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Columbus Religious Institutions Respond to Coronavirus

Jesse Bethea Jesse Bethea Columbus Religious Institutions Respond to Coronavirus
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“I don’t know of anyone not experiencing stress, anxiety, fear, and frustration at the uncertainly of this time,” Rev. John Keeny, senior pastor at King Avenue United Methodist Church, told his congregation in an email last week. “We are accustomed to life being fairly predictable and manageable. We even tend to think the future is in our control. The uncertainty of the last few days vividly reminds us of the precariousness of life and the seeming futility of our plans.”

Rev. Keeny’s letter offered some reflections on the church’s decision to suspend events at King Avenue, including in-person services, until at least April 4 in response to the rapidly escalating Coronavirus pandemic. According to Keeny, attendance at King Avenue services usually exceeds more than 100 — the limit that Governor Mike DeWine has placed on public gatherings during the crisis — but Keeny says King Avenue would have closed even if the services were less than 100.

The state ban on mass gatherings does not currently apply to religious organizations, but many places of worship are not taking any chances. In a message to congregants on March 15, leaders of the Noor Islamic Cultural Center in Dublin explained why they decided to close the center to the public and suspend prayer services.

“It must be understood that the Governor’s declaration outlaws gatherings of more than 100 people, but that does not mean that gatherings of 99 or 50 or even 20 are safe or that such gatherings in religious places are any safer than elsewhere,” said NICC leaders. “The recommendations from all health agencies is to avoid any gatherings, which means that while we are not legally prevented from having prayer services, we would not be wise to continue to do so and would be placing the health of our community and most vulnerable brothers and sisters at risk.”

Rev. Keeny echoed this sentiment in an email Saturday, writing, “Churches should stand in solidarity with everything else that is affected by this crisis. It is illusory to act as if one is exempt.”

Shutting church, temple and mosque doors and suspending services for the duration of the pandemic are in keeping with the recommended “social distancing” tactic, aimed at closing as many routes of viral transmission as possible by limiting social contact. Unfortunately, this may also be the time when spiritually oriented people need religious services the most.

To that end, many organizations, including King Avenue, are moving services online, so that congregations can worship while in isolation. Some places of worship already have experience recording and posting services online. Others, like King Avenue, are new to the online system.

“We have developed an online, interactive service, which involves the elements of a worship service,” said Keeny in an email. “It has been fun preparing it.”

Religious organizations are also directing their congregations toward useful and accurate information about the coronavirus pandemic.  

“The very best thing we can do in a situation like this is to stay informed and work together to make decisions that maximize the well-being of our community,” said Rabbi Sharon Mars and Amy Weisbach in a message to the Temple Israel congregation last week. “It is important to not panic or spread rumors. Staying informed is key, so use trustworthy sources.”

While religious organizations suspend regular worship, many are also eager to continue their services to the community, mitigating some of the physical and psychological toll taken by the pandemic. Ohio Catholics have been given special dispensation not to attend Mass for the remainder of March, but in a message to Catholics on March 13, Bishop Robert Brennan of the Diocese of Columbus wrote, “as Catholics we want to serve the poor and vulnerable even more. We need to imagine new ways to achieve this in order to protect the health and well-being of the very people we desire to serve.”

As of Monday, Trinity Episcopal Church in Downtown Columbus intended to continue worship services, and planned to stay “open for the daily AA and Al-Anon meetings and as a warming station for the homeless during the day,” according to an email from Diane Donato, Admin & Outreach Specialist at Trinity. 

In their message to congregants, leaders of the Noor Islamic Cultural Center said, “We are working on plans to offset the necessary services we provide to our community including funeral services and food pantry” and promised to work on internet-based options to continue educational programs.

“While we are closed for church activities, we decided to remain open for the support groups that use our building,” said Rev. Keeny. “We believe that mental health needs must continue to be addressed at this precarious time. Also in light of the increased vulnerability of the hungry, we shall continue our lunch packing for the homeless. We have also decided that the money usually donated for Easter flowers in the worship spaces be donated to the NNEMAP food pantry.”

In his message to congregants, Rev. Keeny also reflected on the spiritual opportunities offered by the crisis.

“This is a time for people to stand in solidarity with each other,” wrote Rev. Keeny. “I find that egos are put aside for the greater good. The uncertainty of the virus has placed all of us on the same level of humanity. We are more mindful of the welfare of our neighbor and the stranger. It is a time of patience.”

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