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The Pandemic

Synagogues, churches, mosques moving to online-only services in pandemic

Clergy leaders call on “wisdom, prudence” to guide decisions

Tonya Jackson (left) prays with church elder Mark Walker at the Holy City Church of God in Christ church in Memphis on March 19, 2020. On Thursday, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland began to urge places of worship to live stream services while the city is in a state of civil emergency due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Karen Pulfer Focht/Special to The Daily Memphian)
Tonya Jackson (left) prays with church elder Mark Walker at the Holy City Church of God in Christ church in Memphis in March 2020. Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland is urging places of worship to live stream services while the city is in a state of civil emergency due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Karen Pulfer Focht/Special to The Daily Memphian)

As Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland was urging places of worship to live stream services while the city was in a state of civil emergency, many if not most churches, synagogues and mosques across Memphis and Shelby County already were planning to close their buildings and move services online for the foreseeable future.

The closings are in response to the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and requests from local health officials – in particular a opens in a new windowjoint statement issued this week by the Shelby County Health Department and Church Health:

“The best way to protect parishioners is to keep them out of harm’s way because there is no anti-viral treatment or vaccine yet. Conducting any programming possible virtually, or suspending, will protect the most vulnerable,” the statement read.

Joyce Hamilton stopped by the Holy City Church of God in Christ church in Memphis on March 19, 2020, to pray for encouragement with church elder Mark Walker. (Karen Pulfer Focht/Special to The Daily Memphian)
Joyce Hamilton stopped by the Holy City Church of God in Christ church in Memphis on March 2020, to pray for encouragement with church elder Mark Walker. (Karen Pulfer Focht/Special to The Daily Memphian)

“We recognize this is challenging, particularly with Holy Week approaching, but our local health experts believe this is the only way to protect their community. As faith communities, it is part of our calling to support the wider community. This is how the community currently needs support.

“The CDC’s guidance is to limit gatherings to under 50 people and the White House recommends canceling or postponing in-person events that consist of 10 people or more. Our local health authorities are depending on the wisdom and prudence of faith community leaders to follow these guidelines and suspend all in-person gatherings.”

In the past few days, leaders of megachurches such as opens in a new windowBellevue Baptist, opens in a new windowHope Presbyterian, New Direction Christian and Mississippi Boulevard Christian have decided to cancel on-site services.

Bishops of the Catholic Diocese of Memphis, the Episcopal Diocese of West Tennessee and the Memphis Conference of the United Methodist Church are asking their congregations not to conduct services in their sanctuaries and to allow their staffs to work remotely. 

All eight opens in a new windowMemphis mosques are suspending the five daily and Friday congregational prayers and offering evening services online.

Temple Israel, the region’s largest Jewish synagogue, suspended on-site services more than a week ago. Other synagogues are considering doing the same.

Leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced a week ago that all public gatherings including worship services were temporarily suspended worldwide until further notice. 

Joyce Hamilton (in car) stopped by the Holy City Church of God in Christ in Memphis on March 19, 2020, to ask for prayers of encouragement with church Elder Mark Walker at the Raleigh church’s “drive-thru prayer.” (Karen Pulfer Focht/Special to The Daily Memphian)
Joyce Hamilton (in car) stopped by the Holy City Church of God in Christ in Memphis in March 2020, to ask for prayers of encouragement with church Elder Mark Walker at the Raleigh church’s “drive-thru prayer.” (Karen Pulfer Focht/Special to The Daily Memphian)

Search websites or Facebook pages for your house of worship for more details.

More than 250 local clergy leaders took part in a webinar Wednesday hosted by Church Health. They talked about how to work together in the coming weeks and months to help each other continue to serve their congregations and the community at large.

They launched a Facebook group called Memphis Clergy COVID-19 Response. The group will be monitored by Church Health staff members.

“The people who are most vulnerable to COVID-19 are those over 60, those with significant chronic disease issues, and those who medications compromise their immune systems,” said Dr. Scott Morris, a physician, United Methodist minister and Church Health founder. “Those are the people who go to church.”

This story first appeared at www.dailymemphian.com under exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

David Waters
Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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