As restrictions ease, faith leaders remain cautious to hold gatherings

  • A sign inside the newly built narthex of Christ the King Parish on South Main Street in Concord asks for parishioners to use hand sanitizer before entering the sanctuary.

  • Father Richard Roberge, pastor of Christ the King Parish in Concord, speaks to the congregation from the altar of the church on Sunday, July 12, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Christ the King Hospitality greeters Sandy and Brent Adams check people in at the entrance where there was assigned seating for services last Sunday.

  • The newly-refurbished roof of Christ the King Parish in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Father Richard Roberge, pastor of Christ the King Parish in Concord, hands out communion at the Sunday service July 12. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Father Richard Roberge, pastor of Christ the King Parish in Concord, at the altar during Sunday services on July 12, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Father Richard Roberge, pastor of Christ the King Parish in Concord, drops a communion wafer into the hands of Bill Norton of Concord on July 12. Roberge said the parish is operating at only 25% capacity in recent weeks. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 7/18/2020 4:12:12 PM

Places of worship in the Concord area have found creative ways to keep the faith and create footholds of normalcy at a time when it’s most scarce.

Many haven’t had a normal service since March, when COVID-19 cases exploded across the U.S. and most religious groups transitioned to remote worship voluntarily. In-person services were officially suspended later that month when Gov. Chris Sununu barred gatherings of more than 10 people “for social, spiritual and recreational activities.”

Since then, restrictions have loosened significantly. In mid-June, New Hampshire gave places of worship the green light to hold services at 50% capacity, though guidelines for social distancing, sanitation and traffic flow remain in effect.

Despite a go-ahead from the state, many faith communities in Concord have chosen to keep their services online-only.

Enforcing social distancing in tight-knit religious groups — where a handshake or hug between fellow congregants is customary — is no small challenge, said Samuel Nzoikorera, one of two pastors at Concord Seventh-day Adventist Church.

“It’s difficult to meet and not be able to greet one another physically,” he said.

Group singing, a staple in many faith traditions, poses a particular danger. Choir rehearsals and religious services have led to several coronavirus outbreaks. In March, the virus tore through a church choir in Mount Vernon, Wash., infecting 53 members.

The Temple Beth Jacob synagogue is continuing services online for similar reasons, Rabbi Robin Nafshi said. In addition to streaming Sabbath services on Friday nights and Saturday mornings, the community has also moved religion classes, administrative meetings, discussion groups and social gatherings online.

Nafshi said she’s attended over 200 virtual meetings since Temple Beth Jacob went remote. Preaching to a screen instead of face-to-face with her congregation has been adifficult adjustment, she said.

“My way of being a rabbi is very much about being in the room with people, responding to the mood of the room,” she said.

Some have started to welcome communities back, however. Christ the King Parish opened for in-person services in mid-June, after Bishop Peter Libasci of the Catholic Diocese of Manchester approved public Masses.

The parish is operating at only 25% capacity, parish pastor Fr. Rich Roberge said. Every other pew is closed, with people from the same household grouped together and traditional social distancing protocols in place everywhere else.

To accommodate congregants at that volume, Christ the King is celebrating five Masses each weekend — one on Saturday evenings and four on Sunday. Attendees reserve spaces online beforehand, Roberge said.

“It’s like going to a theater,” he said.

While most faith communities now have weekly services down to a system, religious holidays and rituals present their own challenges.

Ramadan, for example, fell between April and May — the middle of state shutdown in New Hampshire. Hubert Mask, President of the Islamic Society of Greater Concord, said the holy month of fasting and prayer looked “different” this year.

Concord’s Muslim community typically gathers to celebrate the end of Ramadan with festivities and gift-giving, but Mask said families were asked to observe the holiday alone this time. In the interest of safety, Eid al-Adha, a holiday taking place later this month, will likely look similar.

“We’re being very conservative about it,” Mask said.

Though holidays can’t be rescheduled, many religious groups are postponing other milestone rituals and ceremonies — bar and bat mitzvahs, baptisms, weddings — until they are safe to celebrate normally.

But funerals are another challenge altogether —especially for followers of Judaism, where it is traditional to bury the dead one to two days after death.

Nafshi recalled the funeral of one congregation member, who was buried on her family’s plots out of town. Nafshi wasn’t able to travel to the service to officiate, nor was the deceased’s family. Only a local Rabbi and a staff member of the funeral home were present.

The staff member streamed the service with a cell phone so Nafshi and others could watch remotely.

“It was bizarre,” Nafshi said. “You don’t usually have a funeral with no one present.”

While the pandemic is nothing if not unpredictable, religious leaders and laypeople said their faith has kept them anchored.

Mask said he considers salat, the five daily prayers that followers of Islam practice, a major source of stability. He said many Muslims find solidarity in the routine.

“We’re all going through the same thing,” he said.

George Reed, a Christian Science practitioner, works to heal others through prayer. He said when his clients express anxieties about the pandemic, prayer helps guide their thoughts toward well-being and peace of mind.

He recalled a short prayer by Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy: “Beloved Christian Scientists, keep your minds so filled with Truth and Love, that sin, disease, and death cannot enter them,” she wrote. “It is plain that nothing can be added to the mind already full.”

Nzoikorera said as he’s watched his congregation navigate the past few months, he’s tried to preach messages “that will help people to understand that there is a better future to look forward to.”

This promise of hope has been a light at the end of the tunnel for him and his community.

“The pandemic did help us to focus on the better world to come,” he said.

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