As the coronavirus pandemic continues to take its toll, spiritual leaders in Lynbrook and East Rockaway are finding new ways to keep in contact with congregants and to celebrate their spring holidays.
Though Gov. Andrew Cuomo has banned large gatherings statewide and houses of worship are no longer meeting in-person, services and spiritual counseling are still being performed online over platforms such as Zoom, YouTube and Facebook. Religious leaders have also made themselves available to provide answers to parishioners’ questions, and ministry services have been in overdrive.
“It’s hard to maintain a sense of community in a virtual world, but it’s certainly better than nothing,” Hewlett-East Rockaway Jewish Centre Rabbi Andrew Warmflash said. “Many people are asking questions and are worried about financial stability. … Being a sense of encouragement to them is exhausting and hard, but it’s nice to know people see you as a source of comfort.”
Although Warmflash said the switch to an online platform for preaching and spiritually counseling others has not come without challenges, he noted that he finds that it is also beneficial because it is more convenient. He added that there is an uptick in people seeking spiritual guidance through online platforms.
“People can more easily participate in services without having to drive over to a building,” he said. “People are asking me why God allowed the pandemic to happen and my answer is; we don’t understand God. Part of faith is trusting God.”
Mark Lukens, a pastor at Bethany Congregational Church in East Rockaway, said he has noticed that since the switch to online platforms, he has been ministering to nearly double the amount of people he was serving before.
“People are scared and need connection,” he said. “Having an online presence is difficult, but even though the church doors are not open physically, they are open virtually.”
Lukens, who runs traditional mainline protestant church services, used to have lay readers, singing and congregational prayer and responsive readings. However, since the switch to online services, they no longer encourage large participation because he cannot interact with the audience. Music has also been eliminated from his services.
“This runs counter to everything we believe in because church community matters,” he said. “It’s difficult, but we are finding new ways to worship and the most important thing is getting in touch with God’s presence.”
With many more people than usual questioning their faith and contacting spiritual leaders through online platforms, the Rev. Robert Walderman, of Lynbrook Baptist Church, said that he has continued to reassure them that God is still in control. He also noted that he is not surprised that more people are reaching out to him during the coronavirus outbreak.
“During many crises throughout history, many people have realized their frailty and they are reminded that there’s something bigger than themselves and then oftentimes they turn back to God,” he said. “People who are questioning their faith need to remember the blessings and grace of God. God is able and we should rest in his sovereignty.”
Walderman added that switching to an online presence should not be seen as a less effective form of worship.
“God doesn’t just dwell in the church building, he is there with us in spirit and in truth whenever we worship,” he said. “It’s different because we are lacking intimacy with one another, but true worship comes from the heart.”
Hundreds of more people have started viewing the YouTube channel for Hope Church in Lynbrook, since the ban on large in-person meetings, according to Pastor Fin Varughese. He said he has also noticed that more people have been contacting him with spiritual questions because of the pandemic. In order to provide the best ministry services that he can, he said, he needs to practice spiritual self-care.
“Pastors are working harder because people are losing hope and they are going through a lot,” he said. “In the same way that Jesus went away to private places to pray, I’ve been waking up at 5 a.m. every day to pray, pause, reflect, center myself, focus on God and charge up spiritually.”
With many holy holidays coming up in the next few weeks, such as Easter and Holy Week, Varughese said he is very excited to preach on Easter even if it’s online because of what the holiday means to Christians.
“Easter speaks into brokenness and everyone is suffering in some way because of this pandemic,” he said. “Jesus suffered, died and, on the third day, he resurrected and we will see a resurrection from this pandemic.”