The Role of the Pandemic and its Effects on the Church

By Tom Huckin & Allan Ainsworth

In the winter of 2020, a viral pandemic swept the entire world – first in China, then South Korea and Europe, then the United States and elsewhere.  Dubbed “COVID-19,” it was highly contagious and very deadly, especially for older people with underlying medical conditions.  Originating in the Chinese city of Wuhan, it forced that city of 11 million to shut down entirely – schools, businesses, certain public services — for some two months.  Meanwhile, it moved on to Italy and other countries, forcing massive disruption there too. 

Needless to say, COVID-19 received extensive press coverage from the beginning. By early March 2020 many Americans were taking the same sorts of precautions that people in Asia and Europe were taking – in particular, frequent handwashing and the avoidance of any physical contact (e.g. handshaking, hugging) with others. Because the virus could be transmitted via tiny airborne droplets propelled by ordinary speech, people were advised by authorities to stay at least six feet apart — what became known as “social distancing.” The First Church followed suit, with members starting to social distance around that same time. People wore gloves to church services, tried to stay at least six feet away from each other, and avoided shaking hands or hugging. 

But although COVID-19 wreaked havoc in Asia and Europe early on, it did not really hit the US until March of that year. And meanwhile, the Trump administration was continually downplaying the threat to Americans. On March 8, for example, President Trump told the nation, “We have a perfectly coordinated and fine-tuned plan at the White House for our attack on Coronavirus.” On March 10, he said, “It will go away.  Just stay calm. It will go away.” Except it wasn’t going away. Just three days later, in fact, Trump declared the situation a National Emergency. Schools and universities were closed, as were many retail businesses: major cultural and sports events were cancelled.

During this time, social distancing led to major behavioral changes nationwide. Among other things, it produced an enormous increase in what was called “virtual gatherings,” i.e. gatherings held not in person but mediated by the internet. And the First Church followed suit. For the first time in church history, Sunday services were conducted not in person but “virtually,” with all parishioners staying home and tuning in via the internet. Only Reverend Tom Goldsmith, Reverend Monica Dobbins, and David Owens-Lupo were physically present in the chapel – with Lee Shuster and Don Walton doing expert video work.

On March 22, 2020, Reverend Goldsmith gave a sermon titled “Plague.” He started by saying that “nobody knows what the future will bring,” adding that such anxiety is common to all pandemics throughout history. Examples of such denial and fear go back to the 1918 Spanish Flu, to the 1347-51 Black Plague, indeed all the way back to the plagues of Ancient Egypt and Greece described in the Old Testament. He discussed three well-known literary works featuring a plague: Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, Edgar Allen Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, and Albert Camus’s The Plague. The last of these, he said, underscores the seeming absurdity of nature’s attack on humanity, and the imperative to “fight back with love and compassion to make meaning out of it.” He concluded by saying, “It’s time for us to dig deep, to dig really deep.”

The following week (March 29), Reverend Dobbins gave a sermon titled “How to Survive the Apocalypse.” She began by comparing the 1918 Spanish Flu, which killed an estimated 100 million people, with World War I, which had far fewer casualties, and then asking, “Why does that war get so much more coverage in the history books?” Her answer was that it simply makes for “a better story than a pandemic.” It has a clear start and finish, clear winners and losers, etc. Pandemics, by contrast, are confusing; but they ultimately reveal things about ourselves and our society that we were unaware of. She concluded by noting that “You are not alone. We are all together in this.”

In early April, with the pandemic increasing its presence along the Wasatch Front, Reverends Tom and Monica began sheltering in their respective homes and broadcasting from there. Only David Owens-Lupo, unable to abandon his favorite piano, still appeared in the church itself. By now, most church members had become comfortable with the technology, with each Sunday service getting 175-275 “hits” from members watching from home. (On Easter Sunday that number increased to more than 525.)

Meanwhile, the church’s finances were being impacted by the pandemic, just like most every other institution across the land. Along with countless other small enterprises, the church applied for federal support from the CARES Act. At the time of writing, according to Church Administrator Margaret Korosok-Bean, our application has been approved at a lower level than requested and the church is awaiting approximately $58,000 in much needed funding. Kosorok-Bean stated in an interview conducted on August 10, 2020 that major sources of income are in jeopardy. Members are continuing to honor their yearly pledges, but other sources of income, including annual rental fees from other organizations have been suspended. The ritual of passing the collection plate brought in $20,00 per year, but the church is $15,000 below this as this article is being written.

One of the critical discussions surrounding reductions in expenses was had by both staff and the Board of Trustees. The decision was made to retain all staff at their previous levels of employment, which was a requisite of obtaining the CARES Act funding, but also an important social justice act on the part of the church. Budgets for such programs as Religious Education and the Music Department have been cut, and the church is saving in utility costs (25% reduction).

The three-year capital campaign, which kicked off in 2019 to raise $500,000 in funding to do much-needed repairs on the church has raised $406,000 at present. A new push to complete the last $94,000 will begin shortly, but there is an understanding that the economic shutdown that began in March 2020 has affected individual finances.

Amanda Esco, Director of Religious Education, was also interviewed on August 10, 2020. Esco described struggling with a “systemic societal fallout” occurring in the U.S. with the education of children. She emphasized that First Unitarian Church was following the guidelines of the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Salt Lake County School Districts in moving to an online model for children in the religious education program. Programs under her direction are adapting to the community’s needs with everyday activities designed to keep children involved. She stated that “everyone has different needs that are as different as families”, with flexibility and honoring people where they are as essential elements of religious education.

Distance learning has been easier among the children in this congregation than in many others since every child in this system has internet connectivity, computers and guidance from involved families. Children have formed YouTube “pods” in which they have virtual play times apart from their more formal education. Her plan is to continue virtual learning at least through December, 2020 and into 2021 as needed.

At this time, with the pandemic still in its early stages, it’s impossible to predict the future.  Reverend Goldsmith laid out three possible scenarios for when the pandemic is brought under control:

  1. Church services will go back to their traditional, non-mediated format.
  2. Church services could have both in-person and virtual dimensions, thereby expanding the church’s overall reach.
  3. Either of the above options could be supplemented by podcasts.

In any case, the First Church has joined seven other local congregations and agreed to a “covenant” whereby all eight will open at the same time, when public safety warrants it.  At this point, no one knows when that will be.  Entering our sixth month of quarantine as of August 2020, there is still tremendous uncertainty about how long physical/social distancing will last. The term “social distancing” seems inadequate to describe what we are all living through, since the church is still both socially and spiritually active, albeit via the internet. By now we are all aware of the implications of physical distancing, however. We miss being able to see each other in person, shake hands, give physical hugs, and look people in the eye.

The situation we’re all in is simply unprecedented.  And it’s compounded by economic hard times and an American president who is missing in action.  All of this has raised existential questions in the minds of many church members, in particular “What is essential and nonessential as we think about religion and spirituality today?”  “How can we plan for the future at a time when the earth is shifting on its axis?”  Such questions are the gist of a fascinating podcast interview, “The Quarantine Tapes,” with journalist Krista Tippett and curator Paul Holdengraber.

Tippett and Holdengraber take on the meaning of the word apocalypse, stating that the concept alludes not to the complete and final destruction of the world, depicted in the book of Revelation in the Christian bible, but to a “reawakening”,  or “an uncovering”, an interpretation that is worth pondering during this extremely difficult time in our lives. We are all wondering what will finally settle as the earth shifts under our feet during this peculiar isolation, and what it will look and act like when/if we are able to resume our former lives in the months to come. We envision that we will still be practicing physical distancing and mask wearing when the church opens back up, perhaps during the early months of 2021. A significant number of our congregation is over the age of 65, meaning that masks will likely still be mandatory.

At the risk of leaning too much on the Tippett episode, there is a discussion about how the traditional role of churches is changing, i.e., what churches are about circa 2020. At a time when the world’s population have started writing religions off (membership in churches is at an all-time low. See, how might a new role begin to emerge during the time of Covid-19? We make no pretense of knowing the answer to this question, but it seems a fitting question, one that spawns more specific ones for our First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City.  Specifically, what have we personally and institutionally lost in the last 6 months of Covid-19 isolation? What are the implications for the future of our church? Who is most affected? Are there bright spots that are showing through the dark side of what has been deemed “a most interesting time” in our collective history? Are we at a point where we can begin to visualize a “reawakening”?  These are the sorts of questions we’re all wrestling with now.

For one thing, our two ministers, Tom and Monica, both see technology playing a larger role in church services in the future.  Virtually all of our church members, according to Rev. Monica, now have access to the Internet.  During this pandemic many have tuned in to church services remotely, happy to be safe in their homes.  Even when the pandemic abates and/or a vaccine becomes available, some of these members will continue to prefer remote worship.

We are practicing distancing rules that are more protective of congregants than many surrounding churches.  Plus, according to Rev. Monica, virtually all of our church members have access to the internet

Plus: people who have had trouble in the past in leaving their homes (elderly and disabled and transportation compromised), if they have computers and an internet connection can participate in a new and different way.