Online services, hand sanitizer, no holy water — local faith communities respond to coronavirus outbreak

Imam Mahdi al-Qazwini leads a Muslim prayer at the Temple Bat Yahm synagogue in Newport Beach during a multifaith gathering for iftar, a fast-breaking dinner during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. As developments in the coronavirus outbreak continued Friday, local faith communities have changed plans to limit in-person interactions.
(File Photo)

As developments in the coronavirus outbreak continued Friday, several local faith communities made changes in a variety of ways — moving weekend services online, installing hand sanitizer dispensers and, in at least one case, removing the holy water basin.

Orange County’s total number of coronavirus cases has increased to 13, county health officials said Friday, including the first case not travel-related or involving contact with a known case.

Laguna Beach’s Church by the Sea is canceling both of its Sunday services this weekend, opting for a video recorded by the church’s pastors that parishioners and their families can watch at home.

“We are concerned, but not living in fear over this,” said Jay Grant, a pastor at the church. “We just want to be wise and are following directions we heard from professionals.”

The notice of cancellation was sent Thursday.

“Our hope is that we can watch it on Sunday morning with our families, in small gatherings in homes or on your own, knowing that we’re all still connected by heart and mind and soul,” pastor Jeff Tacklind said in a statement. “We aren’t going to isolate, but instead we will seek to enjoy this time to experience a more intimate version of church.”

The church also has recommended postponing Bible study and other small gatherings due to recommendations that people be kept about six feet apart.

St. James the Great Episcopal Church
St. James Episcopal Church in Newport Beach is suspending worship services for the next two weeks after two staff members put themselves in self-quarantine after having been exposed to the coronavirus.
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St. James Episcopal Church in Newport Beach is suspending worship services for the next two weeks. The move comes as two church staff members put themselves in self-quarantine after having been exposed to the virus, said the Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees.

“Pastorally, I know that the rest of the staff is uneasy about possible exposure too,” she said in a letter to parishioners.

Two weekend services at Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley also will take a new form for the rest of the month: Facebook livestream. Typically, 50 to 150 people attend the Friday night Shabbat service, said Rabbi David Young. Now, it will be one rabbi and one cantorial soloist.

“A lot of people who have a lot of health issues might make Shabbat the one time to get out of their house every week,” Young said. “While that’s wonderful and we encourage that in general, in a time when we’re worried about communicable disease and illnesses transferred through the air, we want to maintain the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh saving a life.”

Even more people usually attend a bar mitzvah, which is planned for Saturday. That ceremony also will be held online, Young said, and the family has canceled the oneg celebration afterward in favor of a small family gathering.

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach also is taking its worship to Facebook, where Saturday’s services will be live-streamed and then posted to the church website to watch Sunday.

“Flattening the curve requires a ‘neighbor-first’ mentality, precisely the kind of mentality that we try to cultivate as followers of Christ,” pastor Mark Davis said in a Friday statement to congregants, referring to how social distancing can keep infections from spiking and overwhelming the healthcare system.

Davis said it would be easy to dismiss or belittle precautionary cancellations.

“Even so, a faithful response in times of unknowing is to consider the least, to bear patiently with those who feel differently from us and to do the best we can with trust that God gives us the right wisdom for the right moment,” he said.

On Friday morning, Rock Harbor church in Costa Mesa planned to hold in-person services but encourage folks to watch online and limit attendance to less than 250, in keeping with state guidelines. But after hearing President Trump announce a national emergency Friday afternoon, church leaders decided to hold services strictly online.

Tommy Larson, pastor in charge of weekend services at Rock Harbor, said the pastor running Sunday’s service plans to ask people at home to pray for the nation, world, economy and jobs.

“From a worship perspective, I don’t know what that will look like for people in their homes,” Larson said. “My hope is it will translate. … they will feel we are united as one through technology.”

Mariners Church Thanksgiving Dinner
Guests line up for food during a Thanksgiving dinner at Mariners Church in Irvine in 2015. The church bordering Newport Beach will hold its weekend services online and suspend all other events through March.
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Mariners Church — a large church that was founded in Newport Beach and now has campuses in Irvine near the Newport border and in Huntington Beach — is taking its weekend services to its website. All other events will be suspended through March.

Eric Geiger, Mariners’ senior pastor, said he wants to respond “in faith and not in fear.”

“Because this virus is highly contagious, we want to submit to the request from our governor that there not be gatherings of over 250 people — and that even when there are smaller gatherings, people would not spend a lot of time in close contact with one another,” he said this week in a video message. “We believe that’s a wise request because we want to care for the vulnerable in our county and in our state.”

The church, which already has a robust online presence, is starting a “prayer hotline” to connect with pastors, along with a Tuesday night digital service geared toward families and new online teenage gatherings.

Sri Siva Kameswari Temple in Costa Mesa decided to hold off on two major events: Ugadi, New Year’s Day for certain Hindu peoples set for late March, and Sri Rama Navami, a celebration set for April 2.

The Vedic spiritual center at 3198J Airport Loop Drive has suspended the practices of shadari, when the priest places a crown on a devotee’s head, and theertham, the offering of holy water.

The temple remains open for the daily Hindu prayer ritual pooja, according to its website.

Some faith communities are forging ahead with weekend gatherings, with adjusted practices.

At St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Costa Mesa, for instance, holy water basins will be taken away and parishioners will be asked to refrain from holding hands during the Lord’s Prayer, according to the parish secretary.

Rabbi Aron David Berkowitz of Chabad of West Orange County in Huntington Beach said Saturday’s main service will continue as planned, though the synagogue is taking more precautions with washing hands and preparing food.

“Relating to God and [asking] him for protection is a very important part of the whole process,” Berkowitz said.

Refuge Calvary Chapel in Huntington Beach will continue to hold weekend services — with a few tweaks. Instead of passing the offering bag around, congregants will be encouraged to give online or drop donations in a box. Instead of using standard trays and breaking bread for communion, gloved ushers will set out prepackaged, single-use communion cups. The church also provide hand sanitizing stations.

“We’re operating under the guidelines of just common sense,” said Johnathan Ferguson, director of missions and discipleship. “If this becomes a bigger issue in Orange County, we’ll be shutting our doors too.”

At Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church in Newport Beach, Friday Fish Bakes — a seasonal gathering as the observant abstain from red meat during Lent — will be canceled. The March 22 pancake breakfast also is off.

At the small Adad B’rit Synagogue in Fountain Valley, Rabbi Lonnie Bradshaw said Saturday morning’s Shabbat service will continue unchanged. On the way in or out of a building, traditional Jewish practice is to touch or kiss the mezuzah, a small parchment inscribed with Hebrew verses from the Torah, affixed to the doorpost. Bradshaw said he wasn’t sure whether it’s necessary to forgo the practice, though synagogue visitors may make their own choices.

“Honestly, we believe in a God that could protect us from viruses,” Bradshaw said. “If anyone feels uncomfortable doing any of those practices, there’s no problem with that. And if anyone doesn’t want to touch or whatever, we have no problem with any of that. People need to do what they need to do as far as to feel secure.”

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