CAMDEN, NJ — Kaighn Avenue Baptist seats nearly 600 but this upcoming Sunday the church will be empty.
Limiting gatherings of 50 people or more — 10 if you base it on the White House guidance — might first bring to mind St. Patrick’s Day parades, live concerts or municipal meetings.
But for houses of worship in Camden, the new set of realities brought forth by the COVID-19 pandemic takes away something much more essential for its congregants: a break from the chaos.
“Naturally people are anxious and fearful. We’ve seen these instances before but not to this magnitude, and we’re here to employ faith,” Pastor William Nemon Heard told TAPinto Camden on Tuesday. “Historically, Christianity has been about community. What’s happening now makes us more intentional, and we’re not stopping in our mission.”
Kaighn Avenue Baptist Church, like many religious groups nationwide, will shift its services to online.
Whether that’s by streaming them via Zoom, GoToMeeting or recording them for later distribution online, he said is yet to be decided.
The transition isn't as smooth churchgoers would hope — with rituals like passing of the peace (wherein those gathered shake hands), sharing in the rite of Communion (drinking wine from a single chalice), and upcoming Easter ceremonies in April seemingly having no outlet.
On Monday, Kaighn Avenue held a funeral — what will be the last for the foreseeable future.
Heard said a baby dedication has been canceled but tomorrow the church will host a food pantry with a small group in order to adhere to state guidelines.
Pastor Ernest Grant of Epiphany Church, a portable congregation, said, he “feels for churches that are more traditional."
“Churches that are not as tech-savvy or are still getting there are impacted more in my opinion,” Grant said. “Maybe this is not a new normal, but things won’t go back to the way they used to be. Even when the disease relents or threat is thwarted, there is still going to be a time when hysteria remains high.”
Grant said Epiphany Church has held one service online already.
“It went well,” he said. “We’ve been in scramble mode a little, like other churches in the area, and have had to record in an empty sanctuary.”
The church began streaming from Dudley Elementary School on Berwick Street but have since relocated following school closures effective this week.
Now, they host services from a partner church in Vorhees — where it expects to stream out of this Sunday morning.
Small groups that meet weekly, Grant noted, now use online forums like Whatsapp and Google Hangouts to stay in touch.
In addressing the pandemic to thousands that gathered via teleconference this past week, Grant said, “We are a people of faith...but will not overlook the facts surrounding social distancing, human flourishing, as well as caring for our communities.”
What Grant called “Super Bowl Sunday” when everyone from the church scattered about are able to meet in one physical location is no longer possible — which he said can take a mental toll.
“Now we have to teach our kids from home, carve out time to work and still figure out ways to help the more vulnerable in our community like those with auto-immune diseases, the homeless and those that don’t have jobs,” he said. “It’s been difficult for some congregants at home to have their attention diverted and still figure out this new digital format.”
Pastor Amir Khan, of New Beginnings, says churches that rely on weekly contributions and aren’t set up to host worship online, are particularly at risk due to the situation at hand.
“Even something like a snowstorm for churches that are smaller can force them to close down, and because they don’t have much in the way of savings, it can be devastating. This is much much worse, we could be looking at two months or more until they could have services again.”
Khan says churches that are working to get online need to pay extra attention to the senior population.
“They’re more vulnerable to becoming sick but [additionally] they may not know how to navigate the internet," Khan added. "The young people at these congregations really need to step up during these difficult times to help them."
Khan’s non-profit, New Beginnings, typically distributes food, hands out clothing and provides the opportunity for the hundreds that are homeless, formerly incarcerated or suffering from addiction in Camden, to shower in an RV they provide.
He said, “We are continuing with the outreach going out in the motor home however we are just handing out food in bags as opposed to our normal way of distribution.”