Houses of worship gain audience by going online during Covid pandemic – The Oakland Press

Posted By on June 1, 2020

On a rainy evening in St. Peter's Square, Pope Francis delivered a special blessing, asking God for help against the coronavirus.

The square in Vatican City would normally be packed with onlookers, but no one was standing on the glistening cobblestones in March as Francis implored God to "not leave us at the mercy of the storm."

But the pope was not praying alone. Millions were joining him on TV and online.

A family watches livestreaming of a prayer sessions from Vaishno Devi, one of India's most revered Hindu shrines, during nationwide lockdown in Jammu, India, on Saturday, May 9, 2020. From the Vatican, to the village church, to mosques and temples, shuttered places of worship around the world are livestreaming and making videos for a global audience that is seeking spiritual help amid the pandemic, and connections with others. (AP Photo/Channi Anand)

From the Vatican, to the village church, to mosques and temples, shuttered places of worship are streaming religious services for a global audience seeking spiritual help and connections with others during the pandemic. Some are reaching more worshippers than they did when sanctuaries resounded with prayer.

Vaishno Devi, one of India's most revered Hindu shrines, is livestreaming prayers.

"We are missing the pilgrims, their hustle and bustle. Their slogan shouting used to infuse new energy into us," said Amir Chand, a priest at the temple. "But ... in the present scenario, it is better to stay home, and therefore, we also advise the devotees to stay home and enjoy prayers."

At Jerusalem's Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, prayers went online as throngs of worshippers disappeared. The three daily Jewish prayers were broadcast on several platforms, garnering millions of views from around the world, according to Yohanna Bisraor, a spokeswoman for the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which administers the site.

Most synagogues in Israel are Orthodox, which typically do not allow livestreaming on the Jewish Sabbath, when turning on electronic devices is forbidden. A few rabbis suggested holding this year's Passover Seder with family members over Zoom, but the idea was quickly shot down by religious authorities.

More liberal congregations, though, have embraced online prayer.

Evan Cohen, the cantor at Kehilat Har-El, a Reform synagogue in Jerusalem, said the congregation has 15 or 20 regulars who come for Sabbath services each Saturday morning, but roughly 50 people tune in to streamed services. He described the experience of chanting prayers in his house while staring at a camera as "incredibly surreal."

Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam, has been streaming prayers throughout the Ramadan holy month, which runs through next week.

"In normal times, you see hundreds and thousands of people praying behind you and you can feel it when they say 'Amen,'" said Sheikh Youssef Abu Sneineh, the mosque's imam. It's sad, he said, that now only around a dozen people pray together.

In Nara, Japan, priests at Todaiji Buddhist temple prayed and chanted to drive out the coronavirus in a livestreamed event.

Onoterusaki Shrine in Tokyo is offering an "online shrine" where people submit prayers, each printed on a wooden tablet and offered to the gods of Shinto by the priest.

"I thought about how people can pray and have a peace of mind at a time everyone is feeling uneasy about all the news (of the pandemic) and going through major changes to life, but still cannot go out to pray," head priest Ryoki Ono said.

Omar Suleiman, an Islamic leader in Irving, Texas, said YouTube videos uploaded by his Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research had 30 million views for all of 2019 and have been seen 20 million times in just the last six weeks.

"People in general, I think, are looking for more meaning and spirituality in the midst of all this," Suleiman said. "So I think there's just a general increase in religiosity and consumption of religious content."

Online viewership of Francis "has grown significantly," Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni told The Associated Press by email. Francis' television audience also has increased, including his celebration of Mass every morning to empty pews.

"The numbers indicate that even people who would not have participated in religious services on a daily basis in the past are attending a Mass every morning and listening to the pope's daily reflection on the gospel," Bruni said.

Also reaching more people is a tiny church with just a few dozen parishioners in the small Oregon community of Yoder, 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of Portland.

FILE - In this April 12, 2020, file photo, sacristan Michael Seewar wears a face mask and gloves as he prepares the altar for a livestream Easter service at Saint Mark's Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle. In a survey of 269 U.S.-based churches in March, 52% tracked online attendance and found that it was 8% higher than regular in-person attendance, according to CDF Capital, which helps churches grow through funding. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

Tom Daniels, who grew up in Yoder and has retired in Oakland, California, edits video of the pastor of Smyrna United Church of Christ giving a sermon from her home, of the organist playing in the empty church and other clips. He uploads it to YouTube and has seen a bump in traffic.

Before the pandemic, he'd upload a single shot of the pastor's sermon, with no cutaway shots, and get around 20 views. Now he's getting around 70, and almost double that over Easter.

"You know, that's a lot for a tiny, little church," Daniels said.

For Karen Peterson, who grew up in Yoder and lives in Souderton, Pennsylvania, her home community is just a click away.

"My family still lives there and goes there it was a connection," Peterson said. "I like how they do their format. It's nicely done and it gives me solace."

Religious leaders are getting used to the changes.

"It's really hard to talk to the camera for a long period of time, especially to give something that's meant to stir emotionally and intellectually and spiritually," said Suleiman, the Islamic leader in Texas, who records on an iPhone perched on a stand. "I think I'm getting better at it because I'm getting more used to it."

Head of video production, Fawzi Yahya, right, helps Imam Omar Suleiman prepare for an online broadcast from the Valley Ranch Islamic Center mosque in Irving, Texas, Wednesday, May 13, 2020. Suleiman said YouTube videos uploaded by his Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research had 30 million views for all of 2019 and have received 20 million in just the last six weeks. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

The priests of Notre Dame had a jump on preparations, even before the Paris cathedral was heavily damaged by fire last year. They started streaming evening prayers, or vespers, years ago.

Made into refugees by the fire, the priests began streaming vespers last September from Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois church near the Louvre Museum. During the pandemic, they started streaming the lengthier and more elaborate Mass starting in March.

"For them, it's really complicated because they are happy when they have some people in front of them," said Andre Finot, Notre Dame's spokesman.

The pope, of course, has a sophisticated setup, with Vatican staffers most working from home producing his homilies live, online and in a downloadable booklet in five languages, Bruni said.

Speaking to a camera "is a challenge, of course, but nothing the papacy is unprepared for," Bruni said.

With countries starting to relax restrictions, the pope will celebrate his last livestreamed Mass on Monday. Some conservative Catholics have blasted the suspension of Masses and the offering of the Eucharist. Francis himself has chafed at the lockdown, saying early on that he felt like he was in a "cage," and quoting a bishop who warned him about the danger of "virtualizing the church, the sacraments and the people of God."

After some normalcy returns, places of worship will need to decide how far to dial back their online presence.

Suleiman, the Islamic leader, expects the pandemic "will change things forever."

"This has forced a lot of institutions to really adapt in terms of their capabilities and to be flexible and versatile, so I'm hoping that there will be more quality online programming in general but it won't replace the onsite rituals that we have," he said. "People are really going to revel in the Ramadan environment, that we're missing so much, next year."

Peterson, who tunes in to her hometown church's online service, wants to see that endure.

"We certainly would like to worship at our church," she said. "But there's a lot of boundaries that I think we've broken down and a lot of ways that we can be together that we didn't think of and weren't doing before."

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Houses of worship gain audience by going online during Covid pandemic - The Oakland Press

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