Over the past year, local religious leaders have taken precautions to help ensure the health of their communities by making their traditions more contact-free and social-distancing-friendly.
At some places of worship, like Temple Shalom of Northwest Arkansas, leaders are only offering services remotely. The temple’s visiting rabbis and lay leaders have been leading worship services via Zoom since March 2020.
Because of the easier access to remote worship, attendance at the temple’s weekly services has risen since April, especially among 20-to 30-year-olds, said Toby Klein, co-president of Temple Shalom.
Klein thinks the safety afforded attendees by remote attendance is a key reason behind the rise, she said. This includes safety from both contracting COVID-19, and potential hate crimes committed by white supremacists, she said.
“We saw a man with a swastika mask over the summer with a gun in plain view, and we saw what happened at the insurrection,” Klein said. “We’ve seen what kinds of things happen, and I talked to folks, and they are more comfortable in a virtual space because there is not that safety risk.”
At other places of worship, like the Bentonville Islamic Center, leaders have seen a decrease in overall attendance since the pandemic began.
Since February 2020, BIC leaders have enforced social distancing guidelines for those praying in the mosque, and have asked all children under 12 and adults over 60 to worship at home, said BIC President Mohammed Ali Allauddin.
Allauddin said some recently vaccinated congregation members over 60 have asked if he will change the guidelines so they can pray in the mosque.
“We have to think from the safety of all (in the) community, and we want to make sure we are all good,” Allaudin said. “So we try to push them back and we explain to them our perspective, and so far I think that our community has been very good and understanding.”
Saint Joseph Catholic Church’s priest, Rev. Joseph Tyler, has also allowed in-person services with a limited capacity, while providing a live-stream for worshippers at home.
Like many religious leaders, Tyler has also faced the difficult task of making changes to congregants’ worship experiences.
He started making changes in March 2020 to help accommodate in-person worship while limiting virus spread, he said. Along with enforcing a mask mandate, Tyler has suspended certain programs like the church’s altar services and restricted choir member roles.
At the BIC, volunteers take attendees’ temperatures before they enter, and masks must be worn inside at all times while adhering to social distancing guidelines.
To accommodate high capacity in the center on Fridays, the mosque’s busiest day of the week, the worship leaders offer multiple community prayer times, Allaudin said.
Leaders have also modified or canceled some traditional ceremonies and services to help protect congregants’ safety.
The BIC’s annual Ramadan celebrations, wherein members of the mosque usually gather for a potluck that represents participants breaking the fast, were canceled for the first time in 2020.
Temple Shalom’s members have not had any bar or bat mitzvahs since September 2019. Should the need arise, the Board of Worship and Ritual Committee would allow them to take place in the temple, with essential personnel only, Klein said. During such ceremonies, the boy or girl coming of age, the rabbi and other clergy would adhere to social distancing and mask mandates, while family and friends would attend the ceremony via Zoom.
At St. Joseph’s, Tyler performs smaller infant baptisms with fewer babies and attendees, while wearing a mask and using cotton balls, rather than his finger, to apply anointing oil to the baby’s head and chest, he said. He has attached poles to collection plates to allow for less handling, marked off every other pew to maintain social distancing, stopped allowing the church’s holy water fonts to be filled, and stopped using the traditional communal cup for the sacrament of communion.
Some of the changes have left certain parishioners frustrated or annoyed at the alteration of traditional formalities, Tyler said. However, most accept that the temporary practices are annoying but necessary. He is hopeful that this challenging period in the parish’s history will bring its members together more than it pushes them apart.
“I hope that as a society we can use (this) as a time to appreciate one another again,” Tyler said. “These periods of isolation that we have had, the distancing from one another, that sort of thing, (have) brought a lot of emotional and spiritual challenges to people. And I hope that when we are all through this that we can appreciate the role of one another's company again.”