As the Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler stood at the pulpit of Philadelphia’s historic Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church and delivered his sermon on Sunday, he spoke to empty pews and the unblinking eye of a webcam — a steady silence in place of the energetic call-and-response that would normally assure him that his words were landing.
Then Tyler glanced at his phone and saw the comments scrolling alongside his Facebook Live feed, sliding up the screen faster and faster as he hit his stride: “Amen," “Yes Lord," “Preach!”
“That’s the Amen corner, right there online,” Tyler said.
More than twice as many congregants streamed the service as could fit in Mother Bethel’s pews. That surge has lifted congregations of all faiths, as Philadelphians search for comfort and clarity during a crisis of biblical proportions even as most places of worship have closed their doors, shifting to livestreamed services and Zoom Bible study.
A majority of Americans have prayed for an end to the pandemic, according to a Pew Research Center poll released this week. The survey found that a significant number of people who rarely pray, or who don’t ascribe to a religion, have looked to God for a cure.
Some are also looking for answers, and faith leaders are reaching for their scriptures to interpret the current crisis and guide their response.
One likened it to the plagues brought down on the Egyptian pharaoh in Exodus — harsh lessons from God. Another referenced the apocalypse. Others called it a test of faith. State Rep. Stephanie Borowicz, who introduced a resolution to designate March 30 as a State Day of Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer, posited that the virus “may be but a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins.” Pope Francis, speaking from the Vatican, which has also been affected by the virus, said it “unmasks” the mixed-up priorities of modern life.
“It’s a wake-up call from him, trying to draw you into his love,” said Pastor Jerry Paradise of Calvary Chapel of Philadelphia in Somerton. (If so, it’s an effective one: When the church’s addiction ministry moved its weekly meetings online in March, attendance went from 150 people to 900.)
“We definitely believe that it’s a test and a trial from God to see how we respond,” said Imam Hassan Abdi of the Germantown Masjid. “We stress to the community not to be selfish. People are panic buying. It’s a test: Do we really consider our neighbors, or are we individuals who just care about self? If you just care about self, you don’t practice social distancing, you don’t quarantine yourself.”
Abdi closed the mosque in mid-March, and was forced to cancel a group Umrah pilgrimage to Mecca. He’s encouraging people to pray at home, and has set up a hotline for anyone, Muslim or not, who needs food assistance. He’s reminding them, “One of the primary objectives of Islamic law is the preservation of life.”
Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari of West Philadelphia’s Kol Tzedek synagogue said it’s natural to look to religion to find meaning from what’s happening.
“There is a way that Jewish theology makes more sense when we can see so clearly that we are physically connected to all life on Earth — and also that we can be a threat to one another,” Fornari said.
Fornari and other faith leaders have been using their platforms to help their congregations connect with one another through Zoom events and mutual aid networks, and also to advocate for action like releasing people from jail and immigration detention to curb the spread of COVID-19.
“Jewish tradition teaches us over and over again to protect those who are most vulnerable,” Fornari said. “In biblical language, that’s the orphan, the widow, and the minor, but today it’s folks who are undocumented, who are incarcerated, who are homeless.”
John Bergen, associate pastor at Germantown Mennonite Church, has been making the same arguments, with a different set of references.
“This is an apocalyptic moment in the original meaning of ‘apocalypse’: an uncovering of the state of the world," he said. "Our social safety net is broken, our health-care system is broken, our schools have been dismantled. All of that has been uncovered.”
But for leaders like Tyler, the religious metaphors only go so far.
”If we’re going to ascribe this to divine punishment, it’s hard to tell who God is mad at in this moment,” he said, given that the disease doesn’t discriminate.
Instead, he’s focused on how faith should guide the response: with acts of kindness and humanitarianism. He’s mobilizing a volunteer corps to check in by phone with each of his 700 members every week.
For his congregants, their new digital cathedrals are as much about connecting, providing mutual support and marking time, said Roberta Alford, who attends a Zoom Bible study and Sunday prayer with Mother Bethel.
“The passages our pastor has chosen are helpful in a time of uncertainty, when you don’t know what’s going to happen or when,” Alford said.
While canceling in-person services has become the obvious choice for most, some continue to allow the faithful to join in scattered pews. At least one Catholic church was still offering Communion wafers, placed directly on the tongue, as of Sunday, but following news reports, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia suspended the practice.
Others are struggling to convey a complicated message to congregants: to step up, but also to stay home.
Rabbi Jill Maderer of Philadelphia’s Rodeph Shalom synagogue said that normally, her response to any crisis, whether terrorism or natural disaster, is to urge congregants to gather and find strength in their community.
Now she’s telling them to stay home, reminding them of the Jewish concept of pikuach nefesh: "the highest mitzvah is to save a life.”