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Philly-area religious leaders adapt to reach their faithful as pandemic drags on

The pandemic hit with full force in the United States just as all Abrahamic religions were observing major holidays: Easter, Passover, and month-long Ramadan, which ends May 23.

Across all faiths, the livestreamed services begin much the same. An empty pulpit or podium, sometimes makeshift, stands at the ready. Buoyant greetings scroll below, welcoming unseen worshipers.

“Good morning, church family!”

“As salaam alaikum!”

“Shabbat Shalom!”

Off-camera, the Rev. Lauren Cain, pastor at First United Church of Christ in Royersford, presses the play button on her iPhone and a hymn prerecorded by the church pianist fills the silent space. With the final note, Cain takes her place at a music stand inside her Lansdowne home, a watercolor Jesus looking down from the yellow wall behind her.

“Good morning, Church! It’s a great day to come together in community to worship God, and I want to welcome you to our livestream worship service on Facebook Live,” she says, her voice slightly reverberating in the audio. She opens her arms wide to embrace her congregation, somewhere out there.

The coronavirus has left church pews unoccupied, synagogues and masjids empty. The pandemic hit with full force in the United States just as all Abrahamic religions were observing major holidays: Easter, Passover, and monthlong Ramadan, which ends May 23. Although the majority of states, including Pennsylvania, allow religious exemptions to social distancing, most houses of worship have closed their doors anyway, or at least limited entry. As a result, spiritual leaders have had to find new ways to keep their communities engaged and to offer them hope — from afar.

For the 34-year-old Cain, shepherding a virtual flock is only one daunting task she faces in the time of COVID. The mother of a 6-month-old son born premature and the wife of a grocery-store employee, she must keep her home safe. When the pandemic began, her husband, Ryan, switched to an overnight shift at Giant in the hope of having less contact with people. She and baby John have left the house only for walks in their neighborhood, past the closed Penn Wood High School, beneath blossoming cherry trees.

“Pastors are just regular people,” she said.

When the weather is nice, Cain writes her sermons on her white porch, as she did on the last Saturday of April, her brow furrowed in concentration on the tablet she bought for the transition to remote services. Occasionally, she looked up to check on John, wrestling quietly in his playpen.

When preachers preach, Cain explained, it’s often to themselves. They say what they need to hear. So she writes her sermons for those seeking peace and comfort.

“My sermons every week are about the virus, and I try to offer a hopeful message,” she said. “It’s hard to talk about something different than this. It doesn’t seem honest if I avoid it.”

» READ MORE: This priest rode around South Philadelphia blessing people from the back of a pickup truck

Before COVID reached into Montgomery County, First UCC was a small church of small families, with an average Sunday attendance of 30 to 40. Her first livestream on March 15 in front of an empty church drew almost 600 views. Cain’s Facebook sermons, however, draw about 200 views on average. Being able to reach a broader and possibly younger audience has been an unexpected blessing born of so much misery, but experts are not ready to declare a nationwide trend.

There is some anecdotal evidence that younger Americans in particular are tuning in to online services, but no data or surveys indicate that a religious revival is at hand, according to Diane Winston, an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and the Knight Center Chair in Media and Religion. Citing an article in the New Statesman, she said that downloads of Bible apps skyrocketed in Britain in March, as did Google searches. That, however, has not been the case in the United States.

“Organized religion is not seeing much of a bump; its numbers are holding steady,” Winston said. “The big change is people’s individual religiosity. People are praying more. They are reporting feeling closer to God. People may not be going online to worship, but they may be seeking religion and spirituality in their own personal ways.”

» READ MORE: The path to reopening brings anxieties about how to navigate the new normal

She noted that congregation leaders have had to get creative to meet the needs of their members, including drive-in confessionals and services. In Philadelphia, a Zoom bat mitzvah was held for Eve Kobell with congregation Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel.

At the same time, Winston said, a looming concern for shuttered religious institutions is a fall-off in donations. Funding may prove to be an issue moving forward.

“This is a really interesting time for American religion,” she said. “The pandemic feels to me like a very spiritual and religious challenge for us, because the big questions we normally don’t ask are confronting us.”

Isolation in a communal month

Gracing the spacious prayer area at Masjidullah Inc. in Germantown is a plush red carpet into which is woven intricate Islamic art of a minaret. During Ramadan, the holiest month of the year for Muslims, it would be trafficked by thousands of feet, and bear the crush of worshipers’ knees bent in prayer. Instead, the carpet is barely touched.

On a Friday afternoon in the second week of Ramadan, Shaheed Muhammad, wearing clear gloves, raised his hands behind his ears and made the call to prayer. Imam Adris Abdul Zahir then took to the lectern, on which an iPhone was affixed, for the livestreamed khutbah, or sermon.

“It’s totally weird, going to the masjid, standing where I normally stand where there are usually several 100 people there, and there’s two people,” Zahir, 40, said. “It’s really hard to have the same level of enthusiasm. That’s a marked challenge."

After the khutbah, the livestream was turned off, and Zahir led the jummah, or Friday prayer, with just five other men.

Ramadan is a communal month, where Muslims not only come together to pray but also break their fast for iftar with friends and family. The pandemic paused this practice, adding to the feeling of isolation.

» READ MORE: For Philadelphia-area Muslims, breaking their daily fast brings a mix of emotions

But there have been some positive outcomes, Zahir emphasized during his khutbah.

“We believe that there are things that are predestined, that we have no control over," he said. "The test in that event, the test in that challenge, is how we respond to those things. How we step up, or fail, in those moments. Hopefully these things will bring the best out of us.”

He cited food distribution efforts, grab-and-go iftars, and free coronavirus testing in partnership with the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium.

» HELP US REPORT: Are you a health care worker, medical provider, government worker, patient, frontline worker or other expert? We want to hear from you.

Long before COVID, Masjidullah livestreamed Friday khutbahs. But now, most mosques in the region are doing it, too. And that, Zahir said, is a beautiful thing.

“I’ve never seen so many sheikhs, so many imams on the internet,” he said.

Masjidullah is also offering online classes and discussions to keep the community engaged. Zahir recalled how touching it was when members got together for the first time on a weekly community check-in on a Sunday morning, saying how much they missed one another.

“Don’t take family for granted, don’t take being together for granted, don’t take our livelihoods for granted,” he said. “There are a lot of things we took for granted, up until this point.”

‘We will come through it’

On that final sunny Saturday in April, Cain finally caved in to the constant gurgling of her son, picking him up and holding him in one arm while she worked on the sermon. Her rolled-up sleeve revealed several tattoos, including a figure emerging from rubble with a hammer in hand — a remembrance of her time as a volunteer during Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. She said she belongs to a progressive denomination, whose core mission is to look out for the poor and the oppressed.

Right now, her job is to look out for everyone. Despite the challenge posed by the coronavirus, she recognizes that she’s in a manageable situation.

“We’re luckier than most, and I’m grateful for that and mindful that folks in our congregation are going through a lot,” Cain said.

“It’s going to take us a while” to move past the pandemic. “But we will. We will come through it eventually.”