Keeping the Faith

By Jennifer Blot

Father Gregory Bonfiglio of St. Ignatius Catholic Church in San Francisco stands among the pews in his empty church, which closed its doors in March alongside other religious centers. But he’s not totally alone: Selfies of his parishioners, to whom he delivers virtual Sunday Mass, line the rows. Meanwhile, thanks to an assist from the University of San Francisco, congregants can enter the church, at whim, via a 24-7 live feed, taking solace in the serenity of a dimly lit altar. (Matthew Petty)

Faith: Rows and rows of empty pews are forcing San Francisco’s religious leaders to find new, virtual ways to reach their congregations.

As San Franciscans were coming to terms with social distancing in the early days of COVID-19, the City’s religious leaders were looking ahead — and trusting their instincts. Rabbi Sydney Mintz of Congregation Emanu-El began offering pastoral counseling walks — on wide sidewalks. The Reverend Vanessa Rush Southern, senior minister at First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco, convened a group of health care providers within her congregation to ask some tough questions. And Father Gregory Bonfiglio of St. Ignatius Catholic Church sent a parish email confirming Mass — but implored folks to stay home.

By the time doors collectively closed in mid-March, congregations had dusted off camera equipment, refrained from handshakes and hugs, and developed contingency plans for Holy Week. Their mobilization, in large part, was guided by the San Francisco Interfaith Council, which participated in early briefings with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Mayor London Breed and Governor Gavin Newsom and then stepped into a unique liaison role for its network of 800 faith communities.

“Because the City got started early, we became the trusted source of their news,” explains the council’s executive director, Michael Pappas. “We also became their advocates when they were trying to figure out that line from being essential services to not being able to hold major services.” He adds, “Overnight, everybody pivoted to online services.”

The tech-savvy of houses of worship has been tested — and they’ve done the City proud, becoming adept at filming services with a designated cap of 10 people in the room. For Glide Memorial Church, known for its tactile community and robust gospel choir, the 10-person limit was untenable. After two weeks of exclusively livestreaming in February — a decision made prior to the City’s March 17 shelter-in-place order — the sanctuary closed and it switched to Zoom, interspersing live feeds of the minister and musicians at their respective homes with archival choir footage.

Rabbi Sydney Mintz of Congregation Emanu-El (above) prepares for virtual services.

As for its peace embrace, Glide’s minister of celebration, Marvin K. White, takes a new approach.

“Now, the instruction from the virtual pulpit is for people to think about who needs a hug, who they’d normally be hugging in times like this, and how they’re imagining people need to be held,” he says.

Today, Zoom is part of the lexicon of nearly every congregation. The online video meeting platform has been a lifeline for many congregants, who can now access a menu of offerings ranging from Torah study and theological forums to Sunday school and choir rehearsal.

Through Zoom, Facebook Live and YouTube, congregations are reporting off-the-charts views — as many as three or four times the in-person attendance. As new patterns emerge — viewer comments popping up during livestreams and family members around the country attending services together — it’s clear another door has opened.

“I was talking to one of our congregants who is disabled,” recalls Minister White. “Now that we are producing our Sunday celebration for people at home, she no longer feels like an afterthought.”

Virtual coffee hours after live-streamed services are also becoming popular, providing a forum for people to discuss the sermon and how they’re feeling. “Some people are thriving under shelter-in-place and some people are absolutely miserable, and it’s good for people to hear from each other,” notes Dean Malcolm Young of Grace Cathedral. “It gives you a broader picture of what people are experiencing.”

At St. Ignatius, where hundreds of parishioner selfies have been taped to pews, the camera is rolling 24/7, thanks to help from the University of San Francisco. Parishioners can experience Mass in the vast flower-filled sanctuary; the rest of the time, the focus is on a dimly lit altar.

“I never, ever would have imagined how connected I feel speaking basically to an empty church,” muses Father Bonfiglio. “I know the people are there and I’m feeling very connected.”

St. Ignatius’ Father Gregory Bonfiglio leads his parishioners in prayer during a remote, shelter-in-place sermon.

Reaching seniors has been paramount. Congregation Emanu-El, which has 500 members over age 75, dropped off Passover meals to those spending the holiday alone. Third Baptist Church, led by the Rev. Dr. Amos C. Brown, delivers meals to seniors seven days a week. And other congregations, committed to demystifying technology for older congregants, offer one-on-one tech support. Right before sheltering in place, Grace’s Dean Young visited a parish senior’s home to hook up his Wi-Fi.

The number of COVID-19 cases within San Francisco’s houses of worship remains something of a mystery. Some are aware of only a handful of illnesses in their congregation, if any. Brown, however, tracks the impact of the pandemic on the country’s African American communities and has congregants who have been affected. Recently, it claimed the life of a childhood friend.

As donation baskets and offertory envelopes have given way to PayPal, Givelify and Classy.org, contributions have been sporadic. Some are on track to meet annual operating fund goals, but others, like the San Francisco Muslim Community Center, have seen a decline. Imam Abu Qadir Al-Amin is worried about the lull, admitting, “When we don’t see people and when people are out of work, that affects our ability to fulfill our financial responsibilities.”

Tova Green of the San Francisco Zen Center, whose bookstore continuously fills orders for bells, statues and cushions for home altars, remains sanguine. “Buddhist teachings and meditation can help us develop equanimity and balance for support when things are unpredictable. They also help us deal with grief and loss and remind us to recognize joy in the midst of challenging times,” she says.

“There’s opportunity and hope,” echoes Rabbi Mintz. “We’re forced to ask existential questions: What is the meaning of my life? How has this changed me and how am I serving my community?”

As for the future, Pappas of the SF Interfaith Council believes the City’s religious leaders will be holding their congregants’ hands for a long time: “They’re going to play a very significant role, because we’re not going to go back to life as we knew it.”

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