While public communal life was shutting down around the world, some Americans came together in person to worship. Some felt the urgent calls for social distancing were an overreaction. Some said the ritual just means too much to them to miss. But they all agreed that as the world seemed to be spinning into confusion and fear — with more people growing ill and isolated by the hour — many believers needed prayer more than ever.
In the Washington area and far beyond, pastors and priests scrambled this past week to come up with online-only alternatives so that people could stay in their homes, as public health experts are strongly urging, instead of gathering in person in a crowded church sanctuary. More than 25,000 people watched a live stream of a service at Washington National Cathedral — more than 10 times an average Sunday there.
But the options for those who felt drawn to be inside their houses of worship and pray in person grew fewer and fewer this weekend. More churches announced their cancellation plans throughout the week. The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, which includes the District and its Maryland suburbs, called off Mass in every parish, as did many other Catholic dioceses. (The Arlington Diocese, including Anderson’s church, did not close.) Mormon meetings were canceled all over the world. The Episcopal and United Methodist services in the region were called off. Many Lutheran, Baptist and nondenominational churches closed.
On Friday and Saturday, Jews, Muslims and Seventh-Day Adventists worshiped online instead of in person, too.
But come Sunday morning, some believers still trickled into church.
At Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in the Fort Totten neighborhood, the Rev. Graylan Hagler announced on Twitter that the church would remain open with simple words: “We need to pray about these times. Use all precautions.”
As the 8 a.m. service began, just three people were in their seats, each taking an entire pew to themselves rather than sit too close together where they could spread contagion. The Rev. Garrick Jordan sang out “Calvary” all alone, his voice bold, deep and soulful enough to be the whole choir. By the next hymn, another man joined the singing, and then another.
A couple walked in and sat eight rows away from the nearest person. Worshipers kept entering, each finding their own row, until two dozen people were clapping and singing together: “This is the day that the Lord hath made.”
Hagler said that 50 to 80 would normally attend the 8 a.m. service.
He preached a fiery sermon for the small congregation, denouncing the Trump administration for spending money on a border wall while cutting public health teams that might have otherwise been ready to respond to the pandemic.
“Yes, we will come through the coronavirus! Yes, we will come through the city quarantines,” he avowed. “Yes, we will come through an inept government that can’t handle a real crisis. Yes, we will come through an election season, in victory, I pray. … Yes, we will come through all our troubles in hope.”
In every church, whether virtual or physical, age-old phrases rang out with new meaning. “God, my healer, God, my deliverer.” “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the land.” “For the Lord is good in his faithfulness to all generations.” Congregants tried to refrain from hugs and handshakes, and tested out awkward elbow bumps and waves.
At Zion Baptist Church in Northwest D.C., the Rev. Keith Byrd complained that Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s announcement urging mass gatherings be suspended throughout the month of March should have included an exception for churches. That irked him so much that he decided to remain open, he said. “That played a large role in my decision to be here today.”
“We need to be in prayer,” he said, calling the coronavirus a reminder of humans’ interdependence. “We have an obligation as the Church of Jesus Christ to provide leadership at all times, and most especially in the darkest of times. … If the light goes out in the church, what hope do people really have?”
More than 80 congregants attended on Sunday, while others opted to watch a live stream at home. Many who showed up said they simply weren’t adjusting their lives very much to avoid spreading the virus.
“As Christians, we shouldn’t be afraid of the virus that’s going around and should trust in God,” Marvin Moon said. “I’m just going to go along with my life the way I’ve always done and not be afraid. If I get it, I hope I don’t die.”
“I’m never scared about catching anything. I just go right on,” said Mae Patterson, 90.
Byrd acknowledged this pattern in his congregation: “Many of you are not going to stay in the house. I know you’re not,” he said.
At other churches, the message from the pulpit was far more cautionary — and more remote, as well. Pastors across the region preached via Facebook Live, YouTube, Twitch, Zoom and other technological platforms. They spoke of the moral duty to stay away from others to slow the spread of disease, and their congregants responded in thousands of Facebook comments and heart reactions.
The cavernous Washington National Cathedral was one of many churches that transformed themselves into production studios on Sunday, with empty pews but big audiences. The shuttered seat of the national Episcopal Church hosted an unprecedented worship service.
A dozen people in purple and white garments — members of the clergy, musicians and others — led the service for the cameras, waving like mimes to one another at times when they would normally clasp hands or hug. Some 1,400 wooden chairs sat empty under the soaring Gothic ceiling.
Many members of the cathedral’s worship team were in quarantine Sunday, since a member has tested positive for the virus. So leaders from other parishes stepped in.
“We may not be worshiping together, but the work of the church goes on,” preached Cathedral Dean Randy Hollerith.
After the service, Hollerith admitted that he had to do some work to prepare to animatedly preach not to a throng of faces, but to a camera. But once he got going, the ritual felt so familiar that it still comforted him, despite the bizarre circumstances. “It’s how I ground myself,” he said. He hoped that the thousands watching at home found that same peace in prayer.