SHREVEPORT, La. — As the community grapples with challenges brought by the novel coronavirus, many people are turning to the clergy for guidance.
Religious leaders in Shreveport are doing their best to compensate for the emotional void that may come with not being there to comfort congregants in person.
“We’re trying everything that we know to help people,” said the Rev. Pat Day, the senior pastor at First United Methodist Church. “Because this is the time the church really and truly needs to be the church."
Day is one of many clergy members conducting services online.
“In fact, my worst nightmare is waking up on Sunday morning, going into the sanctuary, and nobody’s there but me,” Day said. “That’s basically what we’ve been doing for the past few weeks, and we’ll continue to do this through this difficult time.”
Day has also begun posting brief devotional videos on Facebook. He calls them “Day/ly Faith Builders,” playing on his last name.
“Just a little shot in the arm. A word of encouragement of scripture. Something to encourage people that are going through difficult times,” Day said. “It’s just been one of the most meaningful times in my life in ministry to see how God can use technology to get the message out and to bring comfort, hope and assurance to people who are going through very, very difficult times right now.”
Challenges go beyond technical difficulties. Faith leaders also find themselves busy offering more personal guidance than ever before.
A member family at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church had to quarantine.
The Rev. Paul Martin said he and the church’s elders regularly checked in with the family to address their needs during their time in isolation, which is now over.
Martin is also fielding a number of phone calls from concerned members who are feeling physically healthy.
“It’s that uncertainty,” Martin said. “But as Christians, we do not lose heart. In second Corinthians it says, ‘Though outwardly we’re wasting away, inwardly we’re being renewed day by day.’”
The coronavirus has also impacted the grieving process. Funeral gatherings are now limited to no more than 10 mourners.
Day recently conducted a funeral service under the new guidelines.
“The family was the only ones that were invited, and they were scattered 10 feet apart,” Day said. “It was just very weird, to say the least. But yet the presence of God was there, and his comforting hand was there.”
Margaret Shehee, president of Kilpatrick’s Rose-Neath Funeral Homes, said her business has suspended use of its limousines and its chapels for services.
“We are certainly circling in clergy and they have good words to say, and going ahead and having the graveside service,” Shehee said. “But come back in a month or two and we can have a more traditional memorial service. It’s a new reality for all of us and we’re having to make the best of it.”
The changes pose particular challenges among those in the Jewish community, whose traditional grieving period, known as Shiva, involves several days of gathering to mourn with loved ones.
“We still have guidelines that we’ve been keeping since biblical times, and some of those guidelines include having to be with other people,” said Rabbi Jana De Benedetti, who leads the B’Nai Zion congregation. “The words when someone is grieving is one of the hardest things to understand. Sometimes it’s about being with a person and being quiet. And that’s a really hard thing to do. You call a person on the phone and you don’t say anything, and that’s very hard. Letting them do the talking helps a lot.”
De Benedetti said even the most religious Rabbis are forced to adapt age-old rituals to prevent the spread of COVID-19. They’re using technology and video conferencing to conduct worship that otherwise would forbid it.
“You need ten adult Jews for some of the prayers, and even the orthodox rabbis are accepting that because it’s all we have right now,” De Benedetti said.
Despite the changes in the world around them, faith leaders agree that their message remains the same.
“I really want to convey the hope that we have,” Martin said. “And I think the people are really responding to that.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that a member of St. Paul's Episcopal Church was infected with COVID-19. It has been corrected, after church officials clarified that the illness was a scare.