For nearly two decades, St. John’s Episcopal Church in Southampton had never once locked its doors, keeping them open for rest, prayer, solace and peace 24 hours a day, seven days a week — with no exceptions.
It was a tradition born from the devastation of September 11, 2001, a time when religious, spiritual and agnostic individuals alike needed guidance, or simply a place to go, following the terrorist attack on New York City that day, just 90 miles away.
Weighed down by uncertainty and fear, parishioners sought a similar degree of comfort when the COVID-19 outbreak reached the East End this past March. Some turned to their houses of worship as beacons of hope — and, in the case of St. John’s, knew the doors would always be open.
Until they weren’t.
The day that the Reverend Patrick Edwards broke the ritual for the first time in 19 years — at a moment when, arguably, the community needed the church the most — crushed him.
“It was terrible,” he said. “COVID hit and I was ordered by my bishop to lock the church. I was told I wasn’t allowed to come inside my building. It was a terrible blow.”
Having since reopened and, now, operating at 30-percent capacity, or 40 people, St. John’s is looking toward the rapidly approaching holiday season with cautious optimism, as are churches and synagogues across the East End. But with positive cases continuing to surge in Suffolk County, Rev. Edwards fears another mandatory shutdown, despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision last week that blocked New York State’s restrictions on the number of people who can gather for religious services.
“While the pandemic poses many grave challenges, there is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues and mosques,” Justice Neil Gorsuch stated in his opinion.
Even still, many East End clergy members are carefully following state and, in some instances, differing Diocesan regulations that slap strict regulations on Hanukkah celebrations, which start the evening of Thursday, December 10, and Christmas Eve and Day masses at the end of the month.
“There is every reason for us to believe that if things continue with the present trends and the spike, that we’ll be reduced down to 25 percent very quickly,” Rev. Edwards said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we closed again before Christmas. And I’m actually telling myself to be prepared.”
Home for the Holidays, Mostly
On a cold winter night last December, the Center for Jewish Life-Chabad Sag Harbor hosted “Light,” a party and art show complete with latkes and a donut bar to celebrate the first night of Hanukkah — a gathering that, undoubtedly, nearly all of its 100 revelers took for granted.
“This year it’s a very different feel,” Rabbi Berel Lerman said. “People are concerned and we have to be careful, of course, for public health and safety. And in life, whenever there’s challenge, we have to get creative and we have to certainly think out of the box and think in ways that we would not have thought otherwise — which leads us to the bright side, or the silver lining, sometimes.”
Only time will tell what that could be, as some clergy members anxiously await any last-minute government mandates that change the face of religious observances on the East End. The Center for Jewish Life has already planned a virtual menorah lighting on Saturday, December 12, at 6 p.m., followed by a socially distanced outdoor ice menorah lighting the next day at 4:30 p.m. at the Sag Harbor center.
Temple Adas Israel has shifted entirely to Zoom, hosting a virtual party for the Sag Harbor synagogue’s members on each of the eight nights, featuring Rabbi Dan Geffen lighting the menorah from different locations all around the village “to highlight the remarkable place we call home,” he said.
“Like our ancestors, we believe that now, more than ever, we are being called to be bringers of light,” he said. “So even though we wish we could be together in person, we won’t let anything stop us from celebrating the miracle of Hanukkah, and praying and working for a brighter tomorrow.”
By complete accident, the “Pop-up Chanukah” celebration that Rabbi Joshua Franklin conceived last year happens to lend itself perfectly to social distancing, he said, and he will continue the tradition at outdoor menorah lightings each night, from Main Beach and Guild Hall in East Hampton to Stuart’s Seafood Market in Amagansett — following “Menorah Palooza” on the first night, all hosted by the Jewish Center of the Hamptons.
“All of these are subject to change, given any COVID restrictions that might arise,” Mr. Franklin said. “It is conceivable that within the next week or so, that might — well, who knows, right?”
As churches face capacity caps on what, for most, is the biggest night of the year, Most Holy Trinity Parish in East Hampton will quadruple its services. With the help of Montauk-based priest Father Edward Beck, Most Holy Trinity will offer an earlier-than-usual Christmas Eve Mass at 2 p.m. in both the parish hall — which, at 50-percent capacity, will seat 300 — and in the church building, reserved for overflow.
Another pair of Masses will be held at 5:30 p.m., followed by a Spanish Mass in the parish hall at 9 p.m., and Christmas Day services at 9 and 11:30 a.m.
“What we’re doing is allowing for a lot of options, so people can go to church, but not with a crush of people,” the Reverend Ryan Creamer said. “It’s been a challenge, certainly, but patience and prayer gets you through everything. This parish was very responsible and everybody has followed the rules and done what’s necessary, and we make the sacrifices — with high-risk people not coming to church still, everyone wears the masks, we don’t have congregational singing, there’s spacing in the parish hall. So we’re moving forward — and following the rules really gets you to where you want to be.”
At the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Westhampton Beach, it’s business as usual for Christmas Eve, with a pair of masses at 4 p.m. — one in the parish center and the other in the church, which it has always done, according to Father Mike Bartholomew — followed by a 6 p.m. Mass in the parish center, an 8 p.m. Spanish service, and a midnight Mass in the church.
“I have retirees that help me out, and so we’ll probably have them on alert should we need to have a double Mass in the church, if we’re stretched with crowds,” he said. “I’m not sure that that’s going to really come to pass, to be honest. We have decent crowds, but we’re still significantly less than we were normally, so I really don’t know that you’re gonna have it packed out.”
With St. John’s still operating at 30-percent capacity, Rev. Edwards said he is already dreading turning away parishioners,“but we’re gonna hit a limitation.” Every year, at least one of the Christmas services is always standing room only, he said.
“We’ve got a tent outside with a TV, so there’s a closed-circuit live feed out there with sound and video,” he said. “We’re probably going to continue to do that. As long as people are willing to sit underneath our tent, I’m willing to put the tent up.”
The Reverend Kimberly Quinn Johnson, on the other hand, is not willing to host in-person gatherings at all for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork — even though they’re technically allowed.
“We want to be really cautious,” she said. “The majority of our congregation is in what we consider high-risk groups. We are much older, a lot of folks in our congregation have pre-existing conditions, and we just want to do what keeps everybody safe. We’re thinking of this whole year as a year of sacrifice, so we are able to be safer together in person at the end.”
The Bridgehampton-based congregation will meet for a candlelight Christmas Eve service on Zoom — “I’ll probably spend December mailing candles to people’s homes so that we can have them,” Rev. Johnson said with a laugh — and the youth will present a virtual Christmas pageant on the Sunday before.
“We have no idea what that will be like. It will be creative and it will be different,” Rev. Johnson said. “I’m really impressed with how resilient our kids are. They’re amazing. They are finding their own strength in how they worship together. It makes me a little teary — teary that they find it, and really sad that they have to. It’s just a terrible year for them.”
The fallout from the pandemic has the reverend questioning whether she should lead a Blue Christmas service, which marks the longest night of the year and acknowledges the sadness that some people feel around the holidays.
“As soon as we started offering it, so many people came because they experienced those feelings, but didn’t express them,” she said. “I’ve been toying with the idea of doing that on Zoom, and I don’t know if something like that would be even more sad — to experience that particular service and not be in person. I’m trying to gauge the community to see if it would be strengthening for people, or if it would be further isolating for people who are already feeling isolated.”
A Yearning for Faith
It is not just the congregants who are grappling with loneliness, Rev. Edwards pointed out. He has heard rumblings of a “coming crisis of the clergy because a lot of folks are wretchedly burned out,” he said, many of them extremely people-oriented and unable to socialize or leave their posts.
Others wrestle with the trauma they faced in the early days of the pandemic. For Fr. Bartholomew, that looked like anointing COVID-19 patients, and praying alongside the families of the sick and dying through the windows of hospitals, hospice and care centers, unable to visit them in person.
“At the height of it, there were challenges — wanting to help people to the best of my ability and recognizing that, no, I can’t necessarily do exactly as I would do normally, like hugging a person who’s grieving,” he said. “That was probably the most difficult, to care for the sick and care for the dying. That was radically changed once they started shutting things down.”
Before non-essential businesses shuttered, Rev. Edwards found himself strolling around Roosevelt Field Mall in Garden City, wearing his collar, after meeting with the Bishop of Long Island, the Reverend Lawrence C. Provenzano, at his office nearby.
Shockingly, he was stopped six separate times — with light-hearted comments like, “Hey Father, do you think we’re gonna be okay here?” to more serious questions, imploring him for words of comfort, even blessings.
“It really showed the beginnings of people wanting to know what all this means and why this is happening — and I think we’re still processing this,” he said. “I’m a historian as well as a priest, and the thing I always want to say is faith communities are very important parts of our society. They provide support, they provide advocacy — aside from the obvious invitations of faith and worship and a relationship with God.
“From a purely civic point of view, churches provide so much in terms of assistance, support, in terms of the ability for people to express themselves in safe places that they can get reflected back reason and tolerance and cooperation and love,” he continued. “When you take that out of the mix, I think society really suffers.”
After celebrating three major Jewish holidays — Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — in a virtual setting, Mr. Franklin said he has noticed a certain “stir-craziness” among some of his congregants, describing them as “emotionally fried.”
To combat mental health struggles, the Jewish Center is currently hosting a four-part series, “Conversations About Emotional Well-Being Amidst COVID,” with psychotherapist Beatty Cohan, who will discuss navigating stress and anxiety, maintaining healthy relationships, finding meaningful connecting, and better dealing with instability — especially through the holiday season.
“We’re doing the best we can at a time when we can’t do the things that we want to do,” Mr. Franklin said. “And so, Hanukkah will happen one way or another. Hopefully, it will happen in ways that really do allow us to physically bring light into the world, but at the very least, even if we have to do it virtually, we’re gonna do that and it’s gonna be sacred and it’s gonna be special.”
The story of Hanukkah itself contains endless lessons of resilience, Mr. Lerman said, from the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire — which, against all odds, the guerrilla-style Jewish army won — to the rededication of the destroyed Second Temple, where the soldiers found only enough oil to keep the menorah’s candles burning for a single night and, instead, the flames flickered for eight.
“What does this represent?” the rabbi said. “A circumstance that may seem entirely foregone, that may seem entirely lost, hopeless, written off, there’s no way forward — there’s always that hidden cruse of oil that we can tap into, to overcome the seemingly brick wall that may be standing before us. And this happens through being optimistic, this happens though hope.”