Religious leaders on coronavirus: ‘This is where faith becomes life’

Religious leaders on coronavirus: ‘This is where faith becomes life’

Slatersville Congregational Church is one of many that has had to cancel in-person services and move them online during the coronavirus outbreak. (Breeze photo by Lauren Clem)

When state officials began announcing measures to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus earlier this month, the Rev. Eileen Morris of Slatersville Congregational Church knew she’d have to make some changes if she wanted to continue reaching her congregation.

She prepared to move services online, enlisting the help of local filmmaker Christian de Rezendes to record her services for the website and Facebook page. Her parishioners also jumped into action, setting up a support network to check in on each other, especially those unable to leave their homes during the crisis.

“Our volunteers will call them a couple times a week while all this is going on,” said Morris. “And then we can get an idea of how they’re doing. Do they need groceries, do they need anyone to pick up medication for them.”

As the coronavirus shuts down public worship services across the state, worship leaders have found innovative ways to continue reaching their flocks, most of them involving streaming services online. The technology can be unfamiliar for communities that rely on face-to-face interaction, but Morris said it’s enabled her to offer a comforting message to those staying home.

“My message then and my message now is, ‘You’re not alone in this, God is with you.’ And I’ve heard from folks how comforting that was,” she said.

In the Diocese of Providence, most Catholic churches have begun offering online services since Bishop Thomas Tobin suspended all public Masses last week. A full list of online and televised services is available on the diocesan website. Many youth programs have also been able to continue, including the Father Marot CYO Center on Harris Avenue in Woonsocket, which used video conferencing technology to hold its first online prayer meeting Monday night.

At Masjid Al-Islam on Sayles Hill Road, Mufti Ikram ul-Haq said he’s started live-streaming Friday prayers, with between 300 and 400 people participating last week. Though the mosque remains open for individual prayer, traffic into and out of the space, said ul-Haq, has been extremely limited, and people are maintaining distance from each other. The mosque has also canceled its Sunday school and moved its Islamic learning program online.

In addition to religious literature, ul-Haq said he’s using Facebook and WhatsApp to share state and federal health advisories with his congregation.

“I think we play a major role in this situation,” he said about religious leaders. “Because there are a lot of people who wouldn’t listen to the authorities, who wouldn’t listen to (information) coming from the CDC, but if I tell them do this or do that, they would adhere to that and they would take it seriously.”

His major concern, he said, is for the upcoming holy month of Ramadan, which begins at the end of April. In the past, celebrations surrounding Ramadan have drawn close to 1,000 worshippers to the mosque.

“We’re hoping that this thing would be over by then, otherwise we would have major disruption to our holy month as well,” he said.

Morris also has concerns about the long-term effects of the situation, especially how it will impact the North Smithfield Food Pantry, located in the basement of the church. Though volunteers have been able to continue the pantry using a drive-thru system to protect volunteers and clients, Morris said they’ve begun to see disruptions in food supplies as a result of the panic buying in markets. She encouraged anyone interested in donating food to call the church between 9 and 11:30 a.m. to coordinate drop-off.

She added that many of her friends who are pastors are also doing what they can to reach their communities during this difficult time.

“If you’re a follower of Jesus, you have to do something. This is where faith becomes life,” she said.