CAPITAL REGION -- In a time of crisis and uncertainty, the Rev. Judy Humphrey-Fox knows that people cling to their faith more than ever.
To express that, connection is vital. It’s not easy to create that when government mandates require people maintain at least six feet of distance between each other as social distancing is implemented to attempt to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. But Humphrey-Fox, pastor at Amsterdam’s United Methodist Church, found a way.
Every night from 6 to 7 p.m., Humphrey-Fox and Perry Read, the church’s lay leader, stand at the end of the church driveway on Golf Course Road with signs indicating that anyone can pull up, remain in their car, maintain a safe distance and be blessed and prayed for.
If she can’t bring people into her church, Humphrey-Fox is more than happy to bring the church to the people — even if it’s drive-through style, one at a time.
“Christians have always had to be flexible in how we do ministry, according to the time and the place,” Humphrey-Fox said. “So, we’re doing that now as well.” The people that have pulled up for prayer so far have all expressed a similar need to “connect with somebody,” Humphrey-Fox said.
“Even if you’re standing at a distance,” she said, “you’re a person who hears their personal needs and prays for them.” Religious services across the state have been canceled as part of a wide swath of social distancing measures.
On Wednesday afternoon, Albany County issued a press release stating the county’s Department of Health is seeking to contact anyone who was present at the Victory Bible Church at 21 Hackett Blvd. in Albany from 12:30-2 p.m. on March 14 and asking any of those who were present at that time to remain in their homes under precautionary quarantine until March 29.
These are uncertain times that could shake faith, but religious leaders from throughout the Capital Region have seen a rather different effect.
“People are understanding. What I’m seeing in people is the best of their humanity,” said Rabbi Matt Cutler of Schenectady’s Congregation Gates of Heaven. “They’re gracious. They’re grateful. They understand the circumstances, that these aren’t haphazard.”
Places of worship throughout the area have adapted to serve those in need of their spiritual service and guidance.
Amsterdam’s United Methodist Church isn’t the only place offering a drive-up option. Each day from 3 to 4 p.m. at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Schenectady, Father Matthew Frisoni sets up in the rectory garage of the Albany Street church and parishioners can drive up and remain in their car at a safe distance as Frisoni takes their confession.
The changes range from lo-fi to high-tech, as many houses of worship have now opted to offer online streaming for their services.
Mary DeTurris Poust, communicatons director for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, said in an email that traffic at the diocese’s website is up 1,750% in the past week, with the highest concentration going to links for televised mass and for coronavirus resources.
Bishop Edward Scharfenberger will celebrate his first mass on Facebook Live this Sunday at 9:15 a.m.
“I am so amazed and inspired by what I’m seeing happening out in our parishes. Even those that have never attempted live-streaming or Facebook Live, are doing whatever they can to reach out to their parishioners — even if it’s simply a cell phone on a tripod for video purposes,” DeTurris Poust said. “I think it’s because they know their parishioners are desperately hungry for spiritual connection during this really critical and chaotic time.”
At the United Methodist Church, Humphrey-Fox found a middle ground. This past Sunday’s morning service was offered via Facebook Live, but Humphrey-Fox also knew there were many members of her congregation who “don’t do the internet. They don’t do Facebook. If all you’re offering for a Sunday service is, ‘come and join us online,’ that doesn’t meet those people.” Humphrey-Fox’s solution was, once again, to bring the church outside. The service was conducted in the church’s spacious back parking lot, with about a dozen cars pulling in.
A few people got out of their cars and maintained safe distance from each other, though most remained in their cars and listened as Humphrey-Fox conducted the service on a chilly first morning of spring.
“We have a loudspeaker, and we have a big parking lot,” Humphrey-Fox said. “It was 25 degrees and sunny, and I never expected myself to be doing something like that, standing out there in the cold.”
Online options are sprouting up everywhere.
Mohamed Rabie, the imam at Halfmoon’s Al-Arqam Center — the only mosque in Saratoga County — said his mosque is now offering some services via Skype and using YouTube and other social media platforms.
“I wouldn’t say it’s as effective as being there — face-to-face communication is always the best — but that’s the best we can do for now,” Rabie said.
At Congregation Gates of Heaven, Cutler said the synagogue has moved everything it can to online platforms.
As a liberal, Reform Jewish temple, Congregation Gates of Heaven is permitted to live-stream its services, and Cutler said attendance has increased “tenfold” for recent Sabbath services.
The synagogue has also utilized platforms like Zoom teleconferencing to conduct activities including Torah study, spiritual meditation exercises and even religious school for 150 young students. The congregation will also host an upcoming guest speaker via Zoom.
“It causes us to really hunker down and draw on inner strength and technology to do things that are essential for people’s spiritual well-being,” Cutler said.
Utilizing new technology is just one option.
Religious leaders throughout the region are taking extra care to reach out to their congregations — especially older members.
“Sort of the normal pastoral stuff,” Humphrey-Fox said, “but [we want] to do it more often now.” There’s also a desire to provide more than just spiritual help.
As he spent Tuesday afternoon praying with those who came to pick up food at Amsterdam’s AMEN Place Soup Kitchen, Pastor Philip Bishop of the Freedom Life Baptist Church said that members of his congregation were reaching out to others who might not be able to leave their homes and making trips to the store for them.
Rabie said that there are members of the community at the Al-Arqam Center who are immigrants without American citizenship that can’t get government assistance if their job situations are impacted during the coronavirus-induced economic slowdown. “We’re trying to build a list and see how we can help from our charity money, to see if we can help those families,” Rabie said.
It’s all about maintaining connection, however they can.
“God said that, ‘They that worship Him must worship him in spirit and in truth,’” Bishop said. “It doesn’t have to be in a building.”
“People need to be reminded that whatever is going on around us, God still loves us, God is still with us,” Humphrey-Fox said. “We can still turn to God. We don’t have to be afraid in these circumstances, and we are never distanced from God if we would be open to experiencing God.”