St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in Mahtomedi rolled out safety precautions against the coronavirus last weekend. This weekend it canceled services altogether and offered only online worship.
Shir Tikvah synagogue, where worshipers had been washing hands before entering, closed its Minneapolis building for two weeks following Friday’s Shabbat service.
The mosque at the Northwest Islamic Community Center, where deep cleaning of carpets and floors was in the works, joined a dozen other mosques Friday in suspending all congregational prayer and activities for at least a week.
Minnesota’s faithful faced an ever-changing landscape last week, including a rare announcement that Twin Cities Catholics could forgo otherwise obligatory mass “until further notice.” The unprecedented measures, unfolding everywhere, come as the nation reels from the outbreak of COVID-19, the disease sparked by the new coronavirus sweeping the globe.
In the past few days, at least a dozen Twin Cities houses of worship announced they would suspend weekend services, typically for two or three weeks. They range from Beth El Synagogue in Edina to St. James Lutheran Church in Crystal to Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.
“In my 12 years as a pastor, my churches have never canceled worship services,” said the Rev. Randy Romsdahl, of St. James. “We have a worshiping community that includes many folks over 60 years old. We decided this is the most faithful thing we can do.”
Every major religious denomination in Minnesota has issued safety guidelines. With Easter and Ramadan approaching in April, it’s particularly critical to be prepared, leaders said.
Catholic churches have emptied holy water fonts and discouraged parishioners from shaking hands during the “sign of peace” at mass.
Lutherans are ending hugs and handshakes. Synagogues are canceling nonessential functions and encouraging social distancing.
The Muslim community is being encouraged to suspend Friday prayers, all communal prayers, until further notice.
Every faith is making online viewing the fallback.
But Twin Cities Archbishop Bernard Hebda, in a letter to metro area Catholics, reminded members that even if they’re not in church, “Sundays remain a holy day.”
“Catholics should still observe the Lord’s Day by making a ‘spiritual communion’ while watching mass online, on TV, or radio,” he wrote. “… You may also decide to attend mass on a weekday when assemblies are smaller.”
It’s been a delicate balance to both offer spiritual support to congregations and institute health care directives, faith leaders said.
“This is a challenge for all of us … because it goes to the very heart of what we do, which is build community,” said Rabbi Harold Kravitz of Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minnetonka.
For faith leaders closing their buildings, it means finding ways to keep congregations connected and to offer alternatives to weekday services. Leaders at Beth El, which closed Saturday, are mulling that over now.
For example, instead of hosting its “lunch and learn” gathering midweek, the synagogue will be creating an online class that people can watch at home and still be part of a virtual community, said Beth El’s Rabbi Avi Olitzky.
“We may be physically distancing, but we hope to be socially strengthening,” he said.
Last Sunday, the Rev. Sarah Breckenridge stood at the altar at St. Andrew’s church and announced a series of safety precautions that were rolled out at Lutheran churches across the state. Instead of handshakes or hugs, members should give a “holy nod” when they greet one another, she told those in the pews.
“We’re going to look people in the eye … and give a little bow,” the pastor said. “Let’s all practice. Look in the eyes of the person next to you and give a little reverent bow.”
The congregants — some with a smile, some awkwardly — gave it a whirl.
Breckenridge then announced that the offering plate would no longer be passed across the pews. Instead, the ushers who let people out of the pews to receive communion would be holding collection plates and accepting donations.
The communion wine would only be served in individual plastic cups, she added. Communion bread would still be handed out by worship assistants, but they would have rigorously washed their hands.
It didn’t end there.
When the faithful headed to the atrium for coffee hour, they discovered they couldn’t pour their own coffee from the coffee urns. Only designated servers wearing plastic gloves could turn the handles and fill cups.
Barb Miller of Lake Elmo was among those attending. For Lutherans, worshiping together is important, she said, but the public health interventions were done “sensitively.”
There was one exception. Said Miller: “I never heard of a holy nod before. It seemed strange.”
But just five days later, St. Andrew’s announced that even those precautions may not be enough. It canceled in-person services March 14-15 “out of an abundance of caution.” Offices will remain open.
Meanwhile, Muslim leaders across the Twin Cities have been meeting to create emergency safety guidelines, said Imam Asad Zaman, executive director of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota.
Throughout the week, many mosques were asking worshipers to bring their own prayer rugs, cleaning carpets inside before and after prayer, avoiding hugs and handshakes, and canceling “optional events,” Zaman said.
On Friday, more than a dozen mosques stepped up precautions, canceling Friday prayers and other gatherings, he said.
Looming is Ramadan, the most sacred month of the year for Muslims, which starts April 23. The Northwest Islamic Community Center’s mosque, Masjid Al-Kareem, regularly hosts 300 to 500 people for communal dinners and is evaluating how to proceed, said Sarah Alam, a board of directors member.
The center has put up coronavirus prevention posters, added hand sanitizers and is doing deep cleaning, she said.
In a sermon this month, Kravitz of Adath Jeshurun Congregation urged his congregation to take a less obvious precaution.
“With spreading illnesses, there is a history of finding someone to blame,” Kravitz said. “People thought to be responsible were ostracized or worse. That’s a tendency we want to guard against.”