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How Denver’s Religious Communities Stay Connected During a Pandemic

In the midst of social distancing and quarantines, local religious groups are utilizing video conferencing and streaming software to keep individuals connected to one another and their faith.

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It’s hard to find an organization in Denver—and throughout Colorado—that isn’t suffering right now due to the outbreak of COVID-19. Small businesses are struggling. Restaurants are shuttering. People are losing their jobs. In times like these, how do we cope? Many look to their faith and religious communities for reassurance, guidance, and peace of mind.

But what if that’s not an option? Gov. Jared Polis’ ban of gatherings larger than 10 people and now Mayor Hancock’s stay-at-home order is making it challenging—if not nearly impossible—for people who rely on faith and practice regularly to gather, worship, and pray together.

To overcome these barriers, many religious institutions throughout the Front Range have started livestreaming services. For some, this is a relatively easy transition. For others, the shift has required some resourcefulness and flexibility.

“We were actually meeting with the governor…when the state of emergency had been declared the day before,” says Rev. Amanda Henderson, the executive director of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado. “And faith communities were asked… not to have gatherings with over 250 people at that time.” (Since then, the governor has urged people not to gather and to practice social distancing.)

According to Henderson, the leaders of Denver’s religious institutions were already debating whether or not they should close their doors and offer online services as a temporary alternative. “Some people previously already have an online presence, so it wasn’t a big leap for them to move 100 percent to online worship services, but for others this has been 100 percent new.”

In east Denver, Temple Emanuel, Colorado’s oldest synagogue, held its first livestream of Shabbat on Friday evening and Saturday morning. While the temple has utilized Facebook as a way to engage with its members in the past, this is the first time they’ve held a Shabbat service without communal worship, wine, and challah.

“The physical distancing and isolation has highlighted the importance of seeing ourselves as connected and interconnected,” says Rabbi Joseph Black, Temple Emanuel’s senior rabbi. “We are providing content over the internet….We are becoming experts in using Zoom and Facebook Live.”

For the members of the First Plymouth Congregational Church in Cherry Hills Village, livestreaming sermons and worship isn’t a new concept; they’ve been broadcasting their services online for almost a year.

“We already had the infrastructure in place to record,” says Rev. Jenny Shultz-Thomas, the senior pastor at First Plymouth Congregational Church. “So instead of a small percentage of our population watching, now everyone has to watch.”

Shultz-Thomas and her team made the decision to close First Plymouth on March 9, one day before Polis declared a state of emergency. “We were kinda the first congregation to say ‘we’re closed.’” she says. At the time, Polis hadn’t made any declarations, but Shultz-Thomas had been in touch with local healthcare providers and a member of her congregation who works in a hospital and had already seen some preliminary cases. “We would much rather be too aggressive in making this decision and have nothing to worry about than be late in deciding not to close and have many more lives affected,” she says.

Shultz-Thomas says more than 160 households viewed the livestream during the first service on Sunday, March 15. She estimates that this accounts to approximately 300 members, about a third of her congregation. “We at least had an average or above-average viewing attendance, which is great because it shows that people are hungry to stay connected,” she says. Shultz-Thomas is optimistic that those numbers will continue to rise throughout the coming weeks.

For other religious institutions, the decision to close was a harder pill to swallow. The Colorado Muslim Society in Aurora, which hosts 1,000 to 1,200 people during prayers, consulted with the Tri-County Health Department and the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Department before officially closing its doors on March 12.

According to Iman Jodeh, spokesperson for the Colorado Muslim Society, the mosque’s religious leaders were asked if they could thoroughly clean and disinfect between the two consecutive prayers on Fridays. Unlike churches and temples, mosques don’t have pews. Rather, Muslims take off their shoes and sit during sermons. And during prayer, they stand and prostrate, shoulder to shoulder—touching their foreheads and noses to the carpet. “This six-foot distancing was not applicable in Islam,” Jodeh says.

Because of the mosque’s congregation size and the task of meticulously cleaning each carpet between prayers, health and government officials looked at the mosque as an extremely high-risk population for spreading coronavirus. One of the sheriffs told Jodeh that while he couldn’t enforce the mosque’s closure, it would, however, mean a lot if they shut down and canceled all upcoming programming.

“I’ll be honest with you, I got emotional when we closed,” Jodeh says. Jodeh’s father was a co-founder of the Colorado Muslim Society and she spent most of her childhood growing up in the mosque. “It’s in my blood, if you will.”

Now, like First Plymouth and Temple Emanuel, the Colorado Muslim Society has transitioned to doing their sermons on Facebook Live, allowing members to stay faithful to their practice but in a safe environment.

Since each religious tradition has its own needs and practices, there’s no way the transition from in-person worship and prayer to online experiences will look identical. For example, many Catholic parishes across the Front Range are still offering in-person confessions in addition to  livestreaming Masses, prayers, and adoration. According to Mark Haas, the director of public relations for the Archdiocese of Denver, confessions can be made either by appointment or by maintaining the proper six feet distance.

Around this time each year, parishes around the world would be getting ready for Holy Week, which includes Easter. This year, Denver’s Catholic churches will stream their celebrations online instead.

“For many people, the Church, the Mass, the Eucharist and the sacraments are the center of their lives, so this is no doubt a huge change and it is hard to be physically separated from each other during this time,” Haas says. “But the majority of people understand why this is necessary, and they understand that it is actually an act of charity and love toward our neighbors for us to do our part to limit the spread of the virus.”

Haas hopes that everyone keeps faith during this challenging time. “I think as history has shown us, good things can come from even the worst of situations.”

(MORE: 5280‘s complete coverage of COVID-19)

This story is part of The Stay Inside Guide to Denver. For more ideas on enjoying the Mile High City from home, click here.

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