Guest post by Rev. Jody McDevitt 

Passover, Easter, and the beginning of Ramadan — the holiest days of the three Abrahamic faiths — all converge in April 2020, when all most of us can think about is COVID-19.

We know that the spiritual resources of faith are critical in helping the world deal with the pandemic. Around the world and in our community, faith communities are a source of support, comfort, and guidance, where health information that is shared may be more likely to be accepted than information coming from other sources. Faith communities, by our nature and our calling, must gather, love, and serve — but how can we do that in this global crisis where gathering is a hazard to the health of all?

My church made the decision to offer only online worship on Friday, March 13. A phone call to the Gallatin Health Department helped us make that decision even though there were no confirmed cases in Montana that morning. We thought about the people of our congregation and concluded that we didn’t want them to catch the virus because they went to church. On March 15, a small team of us led worship in our sanctuary using Zoom and Facebook Live. We’d never done anything like this before, and it was clunky at best.

But our people were safer from infection than if they had gathered as usual.

We hoped that our example of caution would make an impression on people who were still a bit skeptical that this virus deserved all the hoopla. And at the other end of the spectrum, we hoped to inspire faith and hope in those inclined to fear and anxiety. This is our calling as a community of faith.

Two Sundays later, we decided that we could model best behavior by not even gathering as a small group. As of today, we have had two weeks of practicing online worship in which the entire worship team is scattered, connected only by the miracles of technology and the Spirit of God. Every week we try new things. Every week we make mistakes. Every week we learn.

Today is Good Friday, and Bozeman’s downtown churches have a tradition of holding a joint service. Five churches will host one online service, complete with organ, hymns, guitar, and a soloist. Nine clergy will lead together — from our own locations.

And then comes Easter. Our church‘s crowds, gathered online, will range from newborns to those in their 90s. We will gather, love, and serve as we are called to do — just in new ways.

I have read of churches with large parking lots where worshippers will come and park to listen to a broadcast service. I have talked with pastors in small rural churches where the message will be recorded and uploaded to YouTube for those who have internet, and mailed as a manuscript to those who don’t. I have heard of Passover Seders and Ramadan iftars, both traditional meals, being held by Zoom or gotomeeting or Google Hangouts. Families and friends will talk and share and eat together — just not in the same location.

In this pandemic situation, everything we do as religious communities needs to be evaluated through the lens of health. How can we offer the sacraments? What about those facing the end of life, and those who grieve? How can we keep our community connected? Who is most vulnerable to isolation, and who might struggle with too much family togetherness? What are the needs of children and youth? What about our seniors? What about those who are losing their jobs, and what about those who are stressed because their work is essential to the larger community? How can we fulfill our ethical calling to help others? Who is most in need? How is this crisis an opportunity to offer spiritual guidance which will strengthen the well-being and resilience of people for the rest of their lives? How can it reveal needs for social justice and peacemaking that we can respond to now and in the future?

Knowing that faith communities have different ways of organizing and decision-making, I share the practical measures that are helping our church move through this crisis.

  • Gather a leadership team made of people with different skills and perspectives to work through this unprecedented time.
  • Consult with local health authorities.
  • Stay informed regarding evidence-based information about the disease, preparedness, and response. Communicate this to your congregation.
  • Assess the technologies available to you and use them.
  • Remember your faith community’s key mission and focus on how to fulfill that mission in a dramatically changed environment.

Queen Elizabeth said it well: “I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge.” Faith communities have so much to offer our community and world at this time. It’s what we are called to do, together.

Rev. Jody McDevitt has served First Presbyterian Church in Bozeman as co-pastor since 1997. Active in the Gallatin Valley Interfaith Association, she has also served on the Gallatin County Food Bank advisory board since 1996. She is married to the Rev. Dan Krebill, co-pastor of First Presbyterian Church, and they have two grown daughters.