On Friday, members of the congregation of All Saints-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church received a letter from their rector, Rev. Aimée Eyer-Delevett, written with “both hope and a heavy heart.”
Worship and all non-essential meetings have been suspended at All Saints-by-the-Sea until otherwise notified.
“May we all embrace the mutual responsibility we have to one another and to our global community by heeding the calls of those charged with our public safety and by making wise and discerning decisions for ourselves and for the common good. May we follow our good and loving Christ by caring for the least in our midst. And may we cast our hopes and fears upon our ever-faithful, ever-loving, and Almighty God,” wrote Rev. Eyer-Delevett.
This week similar notices have been released by houses of worship and spiritual communities across the county as spread of the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on Wednesday.
States of emergency were declared in the following days by Governor Gavin Newsome and the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department, restricting non-essential gatherings to no more than 250 people, while smaller events can proceed only if the organizers can implement social distancing of 6 feet per person.
In response, churches, mosques, synagogues, and other houses of worship have suspended their weekly services as many of the congregations in the Santa Barbara area have a significant number of people whom the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have identified as being at higher risk for developing more serious complications from the coronavirus.
In their letter to the congregation of Santa Barbara Community Church, the head pastors there remarked on how they predicted on Tuesday their response to the coronavirus situation would change.
“We had little idea at the time just how true this was! Two days later, the pace of change is striking,” wrote Pastors Benji Bruneel and Mike Willbanks.
Santa Barbara Community Church echoed what many of the notices to congregations this week explained; these decisions are not driven by fear, but rather, love “for one another and our larger community.”
“My mantra these past few days has been ‘Flatten the curve!’” wrote Rev. Julia Hamilton to the community at the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara.
“That is to say: According to health professionals, we have a collective responsibility to act now to slow things down and keep the COVID-19 outbreak from overwhelming our healthcare system. We may not be able to eliminate the virus, but we want to keep people from getting sick all at once.”
Those that are not able to modify their services so that there can be at least two spaces between each congregant were asked by the Santa Barbara Public Health Department to consider virtual services, and many churches in the county have made the switch to livestreaming via their websites.
This Sunday, the majority of the faithful will sit in front of their computers or tvs, following along at home to sermons delivered to empty sanctuaries.
However, not all congregations have the ability to livestream, like El Montecito Presbyterian Church, where leadership encouraged their community to continue to spend time worshiping with family and friends in smaller groups, and shared resources and recorded sermons they could utilize.
“We recognize that the church is not a building, it is people. We are created for community and ‘social distancing’ creates anxiety and loneliness. The Elders and I are beginning the process of brainstorming unique ways to be the Body of Christ together during these challenging days,” wrote Lead Pastor Rev. Tom Haugen.
Apart from moving online, spiritual communities are seeking to strike a perfect balance of being true to their faith, while also being compliant with governing authorities.
Churches, like the First United Methodist Church of Santa Barbara, will email their congregation a music selection, and a simple liturgy for Sunday services, and will continue pastoral care and church operations over the phone. Several churches will include materials and a recording of their sermons to their congregations as a part of their weekly newsletter.
Some have also encouraged their communities to become involved in home groups and to be creative in ways they can continue to find fellowship throughout the week while the local state of emergency is in effect.
All Saints-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church has even rolled out a “Pray Online” tab on their website with links to online resources for Daily Devotions, Daily Office (Morning, Noontime, Evening, Compline prayer), Scripture Study and Meditation, Centering Prayer, recordings of sermons and services, and links to webcasts of the latest worship services from Washington National Cathedral and Trinity Church Wall Street.
While some of the decisions have been made by local congregations, several communities have referred to directives from national leadership, like the heads of the Church of Latter Day Saints and the Episocable Diocese of Los Angeles, when announcing a disruption to regular services.
Sunday services of course have not been the only religious events impacted. The Islamic Center of Santa Barbara announced that they would be suspending Friday prayers until further notice, although their daily five prayers will continue at the masjid as per regular schedule in sha Allah.
The Congregation B’nai B’rith also announced they will livestream services as they cancel all services, classes, and meetings until further notice. Additionally, they have closed the Beit HaYeladim Preschool as of March 16 through at least April 3.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing us all to make decisions which might make the difference between life and death for people that we know and love,” said Rabbi Steve Cohen in a video address. “Our life as a community continues.”
While many on Sunday won’t be able to pack the pews for worship, not every community has temporarily closed its doors.
Churches like Saint Joseph’s Church, Our Lady of Sorrow Church, and the Santa Barbara Parish have announced that weekend and daily Masses will continue as usual, although Archbishop José H. Gomez has dispensed all the Catholic faithful from the Sunday obligation, so that if anyone feels ill or in danger they may stay home.
Mass will still be held since the number attendees falls below the 250-person social gathering limit set by the State and county, but churches are taking precautions.
Use of the cup at Eucharist and shaking hands at the sign of peace are suspended, and clergy asked that people maintain a six-foot distance from the person next to them.
Apart from Mass, churches have largely suspended all other activities through the end of March. The Parish has cancelled the following:
- Religious education for children and adults
- Children’s Liturgy of the Word
- Monday evenings with Fr. Barber
- Friday Stations of the Cross and Soup Supper
- Liturgical Minister Gathering
- Lenten Choral Meditations
- Confirmation Prep
- RCIA Movie Night Coffee and Donuts after Mass
While responses have been varied, it’s clear that each spiritual community has been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
“These are interesting times indeed!” wrote Santa Barbara Community Church leaders.
“Some churches and groups will continue to meet while others will decide not to. Some families will choose to continue doing things much as usual while others will decide to make significant changes to their routines. As we all make decisions we have no experience making, let us be gracious to those who decide to do things differently than we would.”