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Coronavirus and its social distancing requirements have forced local faith leaders to guide their flocks through Holy Week and Passover with high technology substituting instant communication for human connection.
Some clergy have made the electronic leap faster than others.
Flanked by fellow priests, a deacon and a lector, the Rev. Brian Flynn brought Palm Sunday Mass to St. Mary’s Church parisionioners in Lynn. The pews in the South Common Street church were empty last Sunday, but more than 100 worshippers followed along on Facebook Live and sent appreciation messages to the clergy.
“It is really strange with no one there. But what helps is having people actively participating by sending uplifting emails and photos,” Flynn said.
At Cliftondale Church of the Nazarene in Saugus, Rev. Franklin Lowe said the church has been “dormant” for three weeks since coronavirus hit hard with the 35-member congregation communicating by phone and text message.
Lowe is preparing online Good Friday and Easter services. He doesn’t know if they will take the form of a live-stream or simpler message to the congregation.
“We’ve done church business through text groups and encourage people to call one another,” Lowe said.
Holy Week marks Jesus’ death and resurrection and Passover chronicles the passage of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt. Spanning more than a week, the celebrations are high points on religious calendars.
Rabbi Richard Perlman has live-streamed services to his congregation for almost a month from his North Reading home. Temple Ner Tamid is in Peabody, but when Passover begins on Wednesday and continues through April 16, Perlman will be streaming services online from his home, not the temple.
“It won’t be the same. My children won’t be in the room with me as they have been all their lives. But we are all sitting on the same Earth,” he said.
The Greek Orthodox faith celebrates Palm Sunday this week and Easter on April 19. Father George Tsoukalas has shouldered the triple tasks of learning to live-stream, compressing a more than two-hour Easter service into an hour and calling more than 15 congregation members every day to check on them.
“We have some people who are sick and we pray for them,” he said.
St. George Greek Orthodox Church on South Common Street won’t fill with worshippers during Holy Week. Only Tsoukalas and a cantor and sextant will be present to live-stream worship.
This stripped-down way of worshipping presents challenges and advantages, said Pastor Ian Holland, First Church of Swampscott. A congregation member in her 90s who has not been able to come to church has “attended” services online since earlier in March when Holland and church members started conducting all services through online group chat service Zoom.
About 80 people on average attended church services prior to coronavirus’ inception. That number almost doubled with online attendance, Holland said.
But some Holy Week highlights cannot be replicated online. The traditional Maundy Thursday service and meal marking Jesus’ last supper with his disciples can only be partly replicated online.
“We can have a lot of people participating but it will be a muted celebration. I miss people face to face and the quiet conversations before and after services,” Holland said.
Flynn agreed and said he has asked St. Mary’s faithful to strengthen their connection to the church during Holy Week by keeping a plant symbolically close to them during Palm Sunday Mass and lighting a candle and dressing up for the vigil service.
Calvary Christian Church Pastor Jamie Booth in Lynnfield is streaming four Sunday services online but the dramatic renderings of Christ’s passion staged over two weekends during Easter are canceled.
Song, prayer and conversation shared online will take the place of acting and music that usually fills the church during Holy Week.
“We’re adjusting well. It seems like all of our church has been able to find us,” Booth said.
Iglesia Evangelica Luz y Vida Pastor Blas Mercedes has put his Lynn church’s Wednesday and Sunday services on Facebook Live and used technology to assist the church’s 275 congregation members in other ways during the outbreak.
The church provided an online unemployment aid resource to worshippers last Friday with two church members volunteering to help people fill out online applications.
“Our biggest challenge is uplifting people. A lot of them have been scared by misinformation,” said church volunteer Julio Polonia.
Ahmadiyya Muslim Community Boston Chapter in Sharon counts almost 40 North Shore residents, including Lynn Muslims, among its worshippers. Meetings and Friday services have been canceled due to coronavirus, but volunteer Nasir M. Rana said Islam is a faith practiced communally and individually with worshippers praying on their own.
“It doesn’t break a link with God. We can observe daily activities at home,” Rana said.
He is looking forward to Ramadan’s start at the month’s end even though a communal dinner may be postponed or canceled. Coronavirus, said Rana, has called the faithful to “use this time for self reflection for all of humanity.”
Father Tsoukalas hopes coronavirus will prompt clergy of all faiths and worshippers to recapture Sunday as a day for worship and family.
“My faith is strong. I hope we all learn a lesson,” he said.
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COVID-19 has forced remote worship arrangements and stressed finances as several faiths mark the holiest week of the year. Rev. Brian Flynn of St. Mary’s Church in Lynn has been Facebook live-streaming mass to combat the issue. (Olivia Falcigno)
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