Keeping the faith in the coronavirus era

From online bedtime stories to check-ins with 500 seniors

WHILE HEROIC HEALTH CARE PROVIDERS are on the front lines, putting themselves at risk as they care for patients being ravaged by the novel coronavirus, faith leaders and their congregations are playing an indispensable role providing spiritual healing and comfort, while also helping to care for the physical needs of many.

The cruel irony of the COVID-19 pandemic is that the need to maintain community and hold each other close is colliding with the imperative that we stay apart from one another physically. Pastor Day McCallister of First Church Somerville and Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz of Temple Emanuel in Newton offer vivid testimony on this week’s Codcast to all the ways that faith communities are overcoming that barrier.

Gardenswartz said the temple’s daily prayer service usually drew 15 to 20 people to the synagogue. “Now that we’re streaming it online, we get more than 200 people following it,” he says. “The ironic impact is that more people are connected spiritually in this age of physical distancing than were connected spiritually before because it fulfills human needs for meaning and purpose, especially at a hard time.”

“We have online Zoom classes that are reaching a lot more people and [we are doing] a lot more justice work, a lot more loving kindness work — a lot more impact of people helping people,” he says. “All of that is on fire. All of that is alive in ways that are deeper than happened before COVID-19.”

At First Church Somerville, Day says regular sit-down meals for the homeless have transitioned to take-out meals that are being prepared each day. The church has given over its more spacious sanctuary, in place of the usual use of a church meeting room, so that the local Alcoholics Anonymous chapter can continue to meet while observing physical distancing.

Meanwhile, the church is live-streaming readings of bedtime stories for children, and Day is hosting twice daily online “dance breaks,” where she leads church members — and anyone else who wants to log on. “We turn up the music, we stand up, and we just shake out all of this anxiety, fear, confusion that so many of us are feeling,” she says.

Church members have pledged to make 50 masks per week for health care workers facing shortages of protective equipment and they are preparing home cooked meals to be delivered to health care providers. For those who may be struggling to buy groceries, they are raising money to provide them with gift cards for supermarkets.

“The church has never been about the building,” says Day. “It’s never been about the structure of worship. It has always been about a love that is abiding, a love that abides from the creator to created. And a love that abides between those of us who are the created. This is an opportunity for us to extend that love.”

Temple Emanuel has paid special attention to the congregation’s huge population of older members — more than 500 congregants over age 70. “Just when they need people the most, they have people the least,” says Gardenswartz. “Every member of our community who is older than 70 has received multiple calls from people.” For those who need groceries, younger temple members are delivering food to their doors. “That kind of thing happens multiple times a day, every day. It’s another irony that there’s more decency, more justice, more impact going on now than before,” he says.

Both faith leaders pointed to the place in the Christian and Jewish calendars that we find ourselves in as the world confronts the crisis.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

“We are in the Christian season of lent, and liturgically this is a time when Christians are reflective, when we are sort of contending with our own mortality,” says Day. “And so to be having these conversations around COVID-19 during the season of lent has actually been very helpful. We haven’t had to rewrite many sermons over here. We were already going to be talking about the messiness of humanity and the messiness of humanity that is seen in the life and death of Jesus and the messiness that we see in doing our work to remain connected one to another as humans. And this time has certainly given us a lot to examine.”

“This is part of our Passover season when we talk about the Exodus and we go from slavery to freedom,” says Gardenswartz. “The lesson of Passover is that suffering happens and it is on us to redeem that suffering by being more empathetic and more compassionate. Be kind to the vulnerable because you were slaves. Therefore, be kind to the oppressed because you were slaves. Therefore, see those who are not seen and hear those who are not heard, convert your pain into empathy, convert the worst thing that ever happened to you into becoming a better person. And I think that’s what we’re trying to do. How can the coronavirus that nobody asked for, that causes untold suffering, how can it inspire us to become the best versions of ourselves? That’s our spiritual homework.”