Facebook with only Helwig, a singer and a camera operator in attendance. Right now, the church has ample volunteers and donations.

“Will that last for weeks and months? We don’t know,” she said, adding there is an an ethical imperative to keep supporting the community.

“We all have a lot of concern about sustainability, but we just have to keep trying,” she said.

Worship service is now available only online at the Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields in Toronto. (James Morrison-Collalto/CBC)

Staying safe

Rev. Laura Holck at Lutheran Church of the Cross in Calgary is spending much of her time on the phone, trying to connect with every member of her congregation to assess their mental, physical and spiritual needs. The church has formed an emergency response team to run errands for those needing help during the pandemic.

Holck is trying to limit the number of in-person visits she makes, as she fell seriously ill with acute bronchitis a few years ago.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to be out personally because who knows what will happen to me if I caught the virus.”  

Every weekend, up to 400 people gather at Living Springs Christian Fellowship in Airdrie, a community just north of Calgary. With the doors now closed, the pastors instead spread the gospel with online videos, podcasts, and even Bible studies for children and teenagers on Instagram.

Living Springs is trying to increase those offerings in lieu of a traditional worship service.

“While people are in quarantine, there’s going to be a lot of media consumed over these next few weeks and months,” said Pastor Kyle Toner. 

They are also brainstorming on how to keep the congregation interacting with each other online.

“We’ve got an idea for a cupcake giveaway. If people are willing for us to bring some cupcakes over to them, we will livestream and have the chance to see .. on camera those who are isolating at home and we may normally have seen on a weekend,” said Toner.

Financial pressure

He admits there is some concern about donations during this period, especially with many people unable to work and with oil prices in Alberta at some of the lowest levels ever recorded.

“I think it’s non-profits altogether, whether it’s churches or not, I think may see a turn for the worst in this time,” he said.

Some churches are better equipped for that than others, since the offering plate can no longer be passed.

In Ontario, Father Rico Passero doesn’t have a church full of people for mass these days, but he’s managed to keep them together in spirit — through taping photos of them to the pews. Passero and his staff printed off 400 photos of parishioners at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Grimsby and addresses the photos during mass while the people they represent watch a live stream of the service from home. (St. Joseph Catholic Church)

Centre Street Church, which has five locations in and around Calgary, has experienced a rise in automatic deposits, e-transfers and even donations of stock market shares over recent years as giving platforms have evolved. Still, the church will pay attention to how giving patterns change.

For a few years already, the church has live streamed services, and it expects many more viewers with worship now only available online.

“We’ve used the term here for many years of ‘one church, many locations,'” said Paster Wayne Smele. 

“Now, this weekend, I’m going to be saying this as I host the services, ‘one church, 5,000 locations,’ because we will be in people’s homes and on their phones. That’s pretty cool,” he said.



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