In the holiest of days, some faith leaders urge followers to commune online; others choose to gather in person, without fear

Crepuscular Rays at Noon in Saint Peter's Basilica, Vatican City. Credit: Alex Proimos. Wikimedia Commons.

Faith leaders urging people to worship at home during holy days this month want religious followers to “commune” by sharing observations on social media, such as #StayHomeStayHoly.

Sister Simone Campbell, Rabbi Sharon Brous and Muslim scholar Wajahat Ali joined Congressman James Clyburn, chair of the House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis, this week to encourage practicing Christians, Jews and Muslims to worship at home to keep each other safe during the coronavirus pandemic.

Some others have different views, choosing to practice their faith in person even though the COVID-19 respiratory disease can be fatal.

On Friday, the death toll worldwide from the new coronavirus surpassed 101,000, according to Johns Hopkins University and Medicine and the New York Times.

As the Florida Phoenix wrote recently, the coronavirus has tested sacred religious traditions and raised Constitutional issues. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Harvard-trained lawyer, said recently, “I don’t think the government has the authority to close a church. I’m certainly not going to do that.”

In a conference call hosted by the Center for American Progress, the faith leaders asked religious followers to join each other via the internet to engage in the sacred rituals they love, safely at a distance, and to exchange photos and comments on social media in order to have a shared experience.

They encouraged followers to worship and rejoice. And they cautioned against counting on religious faith alone to immunize anyone from the coronavirus.

Faith does have healing power, said Sister Campbell, but she asserts it should not be a religious person’s first strategy against a contagious virus that has killed more than 101,000 people globally and continues to spread.

“Just as we look to our political leaders, our government officials to make the kinds of decisions that would keep us safe and secure in our homes and in our communities, we as faith leaders should do what we can to contribute to that,” said Rep. Clyburn said. “One of the things that contributes to that significantly is our #StayHomeStayHoly movement.”

Reuters reported Friday that most major denominations, including Roman Catholic dioceses and major Protestant denominations, are holding online services instead of gatherings.

Pope Francis, head of the Catholic Church, prayed alone in an empty St. Peter’s Basilica Friday, Reuters reported, and he led a Via Crucis procession on the basilica’s outdoor steps in an empty St. Peter’s Square, the first time the procession did not occur in Rome’s Colosseum since 1964.

Reuters also found a few congregations that plan to gather in person, including the Rev. Tony Spell, pastor of the evangelical Life Tabernacle Church near Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Spell predicted a crowd of more than 2,000 will worship in person at his megachurch this Sunday.

“God will shield us from all harm and sickness,” Spell told Reuters reporter Rich McKay. “We are not afraid. We are called by God to stand against the Antichrist creeping into America’s borders. We will spread the Gospel.”

In Florida, the Rev. Rodney Howard-Brown was arrested for holding services at his megachurch, The River at Tampa Bay, in defiance of local stay-at-home orders. That was before Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a statewide stay-at-home order specifically exempting religious gatherings, deeming them to be essential services for people during this health crisis.

“We feel that it would be wrong for us to close our doors on them, at this time, or any time,” Howard-Brown stated on the church’s website.

Sister Campbell, who is executive director of NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, said she has counseled parishioners who “desperately” want to worship together in person this Easter Sunday, but she advised them to compare their discomfort with the suffering of Jesus Christ.

“We are rooted in this moment that feels like Good Friday, when Jesus suffered alone on the cross. But like Jesus, we are not truly alone, even if we’re separate,” she said. “Together in community, we can be our better selves. We can care for those who are struggling and ill. This is our Easter lesson: being at the cross, in the suffering, knowing that it is our solidarity that will see us through. We will know the rebirth of Easter, but it may take a while. It will come if we stay home and stay holy.”

During Passover, which began April 8 and ends April 16, Rabbi Brous, founder and senior rabbi of the Los Angeles-based Jewish congregation IKAR, said staying home to resist coronavirus demonstrates reverence for life.

“To honor and abide the physical act of separation is an act of love toward our neighbors and ourselves,” Brous said. “When we abide this temporary isolation, that’s how we demonstrate that we refuse to see one another as expendable.”

Brous likened the COVID-19 pandemic to the ninth plague described in the book of Exodus, when darkness descended for three days and no person could see another.

“There is an antidote to this 9th plague,” Brous said, which is to “see” others in the darkness by loving them enough to protect their health. “The most faithful act that we can engage in is to stay home.”

Ali said Muslims about to enter Ramadan should feel the same.

“God, Allah, wants us to do the most good … and do the least amount of harm,” he said, urging followers to demonstrate their love for others by not putting them at increased risk.

“We stay holy by staying home. Maybe, perhaps you’ll be most favored in the eyes of God in this holy time.”