In A Time Of Darkness, Congregations Seek New Ways To Find The Light

The Basilica Parish of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary sits empty during the COVID-19 epidemic, but attendance -- by way of the internet -- is up. lori hawkins photo

In normal times, the pews of churches would be full, as Christians gather during Holy Week to observe the most important events of their faith: the steps leading to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and his ultimate resurrection on Easter Sunday.

But these are not normal times. And churches, like so many other institutions, are closed across the East End, as part of the sweeping effort to gain the upper hand on the coronavirus that has killed thousands of people and sickened many, many more across the country.

The trying circumstances have left clergy scrambling to make use of new technology to keep in touch with their congregants, many of whom may be understandably on edge during the pandemic. Ministers acknowledge they, too, are struggling as they are prevented from having normal day-to-day contact with their parishioners.

Yet some say they see the possibility that the isolation may be giving their congregants the opportunity to more deeply explore their faith and that the technology they are using now may become a more mainstream part of their ministry.

“This is absolutely unprecedented,” said the Reverend Michael Vetrano, the pastor of Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary Roman Catholic Church in Southampton. “I’ve never seen a time, where we were not able to get together for such an extended period.”

For most of the past month, Father Vetrano has been working with a small team — a videographer, a cantor, maybe one or two others to help with the readings — to prerecord Masses that are then uploaded to the parish website and Facebook page. They will do the same for the traditional Holy Week services on Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday.

“The first reaction people have to this is, ‘Part of my routine has been canceled. How do I fill the time or work around it?’” he said. “But people are starting to ask some deeper questions: What is the spiritual meaning of this?”

As people struggle with thoughts of their own mortality in the face of the pandemic, they begin to realize, “an awful lot of life is not in our control,” he added.

He lamented that the pandemic has kept him from the normal contact with his parishioners in their time of need, saying that he found himself praying with the sick on opposite sides of a glass divider or over an intercom in the hospital. “I prayed over the phone with a family that couldn’t be in the hospital at all,” he added.

The Reverend Sarah Bigwood, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Southampton, said it was essential for ministers to stay in touch. “When you can’t meet face to face, it is really critical that the leadership makes a connection with our members,” she said.

Rev. Bigwood has conducted services through a livestreaming service called Twitch and uploaded video to the church’s website and Facebook page, but she fears that could leave older parishioners feeling excluded. While younger members may be comfortable using computers and tablets, “some members of the congregation can only use their phones,” she said. To help bridge the gap, church members have volunteered to call one another, and the congregation uses robocalls to alert members of upcoming remote services.

“It’s difficult thinking about celebrating without my people being present,” said the Reverend Linda Maconochie, the pastor of two Presbyterian congregations, the Old Whalers’ Church in Sag Harbor and the Springs Community Church. “Easter comes whether we are together or apart, but preaching to an empty room is hard.”

Rev. Maconochie, who is also conducting remote services with the help of an iPhone, said she misses visiting in person with her congregants to administer the type of pastoral care that is such an important part of her job.

This week also marks the beginning of Passover, one of the holiest times of the year for the Jewish faith, and Rabbi Daniel Geffen of Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor said the similarities to today’s pandemic and the plagues God rained down on the Egyptians in Exodus might be a little too close for comfort this year. “This will be a Passover unlike any other Passover,” he said.

With closure orders in place, he said rabbis are finding themselves “bending rules in ways that would ordinarily be inconceivable” and are doing things like “using technology on Shabbat or holidays that would normally be prohibited.”

Like many others, Rabbi Geffen said he has been prerecording services and uploading them to the congregation’s YouTube channel. “We are doing all the things we would basically be doing except no one else is in the building,” he said.

One thing Temple Adas Israel won’t be able to do this year: hold its traditional community Seder on Thursday, the second night of Passover.

The Jewish Center of the Hamptons is taking a different approach. It will hold a community Seder using Zoom, video-conferencing platform, that has become a household name as more people work from home.

Rabbi Joshua Franklin said the pandemic had thrown a monkey wrench into the plans of many extended families to gather for Passover, so it was important to provide a place for them to gather, even if it is via video monitor.

“People right now need more than ever a sense of community,” he said, “because there is a sense of darkness that is pervading the world.”

Father Michael A. Vetrano. lori hawkins photo

The Reverend Denis Brunelle, the rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in East Hampton, said he, too, was doing services via Zoom, but because he is alone, he is unable to celebrate the Eucharist, so the services are scaled back. Still, he said, parishioners seem to accept the new normal.

“They are just appreciative of the fact that we have some form of community,” he said, adding that the parish has also been holding after-service coffee hours on Zoom. “It’s the one time social media has actually worked well,” he said.

At St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Westhampton Beach, the Reverend Lesley Hay, who has served as interim priest since August, described herself as “a very passionate liturgist” who is “keen on how services are done.”

She said she had tried to have a Christmas pageant, with Mary, riding on a donkey and accompanied by Joseph, seeking shelter on Main Street, but major sewer work derailed that idea. She joked that she had hoped to bring the donkey back to do a similar pageant commemorating Christ’s triumphant arrival in Jerusalem shortly before his betrayal, but the pandemic nixed that idea as well.

“I’m feeling really thwarted,” she said. Although she had to “scrap the donkey again” for Palm Sunday, she said she had erected three crosses to represent Calvary, where Christ was crucified, on the front lawn of the church, and had left palms outside for parishioners to take.

Rev. Hay said she too has relied on livestreaming services to Facebook and YouTube, and she said she noticed attendance has been surprisingly good.

“Some days I get more people viewing what I do remotely than show up on Sundays,” she said. “When this is all done, the church might take on a different perspective and be totally changed” and start to incorporate more remote services.

The Reverend S.A. Maddaloni, the pastor of St. Rosalie’s Roman Catholic Church in Hampton Bays, said it was a struggle to work remotely. “I have found it difficult to communicate with the people,” he said via email. “I have posted columns and information and the YouTube links on the website and Facebook, but I have spoken to several parishioners who did not know about this because they don’t check those sites.”

Palms were left outside for parishioners to pick up.

He added that he sent a letter out via email, but realized the parish had email addresses for fewer than a third of its members. The parish has now turned to try to call every member in its database.

“It is a challenging time,” he said. “I pray regularly for this crisis to end.”

The Reverend George Dietrich, the pastor of St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Amagansett and Incarnation Lutheran Church in Bridgehampton, said it was important to recognize that the virus will pass, but that some of the economic fallout may not for the foreseeable future.

“This is going to expose who we are as a society,” he said, “and reveal how fragile our economy really is.”

He said he is relying on Facebook, Zoom, and other technologies, but that “the old-fashioned telephone chain has become a big part of our ministry.”

“We’ve always thought about doing stuff like this,” he added, “but this has really forced us to think outside the box.”

“The part I love about my job the most is being with people, being able to physically reach out to people,” said the Reverend Karen Campbell, the pastor of Christ Episcopal Church in Sag Harbor, who said the pandemic had taken that away. “But God is alive and moving in the world,” she continued. “Even though it is a very terrible time, God is always working to create life in the midst of all this death.”

She said she had struggled to master the technology required to stream services but had received help from Rabbi Geffen. She added that she and her fellow ministers were working on preparing a joint prayer service based on salvation stories that would be posted to church websites and Facebook pages.

Like others, she said she looked forward to celebrating when the health crisis is over. “It will be Easter whatever Sunday we come back,” she said.