Churches and synagogues are reimagining holiday services — and their messages of faith

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DENVER — On the first night of Hanukkah, hundreds of people show up at Temple Micah for a latke cooking contest. Families bring their menorahs, light candles, feast on hash browns, award prizes and sing.

It’s no surprise, as the coronavirus pandemic rages on, that this year’s celebration is going virtual.

“We will have people demonstrating how to cook latke online,” Rabbi Adam Morris said. “I imagine the Zoom screen with all the Hanukkah lights on.”

For communities of faith, Covid-19 has upended traditions and suspended annual festivities in churches and synagogues, forcing rabbis, pastors and priests to reinvent Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations and rethink their messages to the faithful .

“I think my basic message is that we have no control,” said David Thatcher, a priest at the Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Transfiguration of Christ. “As Americans, we have certain illusions that we are in control of all of this. Any disaster, any cataclysmic event in our lives, and our hope is in our God.”

With cases on the rise in the United States, the Centers for Disaster Control and Prevention issued strict guidelines for gatherings in places of worship. Among those still offering in-person services, instead of hundreds of people at shrines, there are only dozens, and they must socially distance and wear masks.

Nearly 300,000 people in the United States have died of Covid-19, and their loved ones are grieving, coloring the holiday season with sadness and loss, faith leaders have said.

Rabbi Evette Lutman of B’nai Havurah in Denver said of this holiday season, “We are going through all kinds of heartbreak, all kinds of loss.”Rachel Woolf / for NBC News

“It’s easy for me to say look on the bright side,” said Rabbi Evette Lutman of B’nai Havurah. “We go through all kinds of grief, all kinds of loss. The worst thing you can do when you’re going through grief is to whitewash it and say, ‘I’m fine, and let’s move on.'”

Lutman, who is hosting this year’s Hanukkah songfest on Zoom, said she’s been trying to help members make sense of these trying times.

“How sad it would be if we missed this unique place and time to recognize the opportunity to make the world a better place,” she said, “to use the hurt as an opportunity to heal.”

Morris, the rabbi of Temple Micah, compared this holiday season to a chocolate chip cookie without the chocolate chips — it may still taste good, but it’s not the same.

“It lacked that kind of unspoken quality of what you can do with a touch or a glance or where you feel the spirit,” he said. “When you have a room of people singing together, something happens. We missed that.”

Image: Rabbi Adam Morris
Rabbi Adam Morris of Temple Micah in Denver said of this year’s virtual services, “When you have a room of people singing together, something happens. We missed that.” Rachel Woolf / for NBC News

Not all churches have been willing to accept government restrictions on gatherings. Two suburban Denver churches, Community Baptist Church and Denver Bible Church, sued the state for continuing to worship indoors.

A federal judge ruled in their favor in October, saying the state could not force worshipers to wear masks or limit gatherings. The following month, the United States Supreme Court ruled that capacity restrictions at places of worship and religious events were unconstitutional.

Colorado acknowledged this month that the High Court’s decision made it unlikely the state could enforce restrictions.

A survey by Parade magazine and the Cleveland Clinic reported that only 9% of respondents said they planned to attend holiday services this year, down from 2017 when the Pew Research Center found that more than half of those surveyed said they would go to church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.

Rev. Martin Lally, a priest who led Holy Family Catholic Church in Denver for eight years, said 300 people normally packed his church at Christmas, with more pouring through the doors. The sanctuary would be adorned with Christmas trees, poinsettias and garlands and red bows on the railings.

This year, only 50 people will be allowed inside, and the children’s show and Christmas Eve and Christmas Day masses will be pre-recorded for viewing on YouTube or Facebook. If nothing else, he said, the pandemic has taught people perseverance: “The message of the scriptures is ‘Hold on tight, God is with us’.”

At Temple Micah, Morris will convey a similar idea.

“We just try to be there and help people feel connected,” he said. “To me, that’s where God is. Keep on going. We have what we need to make sense of each other, to bring compassion to our world. Keep on going.”

Image: The Reverend Nathan Adams
Reverend Nathan Adams, senior pastor of Park Hill United Methodist Church, who distributed kits to congregants containing a script to follow along with the virtual Christmas service. Rachel Woolf / for NBC News

The Reverend Nathan Adams, senior pastor of Park Hill United Methodist Church, canceled in-person Christmas services, which typically include caroling, candle lighting and Holy Communion. Instead, they will be virtual, with a new camera and audio system and a California production company filming from Los Angeles.

“The great traditions that people are used to seeing or experiencing or participating in, we’re going to continue to do that in these services, but do it in a way, the best we can, knowing that people are not in the room with us,” Adams said.

The church distributed kits to congregants containing candles, song lyrics and a script for the service. The livestream will include a chat function, allowing people to engage with ministers and each other. And when it comes to Holy Communion, almost anything goes.

“We just encourage people to use whatever they have at home,” Adams said. “If you have bread and juice, that’s great. If you have tortilla chips and water or soda, that’s up to you. The Holy Spirit can work in all of your elements. The grace of God is always present.”

At Christmas, he will direct them to John 1:5 in the New Testament: “The light shone in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

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