Religious communities connect online during pandemic

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Children at Holy Cross Elementary School in socially-distanced reading circles in October. Facebook/HolyCrossElemSchool

As COVID-19 cases surge, Champaign County along with the entire State of Illinois tightened restrictions last week on gatherings, including those of religious organizations.

Known in public health terminology as a  Tier 3 Mitigation placed on Friday, part of the restrictions states, “the safest practices for religious organizations at this time are to provide services online, in a drive-in format, or outdoors (and consistent with social distancing requirements and guidance regarding wearing face coverings), and to limit indoor services to 10 people.”

But for Pastor Tim Bossenbroek of Hessel Park Church, the new restrictions have no impact. He said the church has not had any public indoor gatherings, such as small groups or Bible study. Instead, they offer outdoor, socially-distant gatherings or online streaming.

“When we have moved inside because of rain, then we’ve just had the worship team in the sanctuary of about eight to 10 people at most. Then everyone else watches the services online,” said Bossenbroek. 

The church has seen an average of 25 people attend outdoor gatherings, compared to 50 people pre-COVID, and they expect even fewer attendees once it’s safe to move indoors. 

Meanwhile, Bossenbroek said, “We’ve also been looking at our HVAC systems making sure we’re getting enough fresh air moving in, and adjusting the nature of our service. We won’t have any congregational singing or responses like recitation of the creed.” 

While Hessel Park Church currently offers streaming through YouTube, it will move to Zoom to have people participate in service. 

“We are going to try a big screen in the sanctuary so we can see everyone participating on Zoom, so if people want to read a scripture or say a prayer over Zoom. That way we can have some singing from a family or individuals at home, and they can sing safely without endangering anyone,” Bossenbroek said.

Katie Bruner attends Hessel Park Church and is president of Intervarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship at the University of Illinois at Urbana – Champaign. She said the fellowship group has moved all events and prayer meetings to Zoom.  

“One of the things that’s been good, not that the pandemic needs a silver lining but, there are ways in which Zoom makes it accessible. We’ve had folks that were previously in the ministry and since have graduated and moved and have been able to check in, international students that are not here on campus have been able to participate,” said Bruner.

Bruner said that “religion at its best can help people have a sense of perspective. It can make these very real challenges of isolation and uncertainty feel temporary. There is hope that things will change and there’s hope even if things don’t change. For me, it’s been really important to reach out to people and express how confusing and frustrating things are.”

“It has helped broaden my awareness of the struggles people are facing because of COVID,” said Bruner about connecting during COVID-19, “Even with the election, the fact that there are other elections in other parts of the world and being cognizant of how international students are affected is important.” 

Like Hessel Park Church, Intervarsity will attempt to sing over Zoom. 

“We usually do a traditional service called Lessons and Carols and it’s a group reading and singing of carols of the history of the Christian church and Christian churches around the globe. We will hopefully try to do a version of that on Zoom, which, you know how good we sound is not the important thing, but it will be interesting to see how that will go with technology delays at home,” said Bruner.  

Bruner said they will connect with Intervarsity students at other campuses and pray for each other and other students because “COVID-19 burnout is real and not unique to U of I.” 

“Hopefully we will try to do things that reinforce the sense of connection to other Christians around the country and throughout history, even if it’s through this very technology-mediated version of that because that’s what the Christmas traditions are all about,” she said.

At the Holy Cross School, no student or staff member has tested positive for COVID-19, but Principal Greg Koerner said they do have some concerns with holidays approaching. 

“In the communication with parents I’ve been trying to emphasize to practice social distancing, wearing a mask, sanitizing, taking all the precautions so that when we do come back from Thanksgiving, then we will be able to be open,” said Koerner.

He said, “It’s taken a whole community. From my teachers and my staff to the parents to the stakeholders to the Holy Cross community to get to this point in the school year to keep students and teachers safe and be able to learn in person. I’m just thankful and blessed to have so much support and have parents realize that the end outcome is to stay in school and they are willing to do their part to help us.”

After the Christmas holidays, Holy Cross School and other schools in the diocese will go remote for two weeks, as decided by the Catholic Diocese of Peoria. 

Until then, the school will continue in-person and virtual learning. Currently, 13 students are learning virtually, this is down from 40 students in the first quarter.  

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