How Texas faith leaders are responding to coronavirus during Holy Week

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St. Luke Catholic Church hosts church services for the fifth Sunday in Lent Saturday, March 28, in El Paso. St. Luke along with other Catholic churches in El Paso switched to Facebook live church services during the "Stay Home, Work Safe" order.

El Paso Times

With their churches and synagogues closed and their congregations living in fear and isolation, faith leaders urge followers to focus on the season's message of renewal.

AUSTIN - Shane Hughes will spend his first Easter as pulpit minister at Abilene's Highland Church of Christ preaching with a full heart to an empty house of worship.

He will be guided by the gospel of St. Mark, who recounts the first Easter when the women who had gone to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus with oils and spices fled in fear after an angel told them Jesus had risen from the dead.

That same fear, said Hughes, "applies to where we are living now." Hughes came to Abilene in June 2019 and like countless faith leaders across Texas has closed his church to traditional services to avoid spreading the contagious coronavirus even though Gov. Greg Abbott has deemed worship service an essential state need, meaning local authorities cannot stop services.

"We can believe fully in the hope of the resurrection, but we're also afraid. Those two things exist side by side," said Hughes, who since mid-March has been among a growing cadre of ministers, priests and rabbis who spreads his message by way of livestream, social media and other forms of electronic communication.

'Our people are feeling a lot of pain'

Bishop Michael Sis, who leads the Catholic Diocese of San Angelo, said parking lot services, similar in form to the drive-in movies of a bygone era, had proved to be an effective substitute in the age of coronavirus to filling the pews where people are encouraged shake hands and even embrace in an offering of peace following the Lord's Prayer during Catholic mass.

But heading into Holy Week, Sis said the parking lot mass and the distribution of communion had become too risky for the Diocese.

"Our people are feeling a lot of pain," Sis said. "Another thing that is difficult for us is our Catholic people not being able to received the Eucharist, and not being able to gather in large groups. It just takes us out of our element."

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Corpus Christi Cathedral stands empty in the days leading up to Easter and religious leaders across Texas seek to protect their congregations without losing sight of their spiritual needs. (Photo: Courtney Sacco/Caller-Times)

Online services, person-to-person calls, and even the old-school print publication of the diocese newspapers keeps the congregation in touch, he said. And even though there will not be the in-church celebration of the Mass, he added, many churches in the diocese are open for prayer and reflection.

More: Essential workers exposed to coronavirus can return to work if showing no symptoms, CDC says

"As much as possible, we encourage our priests to have the churches open so people can go in individually and pray," Sis said. "Just to go in and sit there at the church and pray. That's a good thing."

Bishop Michael Sis of the Catholic Diocese of San Angelo (Photo: File photo)

Lance Pape, an associate professor at Brite Divinity School, which is affiliated with Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, said faith leaders and lay people alike are navigating waters not before seen in their lifetimes. The lessons they are learning are playing out in real time during one of the year's holiest season for both Christians and Jews. The uncertainty is testing their faith, straining their emotions and even threatening their financial well-being, he said.

"This pandemic has a story that it's telling," said Pape, who is also a minister. "And that's a story about isolation with social distancing and the very fact that we won't be able to gather in our sacred spaces. It's a story about death, and it's a story about the fear of death. 

"Easter," he added, "has a counter-story to all three of those things. It's telling a story about community, it's telling a story about life, it's telling a story about the courage to live that comes from trusting God."

An ancient parallel

Levi Greenberg, a rabbi at Chabad Lubavitch of El Paso, is seeking to lead his congregation through Passover, which began April 8 and runs through the evening of April 16. He sees parallels in the current crisis to holiday's origins 3,332 years ago.

"The holiday of Passover is all about strengthening faith," Greenberg said. "Passover commemorates the redemption of the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery."

Rabbi Levi Greenberg, Chabad Lubavitch, shows how to set up a table for Seder on Monday, April 6, 2020, at his family's home in El Paso. He is showing people how they can have Seder at their homes in spite of COVID-19. (Photo: BRIANA SANCHEZ/EL PASO TIMES)

Millions of Jews fled Egypt, he said, with "nothing more than just a little bit of matzah," which is unleavened bread they carried because there was no time to allow the yeast to rise. Today, matzah is an essential part of Seder, Passover's ceremonial dinner.

"The matzah represents the unquestioning faith that we have in God almighty," Greenberg said. "When Moses led them into the desert, there weren't these massive trucks filled with food. In the desert, there's nothing.

"Just as our ancestors had unquestioning faith in God as they were going into the unknown. This is not just a message for the Jewish people, but for all people. We are looking into the unknown. No one knows what's going to happen next."

More: Amid COVID-19, rabbi says Passover Seder should focus on tradition, not social aspect

'There is hope'

In Corpus Christi, Father Sean Maloney, of St. Bartholomew Episcopal Church, said he and his parishioners are "struggling with the sadness of not being together" while most people are isolated in their homes for the Easter season. 

“These houses are starting to feel like tombs," Maloney said. "We’re all starting to feel dead in a different way, in a sort of numb-emotionally dead and drained way."

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Father Sean Maloney of St. Bartholomew Episcopal Church in Corpus Christi, takes part in Ash Wednesday. (Photo: Courtney Sacco/Caller-Times)

Though Maloney has kept his congregation together online and in other ways, the crisis has taken on a toll on all of the services his church offers.

“There’s nothing that we do that isn’t taking a hit – the Boy Scout group, AA group, NA group," he said referring to support groups for people battling addiction. "We run a daycare. We miss these kids. We miss the good work we’re doing."

More: Easter Sunday streaming guide: Kanye West with Joel Osteen, Andrea Bocelli and more

But, Maloney added, Easter is rooted in the renewal of life.

“In this moment, as scary as it is, it’s amazing to be reminded that there is hope," he said. "There is a future. There is a resurrection where we will be together.” 

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Pastor Joel Garza stands outside his church, Wednesday, April 1, 2020, at The Bridge Church in Robstown. "I believe it's the best place for us to be is at a church," Garza says, "we believe God shows up whenever we gather."  (Photo: Annie Rice/Caller-Times)

In nearby Robstown, Pastor Joel Garza of The Bridge Church said he plans to hold services in his building but will require the congregation to practice social distancing and to keep their hands cleans. Before Abbott declared worship an essential need, Garza was prepared to defy the local orders that would have kept his church doors closed.

"We preach a God of healing," Garza said. "(And we're) going to close churches because we believe a virus is bigger than God?"

More: Coronavirus: Change in state order helps Robstown church service to continue

Brent Moore, senior pastor of Life Church in El Paso, moved services online, but he too sees the value in bringing his congregation together. That's why he is offering a parking lot service on Easter Sunday.

"The ministry of presence is very important," Moore said. "It is good for the church to gather in ways that are safe, but also encouraging as we will be able to see each other in cars."

A cross created by Brenda and Chris Stone of San Angelo, Texas. The couple was encouraged to use items in their home to make an Easter cross. The cross was displayed on Palm Sunday. (Photo: Contributed / Scott Bradford)

'Easter is still happening'

The Rev. Scott Bradford of San Angelo's  First United Methodist Church of San Angelo said that although services have moved to online, he is challenging his members to use their homes to display their faith. For example, they can place a cross in their front yard, he said.

“Easter is still happening,” Bradford said.

The church plans to stream services online and over the air via a local radio station.

Beyond the spiritual needs

Several faith leaders said that even as they seek to uphold the spiritual needs of their congregations, they are also concerned about people's ability to provide for their families because the widespread job losses caused by the shutdowns of so many businesses.

"Our Catholic charitable services are under tremendous strain because the needs are increasing and the resources are decreasing," said Sis, the bishop in San Angelo. "Plus, the actual method of delivery becomes a risk. But they're doing everything the can."

Jarrod Robinson, minister of Abilene's Southern Hills Church of Christ, has seen a decrease in contributions, and he's heartened by an uptick in generosity.

"We’ve even had select members ask if there are others who are in need of special financial assistance right now to offer additional financial donations for that purpose," Robinson said. "We are being incredibly careful and doing our best to control expenses so that we can continue to be generous as a church in relationship to our surrounding Abilene community."

More: Coronavirus: We're in this together

Joel Moore, senior pastor of San Angelo First Presbyterian Church, urged his followers to take comfort in the season of renewal and redemption.

“For those whose faith may be nearing the breaking point, we are encouraged to cast our burdens upon the one who already knows what it’s like to suffer, Jesus Christ,” Moore said. 

“Especially during Holy Week as we remember the trials, the temptations, the betrayal, and ultimately, the crucifixion of Jesus, we recognize that our lord and savior is quite capable of walking with us through our trials.”

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Rosanna Aguilera of the San Angelo Standard Times, Timothy Chipp of the Abilene Reporter News, Maria Cortes Gonzalez of the El Paso Times,  Greg Jaklewicz of the Abilene Reporter News and Alexandria Rodriguez of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times contributed to this report. John C. Moritz covers Texas government and politics for the USA Today Network in Austin. Contact him at jmoritz@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @JohnnieMo.

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