The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the country. More than 30 million Americans are receiving unemployment benefits or waiting to have them approved. Racial justice protests are happening with a frequency not seen since the 1960s.

Normally during troubled times, many people would turn to their house of worship for solace, but even they were closed for a period of time, and in some cases, their doors have still not reopened.

The situation is enough to challenge a person’s spirituality and ability to hope.

In a recent online discussion with faith leaders organized by Stories of Atlantic City and MOSAIC: A Community of Sacred Partners, and hosted by The Press of Atlantic City, area faith leaders discussed how their communities have responded to the crises impacting the nation and world. All have had to make changes.

“We are not hugging. We are not kissing each other. We are trying to make this safe,” said Pastor Laura Terrero of Casa De Dios in Atlantic City. “In our community, the (COVID-19) economic impact has been huge. Depression was taking place in our people.”

Terrero, Rabbi David Weis of Congregation Beth Israel in Northfield, the Rev. Dawn Fortune of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Jersey Shore in Galloway Township and the Rev. Willie D. Francois III of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Pleasantville participated in the forum last week.

So far, only Terrero has resumed having believers re-enter her house of worship this month. Casa De Dios allows 50 members inside and is practicing social distancing, she said.

Hand sanitizer is available. Everyone wears a mask, except when the praise minister sings or Terrero preaches. Temperatures are taken. Masks are provided for those who do not bring one.

Even though Mount Zion Baptist’s Sunday services are online only, Francois wants to keep Holy Communion, also known as the Eucharist, part of the experience.

“It has been a challenge for some to conceive of commemorating this execution of Jesus with something other than a stale wafer and a small container of grape juice, so it is ritual that has shifted. As we have done it virtually, we have encouraged people to use whatever is in their homes that approximates bread and wine,” Francois said.

Weis has been doing Friday night Shabbat from his home over Facebook Live. Congregation members have been sharing their own home experiences over Facebook.

The pandemic put a halt to bar and bat mitzvahs, the Jewish coming-of-age rituals for boys and girls, Weis said.

“We could have done it virtual, but it’s not our goal to check it off a list. It’s a celebration, and it needs to have all that functionality with it, so it’s been difficult and challenging,” Weis said.

Fortune said it has been hard for some members of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation to not be able to enter the building because they anticipate being inside the church and looking through the windows to see the pine trees, a place where they find holiness.

“Every one of us understands that the church is not the building, and boy, oh boy, we are learning that lesson fully at this time. We are figuring out how to be a church without a building,” Fortune said.

If there is ever a vaccine, treatment or cure for COVID-19, the faith forum participants believe they will move forward with a hybrid of in-person and online religious services.

Francois raised the specter that some members of the faithful may not want to come back into buildings again or will find the current methods of delivering the services boring eventually.

Religious leaders have to be ready for whatever comes next, Francois said.

“I am no longer settling for trying to use or adapting existing platforms. I think it’s time for us as faith leaders of a faith community to start thinking about how do we become the Silicon Valley business of our community and start innovating,” Francois said.

Some of the work is outward — learning to navigate Zoom to watch Sunday services from home or donating to a food pantry. But when it comes to dealing with structural racism and civil rights, some believers have been forced to look inside themselves.

“If it’s time for confession, then, the confession is I have spent far too long declaring myself not a racist and not nearly long enough to be a dynamic anti-racist,” Weis said.

Fortune talked about living in New England, which has a history of racial injustice and exclusion, and being fed the messages that society and the community thought were right and appropriate.

“As a white person, I need to recognize that I am racist in the same way that a fish is wet,” said Fortune. “The battle for justice and the battle for equality, the battle for bringing things into balance is going to be fought in a thousand different ways.”

If people can make it through the challenges being faced by all Americans, Terrero said, they will either learn about God and come to church or have their faith renewed or restored.

“Now, they know that God supported them. God saved them. God healed them,” she said. “This is the time for us to keep preaching the gospel of God.”

Stories of Atlantic City is a collaborative project focused on telling restorative, untold stories about the city and its people. Stories of Atlantic City is supported by Stockton University with funding from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the NJ Local News Lab Fund at the Community Foundation of New Jersey, a partnership of the Dodge Foundation and Democracy Fund.

Contact: 609-272-7202

VJackson@pressofac.com

Twitter@ACPressJackson

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