As events are canceled across the city and businesses instruct employees to work from home due to COVID-19, another facet of life was affected last weekend: religion.
All over the DFW area, houses of worship suspended in-person services, with some moving to virtual, livestreamed services. This left many pondering what it means to be part of a congregation and what is left of a house of worship when the congregation cannot physically worship together.
“Sometimes being a church means showing up together to pray and sing, welcoming the stranger or standing up publicly for what matters in the world,” said Rev. Dr. Daniel Kanter of First Unitarian Church of Dallas. “And in this moment, it means taking a break from how we regularly do things as an act of care for our community and neighbors.”
First Unitarian Church of Dallas temporarily suspended in-person worship services and all events in the belief that it is the church’s civic duty to do whatever necessary to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. While First Unitarian Church will be virtual for the time being, it still serves the mission to connect with and care for the community.
“This is a way of showing love to people particularly at risk for complications of this virus, to people staffing healthcare systems, and to people we might never meet,” Kanter said.
Gateway Church, a nondenominational evangelical church with seven locations in DFW, also suspended in-person services this weekend. Rev. Robert Morris asked his congregation to gather in their houses and pray, in honor of the National Day of Prayer instituted by President Donald Trump.
“We are not gathering in our houses of worship today, but we are gathering in our houses to worship and to pray for people affected by the coronavirus,” Morris said. “What if we had a pandemic of prayer today?”
Morris implored his congregation to participate, even though they are not physically at church and insisted that God would find them, no matter their location.
“And here we are, in the middle of a health crisis, and even an economic crisis,” Morris said. “Now is the time for the church to stand up, help our communities and God is going to meet with you right now, where you are.”
The Cathedral of Hope, a United Church of Christ congregation with a predominantly LGBTQ membership, did not hold its annual congregational meeting Saturday and did not host in-person services Sunday.
“In a moment such as this, I believe the church is called to lead,” said the pastor, Rev. Neil G. Thomas.
Thomas said this challenging time creates an exciting opportunity to worship and celebrate together in a different way — online.
“We are not canceling church — we are the church … us together,” Thomas said. “We will celebrate, connect, commit and claim with one another in a different way for a while. Social distancing doesn’t have to mean spiritual distancing.”
Prestonwood Baptist Church canceled all events and activities at both their Plano and Lewisville campuses.
“Extreme challenges require an extreme response,” said Rev. Jack Graham, pastor of Prestonwood. “In the midst of this coronavirus challenge, COVID-19, we as a church want to respond appropriately to our community and to one another.”
On Saturday, Bishop Edward J. Burns and Chancellor Gregory Caridi of the Catholic Diocese of Dallas canceled Mass until March 30. That decree came a day before Pope Francis gave his blessing to an empty St. Peter's Square, which the Vatican closed to tourists March 10 through April 3.
On Friday, Bishop George Sumner of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas suspended all church services and events for two weeks beginning last Sunday.
The Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration, the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation and the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Dallas all canceled in-person services and instead offered worship online. Bishop Scott Mayer of the Fort Worth Episcopal Diocese suspended in-person worship for the next two weeks, calling a Lenten fast from public worship. Rev. Robert Pace, rector of the Trinity Episcopal Church in Fort Worth, tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday and remains in quarantine.
On Thursday, Masjid Al-Islam, a mosque in South Dallas, announced it was canceling prayer and all other activities.
Temple Emanu-El, a Reform Jewish congregation in North Dallas, suspended large gatherings, including morning minyan and Shabbat services, due to public health concerns, effective Friday.
One house of worship that remained open this weekend, however, was First Baptist Church of Dallas. First Baptist did take some precautions in light of COVID-19, including suspending the time during service when congregants greet one another and disinfecting toys in the children’s area every day. They also changed the way they observe communion by providing individually wrapped crackers and juice instead of having people reach their hand into communion trays.
On March 8, Rev. Robert Jeffress told his congregation to “pray as if your safety completely depends upon God and secondly, take precaution as if your safety completely depends upon you. And if you do those two things, you’ll probably make it through this just fine.”
First Baptist posted to Facebook on Sunday, detailing all of the events and activities coming up at the church through early April, including a book signing by Jeffress after Sunday services.