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Churches, worshipers also feel storms' impact

By Michelle Boorstein
Saturday, February 13, 2010; B01

Some say a snowstorm, with its power and beauty, settles the spirit. Tell that to Pastor Charlie Whitlow, whose Ashburn church is down about $100,000 in offerings, thanks to Mother Nature's recent weekend romps.

And its coffers aren't the only thing suffering. On Jan. 31, a half-foot of snow forced Whitlow's 1,500-member Community Church to postpone what was supposed to have been the new pastor's first sermon, a big where-do-we-go-from-here homily. The next week? Seventeen inches.

"I was saying, 'Lord, don't you know what's going on here?' And he reminded me -- obviously, he did," said Whitlow, who decided to scrap the introductory sermon and skip to the ones on sex and relationships he had planned in honor of Valentine's Day. With services canceled last Sunday, a baseball-capped Whitlow broadcast from his living room via the Web a sermon called "5 Sex Lies."

The historic snowfalls have messed with the region's spiritual rhythm, forcing people to rejigger routines and rituals of an intimate sort. Bible studies are falling behind. Non-singers are being pulled into choir duty. With three of the four big storms coming on weekends, houses of worship have been especially hard hit.

The challenges have demanded spiritual scrappiness.

Tamara Miller, 62, was expecting to go to synagogue on Wednesday, the third anniversary of her father's death, to say the mandatory annual prayer for the dead. Miller knew the synagogue would have the quorum of 10 Jews required under Jewish law for certain obligations, including the reciting of the mourner's prayer.

When she saw the blizzard, however, she thought of the 1990s TV show "Northern Exposure," about a Jewish doctor living in Alaska, and the episode in which residents of the mostly American-Indian community scatter across a vast area to help him get the quota -- called a "minyan" -- so he could pray for his dead uncle.

Miller, who has lived in her Northwest Washington neighborhood for a couple years, sent a plea via the listserv of her 300-unit condo building. Within minutes, she had a few replies. One was from a neighbor who was in Philadelphia, saying he was also in mourning and offering to recite the prayer on her behalf at a synagogue there. By sundown, she had 11 people in her living room-- the 10 required Jews and one non-Jewish neighbor with a cheesecake.

"Perhaps our paths will never cross again. Maybe, just maybe, we shared a moment of faith on the worst blizzard in a hundred years," Miller, a rabbi and spiritual counselor, wrote in a letter of thanks. "The act of giving is an act of faith."

Events of major religious significance were postponed or cancelled. Truro Church, a conservative Anglican congregation in Fairfax, had to cancel a celebration that was to be held in honor of one of Anglicanism's global champions, Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola. The Hindu Temple of the Metropolitan Area had to reschedule its observance of the major festival of Maha Shivaratri, when hundreds of people are usually at the Adelphi temple all night celebrating and worshipping Lord Shiva.

On a more pragmatic note, the storms have a financial impact for houses of worship that collect offerings, or tithes, each week. This is primarily a practice of Christian churches; many churches have switched to seeking annual fundraising commitments and others get their weekly offerings via automatic online giving.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington delayed by a week its major annual fundraising event, an appeal that had been scheduled for last Sunday that usually nets about $12 million. Spokeswoman Susan Gibbs said some parishes would suffer missing even one Sunday.

An associate minister at a Baptist church in Northeast Washington sent parishioners an e-mail this week, reminding that them church bills are due and that she would be in Saturday to collect overdue tithes and offerings.

The storms may accelerate the trend of online tithing. Whitlow, whose Loudoun church is nondenominational, said that during the recent blizzards, online giving grew from an average of $3,000 a week (about 9 percent of total weekly giving) to about $8,000 a week. That said, 75 percent of the church's income depends on Sunday offerings.

But in the midst of an economic recovery, Whitlow is careful about how forceful he is in asking for money.

"It's not like I can say I'll just preach on giving or tithings," he said. "Because of the economy, I don't feel comfortable pushing that. The ground can only yield so much crops."

Meanwhile, the storms have undoubtedly eaten up some of the calendar. At Zion Baptist Church in Northwest D.C., a women's retreat was delayed, and -- two cancellations later-- one Bible study group is looking pessimistically at its initial goal of reaching the Book of Joshua by the end of February.

Some rituals simply can't be put off.

"I just heard from a pastor who walked a couple miles in the snow to visit a dying parishioner," Arlington diocese spokeswoman Joelle Santolla wrote in an e-mail. "He couldn't get his car out, so he just walked."

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