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Faith organizations take services online during the Covid-19 pandemic

Friday, April 17, 2020 by Nina Hernandez

The city’s stay-at-home order suspended in-person religious services, but that hasn’t stopped churches, mosques and synagogues from reaching their congregations during the pandemic. With all physical gatherings banned, faith communities are going online to practice.

Congregation Beth Israel still hosts services every Friday night, with the rabbis reaching the congregation from their homes via Zoom. On Saturday morning, there’s the same regular Torah study – just the virtual edition.

On Sundays, there’s a morning meditation and an afternoon session with cantorial soloist Sarah Anver, both on Facebook.

“It’s pretty seamless,” Beth Israel member Bob Batlan said. “Obviously it’s terrible we can’t meet in person, but there are congregants that had moved that we missed seeing, and they are joining Torah study or joining service. It’s neat. People that are not able to join services for health reasons or whatever are able to join.”

Batlan’s family was preparing to celebrate Passover via Zoom, with members joining from Round Rock, Canada, Houston, and Ohio.

Imam Islam Mossad of the North Austin Muslim Community Center said the group is using Facebook Live and Zoom to engage with the congregation.

“We’re trying to stay connected as much as we can with people,” Mossad said. “We also have a not-too-complicated medium, which is to make phone calls to people to make sure they’re OK. So even though it’s not the most technologically advanced way, the phone call really makes a difference to people to know that their mosque cares about them.”

The mosque is also distributing groceries to those in need, which can be picked up curbside.

“We’re trying not only to maintain but to diversify what we’re doing as a Muslim community, especially as Ramadan is coming up,” Mossad said. “When Ramadan comes, people usually flock to the mosque to pray, to break their fasts all together. That will not happen this year. It will be difficult, but we will again try to reach out as much as we can.”

Westlake United Methodist Church has been offering services online for the past six years. But that featured a single, static camera that felt more like eavesdropping on, rather than actually participating in, a service.

Senior Pastor Tracey Beadle said the church has been working since the onset of the pandemic to upgrade and supplement that experience. They’ve since added another camera and made upgrades to the program that projects hymn lyrics on the screen.

As time went on, the church began to integrate some prerecorded segments into the service, to safely produce the service while observing social distancing rules. For that reason, the church will move entirely to prerecorded services for the next several weeks.

“Because as the coronavirus is peaking, we wanted to eliminate the gathering of even a small amount of people,” Beadle said.

The church also plans to insert photos and videos of the worship space in upcoming services.

“One of the things that we’ve been trying to do, that we think has been effective, is number one, we are trying to figure out how to keep our congregation connected to God and each other, even though we have to be socially distant at this time,” she said.

She continued, “And the other thing is, we are trying to maintain some sense of normal, I suppose, to provide some touchstones for our congregation, where they can connect with things that are familiar to them, in a time when almost everything we’re doing is in some new way.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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