At the beginning of March, Rabbi Eric Linder and 17 members of the Congregation Children of Israel were in Israel for a congregational trip, hoping to make it home to Athens. In between rearranging flights, Linder communicated his concerns about the spread of COVID-19 with congregation leaders as the pandemic worsened in the United States.
“Even though Israel was safe and felt completely safe, there was still that sense of anxiety to a degree,” Linder said.
Over the span of about a week, Congregation Children of Israel’s building in Athens went from staying open to shutting its doors until May 13.
Many religious groups in Athens have faced similar predicaments as the coronavirus spreads. During an uncertain time, these institutions are trying to understand what this means for gathering and practicing faith as a community.
Congregation Children of Israel, Cornerstone Church Athens, Athens Church and Oconee Heights Baptist Church have moved services to virtual platforms and social media, such as Facebook Live and YouTube.
These institutions are constitutionally protected from an ordinance that restricts gatherings of groups of more than 10 people, though they are “strongly encouraged to hold video or online services” and keep groups to less than 10 people, according to a list of essential businesses published by the Athens-Clarke County government.
Some of these groups have decided to cancel in-person activities, sermons and events indefinitely.
University of Georgia associate religion professor Derrick Lemons said that during times like the COVID-19 pandemic, churches have been rethinking what it means to worship together. Before the pandemic, online worship was used for those who were sick or traveling and could not make a service, Lemons said.
“What’s really new is online worshipping being the primary vehicle of gathering the community,” Lemons said. “There’s been a lot of conversations among pastors on how to appropriately do this.”
At Cornerstone Church Athens, lead pastor Scott Sheppard said they did not take the decision to cancel in-person services lightly. Cornerstone Church canceled services on March 15.
“We wanted to be proactive rather than reactive,” Sheppard said. “Just because we can't gather doesn't mean we still can't have community.”
Cornerstone is connecting with its community through social media platforms, including the church’s app, Sheppard said. Through the app, members can watch sermons, interact with a small group and make virtual donations.
Cornerstone usually feeds a large group every Sunday. On March 15, volunteers prepared and delivered meals to pick-up locations to avoid creating a large crowd. Sheppard expects similar outreach events over the coming weeks.
“God is still in control, and it’s more important that we remain faithful now than ever before,” Sheppard said.
At Oconee Heights Baptist Church, deacons have been assigned to call members to organize help, such as getting groceries for the eldery, ministry assistant Teresa Wilson said.
“We’re a small congregation and very family-oriented,” Wilson said. “We have to bond together and help each other.”
Oconee Heights is attempting to form more of an online presence, Wilson said. On March 22, the pastor and children's director recorded a video and posted it to the church’s Facebook page. They hope to continue the same process in the future.
Other churches, such as Athens Church, have encouraged members to stay connected with video conference platforms Zoom and FaceTime.
Jonathan Cheeseman, who attends Athens Church, said his church’s college group has already met over Zoom. He leads a small group for high school boys and is setting up a time for them to catch up.
Cheeseman’s first time watching an online worship service was March 22.
“I watch sermons on YouTube just kind of whenever, but this is the first time there’s ever any structure to it, like it’s going live at this time,” Cheeseman said.
Cheeseman found that he enjoyed the online service because it had more of a sense of unity than he expected.
Rabbi Linder had about 25 congregation members join his first Zoom service for Shabbat on March 20. He hopes to use Zoom for future meetings to unite people from the adult education program and for more worship services.
Linder had worshippers unmute themselves to interact with others during the Zoom call. He is still learning the system and has some ideas for next time, including helping elderly members to mute their microphones.
At Cornerstone, Sheppard said they rely on their faith and the community of their congregation to continue a spirit of unity.
Linder said prayers for healing and safety during Shabbat. He tries to reassure people and provide comfort, he said.
“A lot of the concerns I’ve heard from many people is not really about ‘Is this going to affect my relationship with God?’” Lemons said. “The COVID-19 pandemic reminds people, ‘Maybe I don’t have as much of life figured out as I thought I did.’”
Lemons said he believes the response to COVID-19 will help faith communities in the future figure out what they are really about.
“It’s very easy to just kind of do things without really thinking about the ‘why’ questions — this really affects that,” Lemons said.