Easter Sunday at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Madison is a full-on celebration. Men wear suits, women wear colorful dresses and hats and they all gather to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus Christ with their signature gospel choir.
This year, that celebration of redemption and faith will look different.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, people cannot meet in-person on Easter, so Mt. Zion’s pastor, Marcus Allen, is hoping to gather parishioners together in separate vehicles. He is seeking a parking lot in town large enough to accommodate people so they can pull in Easter morning, stay in their cars, and listen and sing along with each other out their windows.
“That’s what we’re planning now, so hopefully we can make it happen,” Allen said.
It is one adaptation among many that religious congregations like Mt. Zion are making during the pandemic, as they seek new ways to come together spiritually. Mt. Zion is also offering prayer telephone calls Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 7 a.m., online morning devotionals, evening Bible studies and Sunday services online.
Many Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregations across the city are livestreaming their services on Facebook or YouTube and are supplementing their normal weekly services with other programs to reach people.
Local religious leaders say they have seen a lot of success in reaching new and old members during the COVID-19 crisis and say the pandemic has and will continue to alter how they practice their faith, both privately and publicly.
“Folks are re-thinking what it means to be a community, what is real community,” said Rev. Kerri Parker, executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, a consortium of 2,000 congregations of more than 20 Christian denominations in the state.
“We’ve seen more innovation in the last three weeks than we’ve seen in the last decade, as far as how we do church,” she said.
Parker said she has seen a variety of new programs, including virtual yoga classes at Trinity United Methodist Church in Madison and “Meditations in the Meadow,” a twice-daily meditation via Facebook Live from Oakland-Cambridge Presbyterian Pastor Scott Marrese, who speaks to people on his morning and evening walks. Other church leaders are writing letters to members and sending out CDs and written sermons to those who are not active online or have trouble accessing the internet.
She said she’s also seen churches do an online coffee hour, where members bring treats and coffee and have conversation via group chat; and story time with youth pastors and movie nights using Netflix Party, where churches can stream a movie online to a group of people.
The council is providing resources for church leaders, including technical help on how to get sermons online and reach congregants who are not as tech savvy. They also have support and mental health resources for congregants and leaders and a weekly Zoom call where pastors have access to a network of leaders who can help them guide and reach their members during the pandemic.
“The church has survived so many struggles throughout its history and folks get anxious and worry that the forms of our faith can’t be observed,” Parker said. “But it’s not the forms we worship, we’re worshiping someone else. The forms will follow if we keep our focus in the right place.”
Several major religious holidays this month, including Easter for Christians, Ramadan for Muslims and Passover for Jews, have spurred new ways to mark holy occasions.
Madison Muslims are preparing for Ramadan, which begins April 23, with a series of lessons on the “Madison Muslims” YouTube Channel, led by Sheikh Al-Hajj Jallow, leader of the Madinah Community Center.
Jallow is instructing people how to fast during the four-week long holiday and also broadcasting Friday lectures there, along with children’s programming. He is also calling members and doing virtual meetings as-needed.
“The online thing is pretty good, (but) the challenge is people, they want to talk to you in person. They want to see you,” he said. “People miss one another.”
But, he said, he is encouraging members to seek the positives about quarantine.
“We have to see the good. We have to read the good through it. (Now) we can spend more time with our children. We can teach them more things,” Jallow said. “In the normal days, people don’t have the time often, so now hearts are open.”
The Madinah Center has also created a relief program for neighbors of the mosque or anyone else in the community who is in need of groceries. Madinah Center will deliver and/or buy groceries wherever they are in Dane County.
“Our main focus right now is how to help people who are in need,” Jallow said. “If anyone is in need in Dane County, we have volunteers who are ready and we can be able to cover your groceries whenever you need it. We also have some online things for the volunteers for how to deliver these things to make sure you’re safe.”
At Temple Beth El in Madison, Rabbi Jonathan Biatch is also livestreaming Friday evening worship on the temple’s Facebook page. He records the services with his cantor as they keep their distance and last week adapted the Torah scroll reading with someone calling in to read it remotely.
“We’re really trying to keep in touch with our members and maintain our level of programs,” he said.
He is also regularly calling members who are shut-in, are not internet savvy and could use encouragement, he said, telling people the importance of following “stay at home” orders.
“We are trying to weather the storm even though we are shocked by this, so we have to be sensitive to people who are fearful,” he said. “At the same time, (we need to) be confident that there is an end to this, though we can’t see it and we have to be trusting that it’s there.”
The temple has started a “Quarantine Jewish Kitchen” program where a different congregant each week teaches other members how to make a Jewish dish. Last week, Biatch made roasted winter root vegetables. Another week, a member made charoset, a traditional Passover dish with apples and walnuts. On Monday, cheesecake is on the menu. Lessons are broadcast at noon periodically on Temple Beth El’s Facebook page.
There is also a Saturday morning Torah study where people look at the first five books of Moses and go over each week’s reading, along with Thursday night adult music lessons taught by the temple’s cantor.
Bar and bat mitzvahs and other life event services are continuing at the synagogue, though are also adapted to maintain distance, he said.
Celebrating Passover, which starts on the evening of April 8, is a difficult holiday to adapt because it centers around large family gatherings and a symbolically rich meal. That won’t happen this year, but Biatch and his cantor will do a Passover Seder at the synagogue and broadcast it live so families can follow along with their own family Seders at home.
With the work Temple Beth El continues to do in the community, Biatch said he has a common Jewish saying: “Pray as if everything depended upon God and work as if everything depended upon you.”
“We believe there is a sacred partnership between God and man and we have to do the work on Earth,” he said. “We do the work of God on this planet. God doesn’t intervene in the affairs of humanity.”
For Christians practicing Lent, the 40 days that lead up to Easter, the pandemic has shed new light on what the holy stories told in the Bible mean, and gives pastors real-life circumstances to dig deeper into their meaning, said Parker, of the Council of Churches.
“It’s been interesting that this takes place during Lent which is a season when we struggle with a sense of distance from God, a sense of penitence, a sense of struggling with what’s wrong in the world,” she said. “Often, we go through our cycles of readings, we go, ‘Oh I’m so familiar with these stories.’ (But) this is an extraordinary time (and) is making us dig deep and realizing that these sacred stories have been around for 2,000 years and many more in the case of the Old Testament because they have such deep meaning to unfold. There is something new we can lean on to tell us something true.”
Holy Week and Lent during the pandemic have prompted some Catholic priests at St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church to invite parishioners to pray alongside them during the priest’s personal prayer routine, the Liturgy of the Hours, which is the five times of prayer daily required of priests. That prayer time is in addition to masses that are streamed live on Facebook Monday through Friday and Sunday. Members are still able to come to pray inside the church as long as it is under 10 people.
The St. Maria Goretti priests have also started a “fireside chat” Facebook livestream program where they answer parishioners’ questions and talk about life in the rectory, which has had a growing audience, said Father Bill Van Wagner, one of the priests at St. Maria Goretti.
“Our idea was to give people an opportunity to ask some questions and curiosities and offer a more of an informal discussion on that so we still feel like in some way we are ministering to our people, sharing our love for Jesus with them in the hopes that they, too, love Jesus and our faith inspires them and their faith inspires us.”
There is also a parallel in the Lenten season and quarantine in church history, Van Wagner said. The word “quarantine” has historical roots in the Italian word “quaranta” which means “40.”
“During the plague and movements of pestilence, the rulers of both churches and civil officials would require people to do 40 days of isolation in prayer and fasting,” he said. “It’s really sort of interesting that this is happening during the church’s annual quarantine (with) 40 days of fasting.”
Despite the hardship, this time is meant to lead into the celebration of Easter.
“Even in this time while we’re under national quarantine, I think it’s really important to be close to Christ and remember that Jesus rose from the dead. That means we have certain hope in the goodness of God and the love of God for us,” he said.