House of God

While many aspects of worship transfer with great success online, some practices, like social action, need to be done in-person. Though now they have to wear masks, Rabbi Bruce Greenbaum and volunteers from different faith communities still serve meals for the homeless as the part of the group Jews, Christians and Muslims United.

There are some things that just aren’t the same now that houses of worship have been closed. Gone are the days of taking communion and drinking from the same cup in a church. So is praying side-by-side and barefoot in a mosque. Or singing along with the vigor and energy of a live Baptist choir.

But as local businesses and schools have found a way to adapt, so too have local churches, synagogues and mosques. Like everything during shelter-in-place, they’ve tried to go virtual.

“It was challenging,” Rabbi Bruce Greenbaum of Congregation Beth Israel in Carmel says. There was talk of an outdoor service and the pros and cons of online worship, but what was most important to Greenbaum was preserving the experience of coming together at a synagogue.

“Traditionally, a synagogue and a congregation are three things: house of worship, house of study and house of gathering,” Greenbaum says, noting the social aspect of coming together as a community in one physical location. “There is a recognition that part of that is asking questions of each other, what’s going on in your life,” he says.

The best way to preserve that aspect was through live Zoom meetings, says Greenbaum. Moving services online has been going well – and engaging even more people than in pre-pandemic times, when he’d expect 50 to 70 people to attend services. “I’d say we have 100 people attending now – not every service – but it’s up,” he says.

Online services have made it more accessible, plus there are no excuses because “no one has anywhere to go,” Greenbaum jokes. For older congregants who are feeling particularly isolated during SIP, online services have become one of the few regular opportunities to engage with other people.

Beyond attendance, there’s another advantage of online worship: congregant participation. “I decided instead of giving a sermon one day, to let people discuss topics in groups,” Greenbaum says. It stuck. Some days instead of delivering sermons, he’ll direct members to go into breakout rooms on Zoom and actively discuss teachings.

“Social action is part of worship.”

There are some aspects of religion that can’t translate over wires and screens, however. Greenbaum is a part of Jews, Christians and Muslims United. Followers of those three religions continue to make meals for the homeless in what they call Abraham’s Tent on Thursdays in Seaside. “Social action is part of worship,” Greenbaum says. “If we can all still feed a few hungry people, we will.”

Rev. Linda McConnell of Church of the Good Shepherd in Salinas utilizes Zoom in a similar way to Beth Israel. She knows the importance of keeping the social part of worship intact, noting the downtime before and after services is a meaningful time for people to catch up with each other and just to chat. So she adapted that to the virtual space: “We have 30-minute coffee ‘hours’,” McConnell says. “There’s always a topic to discuss and they break away into small groups.” Afterward, congregants can view a recorded service on YouTube for that week.

Some aspects are harder to adapt virtually, like singing. “Oh god, when it was on Zoom and everyone’s mics were on, it sounded really bad,” McConnell says, laughing. (Now, they record their singers with follow-along lyrics on YouTube.)

“We record them and add some textures so it sounds as sensorial as possible,” she says. “Music hits our soul like words cannot. The soul, the spirit, whatever you want to call it. It reaches us in a different place.”

After some minor tech hiccups, the church has fully embraced virtual worship, adding daily morning prayers, a book club and a bible study class. “It expands the possibilities,” she says. “That’s the most exciting and empowering thing about it – it’s like, ‘OK, we have this new medium, what can work with it in creative ways?’”

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