Despite the scripture in Hebrews to “not forsake the gathering of ourselves together,” religious organizations near and far are following mandates to avoid gathering to decrease spreading the novel coronavirus.
During the time many religious groups anticipate increased attendance for “Holy Week,” as people recognize the life sacrificed on their behalf by attending Palm Sunday, Easter services and for some, observing the annual memorial of the death of Jesus Christ, the organizations have canceled its worship traditions.
“We were looking forward to the 58th Annual Easter Sunrise Service at Turf Paradise,” said John Draftz, an elder at Lutheran Church of the Master in northwest Phoenix.
He was thankful that he and parishioners of all faiths have been allowed to meet for traditional sunrise service at the race track ever since the church began and was unable to accommodate a large gathering.
“Regardless of when the actual date is, we will celebrate that Sunday with an Easter celebration,” Mr. Draftz said of when services can safely reconvene.
He and his wife said, in the meantime, the nearly 50 members are encouraging and checking on each other through a prayer email list, by phone, and are hoping normal services resume in May.
“We have encouraged all of our members to keep in touch with each other and pray with each other,” Mr. Draftz said, noting that “God is ultimately in control.”
Making other plans
As of March 16, parishioners and the public can participate in Bible studies through Zoom for Ascension Lutheran Church, which has services at 7100 N. Mockingbird Lane in Paradise Valley.
“We have not had church services since March 15,” said parish administrator, Tom Mueller, who answered the phone at church but advised that staff would be operating from home the next day onward.
He said directives not only came from the federal and state level not to meet, but the church received orders from regional church officials to suspend service in Arizona, Nevada and Utah.
However, the church has been vigilant about having recorded sermons at ascensionparadisevalley.org and posting on social media so people can still get their spiritual intake.
“We have been around for 60 years and we have never missed an Easter or Christmas up until now,” Mr. Mueller said.
He added that the church recorded music and people singing to share virtually as part of planned Easter services.
Before a complete ban to meet was instituted, Scottsdale United Methodist Church got creative as members assembled in parked cars in the church parking lot to enjoy worship services held by the Rev. Ann Thomas accompanied by pianist, Aline Boyd and the singers from the choir consisting of Arizona State University students.
The SUMC “parking lot” church service not only had the preacher, piano, singers in the courtyard, but member, Denny Brown handled broadcasting on an FM transmitter to attendees through their car radios, while LeAnn Boman streamed the service on a Facebook Live broadcast to more than 20 car loads, 23 online viewers and have received more than 300 views since.
“Unfortunately, with the stay at home order, we will not be having drive-in worship until the restrictions can safely be lifted. Although I believe the drive-in worship met all the distance requirements with people staying in their cars, and all of the people involved in worship maintaining their distance, our bishop has ordered all churches to stop all meetings including drive-in worship,” said Ann Lyter, SUMC senior pastor.
For Easter and this Holy Season, she said worship services will be available live online at Facebook.com/scottsdaleumc with “special pieces for Holy Week.”
“Our congregation has never experienced anything like this but churches have and did during the 1918 flu. For the safety of the community, churches suspended worship during that pandemic,” Ms. Lyter said, noting those high-risk in the congregation such as the elderly and infirmed who are at greatest risk.
She said fellowship looks different now as they have taken to phone calls rather than in-person contact, volunteers and church staff call all church members to “make sure they know they are loved and connected.”
She added that those especially vulnerable, or who want additional calls, are being called more as congregants unite to ensure that everyone has someone checking on them by calling family, friends and using technology to stay connected.
“God loves us. God is with us in this and we can share God’s love by staying in touch, looking out for each other and showing kindness. We need to remember that when our lives are turned upside down this dramatically, we grieve. We grieve all the ways that life is different. We grieve the loss of the people we used to spend time with. We grieve the job or jobs we used to do and now cannot do. We have to learn new routines and new ways of doing things.
Usually when we are grieving, it’s just us or maybe our family. Friends and neighbors can pitch in and help support us and hold us, both literally and figuratively. But now everyone is going through this together. We are all struggling to find a new way of being. And we literally cannot hold each other at exactly the time that we want it. So we need to give each other grace, and kindness, and forgiveness. None of us are prepared for this,” she said.
Grace Baptist will not be having their Easter services on April 12, pastor Wayne Dale said.
“Grace Baptist will not be having Easter services on Easter for the safety of our congregation and community but plan to have an Easter service when we are able to meet together again hopefully the beginning of May,” said Mr. Dale.
He encouraged south Scottsdale residents and all people during this difficult time.
“The Bible states that the 'church' is the assembly of believers and not a building. While we are going to have a period in which we will be unable to participate in fellowship and services as a body of believers, we will not forget the need for meeting and learning together from God’s Word in the future,” said Mr. Dale.
While encouraging people to read the Bible during this turbulent test of times, he said the church will use online media and ministries during this temporary time.
“We will invest the time in praying for one another, our families, our communities, our country, and hopefully there will be a spirit led yearning to participate in services together after this turbulent time. We pray people are blessed as they spend time with their families and have the opportunity to evaluate what is most important in their lives.
We all need events that cause us to assess our circumstances and understand that we are not in control but that there is forgiveness, hope, and peace available. This is an opportunity to initiate a true and biblical relationship with a holy God who has enabled us know Him personally,” said Mr. Dale.
Meanwhile, there has been no knocks on doors throughout neighborhoods around the world and locally as Jehovah’s Witnesses have also adhered to recent restrictions on worship services.
People are invited to download the scriptural talk or view its annual Memorial observance of the death of Jesus Christ, on April 7 at jw.org since meetings will not be held at the Kingdom Halls during COVID-19 restrictions.
Ricardo Barrio, a local media host coordinator for Jehovah’s Witnesses in the southwest District 7 region, which includes the north Valley, provided an official response from the organization that said the well-being of the community and local congregations remain important as elders are alert to the physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being of their congregations.
“In the United States, all public preaching work has been suspended in order to support efforts to contain the virus. We are using other forms of communication to share a message of comfort from the Bible with those who have manifested an interest.
Additionally, most congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the United States have canceled public gatherings, choosing instead to hold live online religious services where possible. Many of these meetings include audience participation using technologies that allow fellow believers to have an interactive share in the worship service,” according to a prepared statement.
The organization reminded people to love their neighbors by following good hygiene practices by washing hands, and to “do unto others” during these critical times.