The Rapidian Home

Sacred distancing: Religious organizations in Grand Rapids adapting to COVID-19 pandemic through online services, engagement

Local churches and congregations, from Christian to Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and Sikh backgrounds, are embracing online services and engagement in the face of the growing pandemic.
The Diocese of Grand Rapids announced the cancellation of all Masses, including on Easter Sunday, through Monday, April 13.

The Diocese of Grand Rapids announced the cancellation of all Masses, including on Easter Sunday, through Monday, April 13. /Kaufman Interfaith Institute

The Grand Rapids Buddhist Temple will be live streaming various services through their social media platforms.

The Grand Rapids Buddhist Temple will be live streaming various services through their social media platforms. /Kaufman Interfaith Institute

The Masjid At-Tawheed Islamic Center will be sharing daily religious lectures through their Facebook page.

The Masjid At-Tawheed Islamic Center will be sharing daily religious lectures through their Facebook page. /Kaufman Interfaith Institute

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to pervade daily life locally, nationally, and globally, it comes as no surprise to find on all scales the readjustment of religious or spiritual life in response.

In Grand Rapids, like the nation and world over, followers of a wide variety of religious and spiritual backgrounds are responding to the need for social distancing and increased hygiene measures to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus through an embrace of online services and increased online engagement.

From local followers of Christian to Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and Sikh backgrounds, the churches and congregations these individuals belong to are following the guidance of health officials and orders of government officials by temporarily shutting the doors of their physical gathering spaces during this time.

With the turn to online services in place of longstanding in-person services, local religious and spiritual leaders, and their communities, are finding themselves in new terrain.

Use of social media and Zoom

“We are working hard now to determine how best to be a pastoral presence with this new reality in our midst,” said Rev. Christian Brocato of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. “As far as we know, locking down our complex may be the first time since the building was built in 1848 – the oldest standing public building in Grand Rapids.”

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, like many Grand Rapids area churches and congregations, is experimenting with all digital options. As of this first week into Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s March 23 “Stay Safe, Stay Home” order directing all Michiganders to stay in their homes unless part of the “critical infrastructure workforce,” that includes creative use of their website, Facebook, YouTube, video conferencing platform Zoom, and more.

“We have strongly encouraged the use of Zoom for ministries so that we can continue to meet via that social medium. The staff of the Parish will do the same,” Rev. Brocato added.

While use of websites and social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube have already been commonly used by religious organizations in many recent years to connect with members – albeit with less intensity than at present – Zoom has become an increasingly commonly used platform with the increasing social distancing measures.

Other Grand Rapids area churches and congregations now heavily utilizing Zoom as an alternative to in-person meetings and gatherings include the Grand Rapids Buddhist Temple, Westminster Presbyterian Church, and City Life Church. Zoom’s combination of live video conferencing, screen sharing, webinar capacity of up to 100 participants, and its ease of use, have driven its popularity.

For the Grand Rapids Buddhist Temple, “meetings with students will be held by using the Zoom app,” Rev. Suseon Kathryn Doran-Fisher noted.

Westminster Presbyterian Church’s youth group will be “[meeting] via Zoom on Sundays and the youth team has even figured out how to do some games via Zoom,” noted Rev. Laurie Hartzell.

Both the Grand Rapids Buddhist Temple and Westminster Presbyterian Church will be pursuing online engagement beyond this platform during this time. For the Buddhist Temple, this includes recording and sharing YouTube videos with their community and more active use of Facebook and Instagram. For Westminster Presbyterian Church, this includes more active use of email, Facebook live streaming, and YouTube.

This new reality has helped the church broadly to find new ways to be a community together even while we're apart. This disruption has offered both the time and the necessity to try things that we've been wondering about,” added Rev. Jen Porter from Westminster Presbyterian Church.

Other religious organizations adjusting to more involved online interaction with their communities include Congregation Ahavas Israel, the Diocese of Grand Rapids, Fountain Street Church, the Masjid At-Tawheed Islamic Center, the Sikh Society of West Michigan, St. George’s Orthodox Church, and the West Michigan Hindu Temple.

COVID-19 Church Response Task Force’s online resources

To help keep local churches up to date with rapidly updated local and state polices and orders around the COVID-19 outbreak, Kent County leadership and representatives from the Kent County Health Department participated in a conference call on Saturday, March 21, with more than 140 local church leaders. The outcome was the formation of the Kent County COVID-19 Church Response Task Force.

“We are a coalition of church leaders from across Kent County that is working closely with the Kent County Health Department to help churches serve the members of their communities during this unprecedented health crisis,” the Task Force announced in their March 21 statement.

The Task Force’s co-chairs are Rev. Jeff Manion from Ada Bible Church, Rev. Nathaniel Moody from Brown-Hutcherson Ministries, and Rev. Miguel Toro from Iglesia de Cristo Misionera.

Outlined in the Task Force’s statement were services they’ll be providing for church leaders going forward. These services include weekly video calls with church leaders to share information and best practices, consultations to help create customized COVID-19 church response plans, and access to online resources to help churches provide digital communication with their members.

The Task Force also outlined recommended steps local churches can take to protect their members and surrounding communities, which included developing a strategy to remotely support older members using telephone and digital technology, and beginning online church services.

Kaufman Interfaith Institute’s networking

In addition to the COVID-19 Church Response Task Force and its online resources, the Kaufman Interfaith Institute’s (KII) continued presence in the West Michigan community is ensuring that local religious and spiritual organizations beyond just churches may get the assistance they need to thrive in digital terrain.

Established in 2007 by Grand Valley State University, the KIIs mission is to “promote interfaith understanding and mutual respect in West Michigan.” Through networking with local religious, secular, and spiritual communities of all backgrounds, facilitating events and friendship groups that get these diverse communities talking with each other, and listening to their needs, the KII’s now adapting their work to the needs of this tumultuous moment.

With one of these needs being the maintaining of active community practice for religious organizatins during increasing social distancing measures, the KII is eager to lend a digital hand to all where possible.

“Now more than ever, the Kaufman Interfaith Institute is committed to fostering respect and cooperation in order to augment that necessary work,” said Kyle Kooyers, associate director at the KII.

Developed relationships with congregations and churches in the Grand Rapids area such as the Sikh Society of West Michigan, Temple Emanuel, First United Methodist Church, and countless more enable the KII to network and share quickly with congregations and churches of similar backgrounds what online practices have been vetted as most helpful for keeping their members as engaged in a sense of community practice as possible.

In this anxious season of strained resources and social distancing, we continue to utilize our network and resources to virtually connect people to good information, assistance, ways to help, and other people who are exploring new modes of community building and being neighbors to one another,” Kooyers said.

While there are a lot of uncertainties with how the social element of religious or spiritual life will continue to look as the weeks, and eventually months, go by throughout the COVID-19 response, the KII is optimistic the endured hardships will strengthen the best in the people of West Michigan.

“Even with all the craziness unfolding around us, I am confident that together we will witness and inspire the best of human compassion and kindness in our community,” added Kooyers.

Deeper insights

The uncertainties surrounding how long daily life will continue to be so influenced by the COVID-19 outbreak, coupled with the need to innovate in response, are compelling local religious and spiritual leaders to reflect on what insights can be gained so far.

For Fountain Street Church’s Rev. Fred Wooden, the moment calls for a taking stock of its historical significance and the choice people of all backgrounds have to find either the best or worst of themselves in the midst of it.

“I suspect this may be the greatest challenge we have faced since the Second World War – in that this is global in impact and yet touches every one of us personally, unlike 9/11 and the Great Recession,” said Wooden. “[Fountain Street Church’s] task as a spiritual community is to remind [people] that we cannot choose our trials, but we can choose how to respond. It can be a refiner's fire that brings out the best, or a brushfire that scorches everything. Which one is truly our choice.”

Fred Stella, West Michigan Hindu Temple’s pracharak, or outreach minister, sees the moment as a time to first identify on a national scale how the U.S.’ part in the global crisis has gotten as dangerous and costly as it has.

“I’m not shy to say that some of what we are experiencing is due to the short-sighted, malevolent leadership in this country,” said Stella. “The fact that the very body set up in the previous administration was disbanded for no good scientific reason should cause us all significant concern.” Stella refers to a reported National Security Council pandemic unit.

Beyond churches and congregations, wellness centers in the Grand Rapids area rooted in spiritual or religious traditions, such as From the Heart Yoga & Tai Chi Center (FHYTCC), are also reflecting on what insights are available.

FHYTCC’s tai chi teacher, Rick Powell, shares how the practice of social distancing during this time need not be seen as a hindrance to sharing with others a communion with the source that drives one’s spiritual or religious life.

“While we have to keep our distance, we can still have a strong connection through our practices together,” Powell said, referring to FHYTCC’s own transition to now-online shared practices. “Having this connection, having the shared experience of practicing together creates a sacred space” regardless of physical distance.

This sacred space, or “sacred distance,” as Powell and his fellow FHYTCC teacher, Behnje Masson, have also been playfully calling it, is being maintained through the center’s yoga and tai chi classes being live streamed on Zoom for their students to continue joining them through.

“It is where you place your heart, no matter where you are physically, that is what makes something sacred,” said Powell. So we are connected through the heart, the intention, and the movement, even though it is at a distance.”

Regardless of what the future holds, for now, these new sacred spaces religious and spiritual communities are connecting through are here to share in.

The Rapidian, a program of the 501(c)3 nonprofit Community Media Center, relies on the community’s support to help cover the cost of training reporters and publishing content.

We need your help.

If each of our readers and content creators who values this community platform help support its creation and maintenance, The Rapidian can continue to educate and facilitate a conversation around issues for years to come.

Please support The Rapidian and make a contribution today.

Comments, like all content, are held to The Rapidian standards of civility and open identity as outlined in our Terms of Use and Values Statement. We reserve the right to remove any content that does not hold to these standards.