Prayer in the Pandemic

With hundreds of thousands of houses of worship closing their doors due to COVID-19, millions of Americans have adapted to worship from home. In a time when the pandemic has claimed thousands of more victims than those directly attributed to COVID-19, there will be other casualties. Many houses of prayer will not have the resources to reopen their doors. But God has found a way to expand His reach.

I am a Christian who has always believed that church is more than a Sunday ritual. I take pride in living and sharing what I learn during that weekly time of fellowship. I know that, by design, the virtues of faith can’t be restricted to four walls and one day a week. Our church is a place where seat neighbors become friends, and those friends become family. I am not alone in feeling that watching my pastor on a TV screen isn’t the same as watching with my family at First Baptist of Atlanta. It has been over 4 months since our last in-person service. Now I have embarrassingly become accustomed to “dressing” up in my nicest robe to take in the message for the week. Will this be our new normal, coffee in hand and praising in pajamas?  And as sanctuaries reopen, how will our Sunday morning look?

Live streaming church from home isn’t a new concept. It has been the way many well-known megachurches have grown a following. Pastors have found a way to use these channels to birth worship teams that become “evangelist rock stars” that tour the world. Even though we’d been recording Pastor Stanley’s services and broadcasting them as regularly scheduled programming across the U.S. and globally, First Baptist of Atlanta before this pandemic had never live streamed our services. Now, rather than hosting thousands in the pulpits on Sunday morning in metro Atlanta, the preaching is viewed live in every state of the U.S. and in over 80 countries all over the world. Of course, this accomplishment may seem like a small feat for a church of our size, but what about those congregations that have an attendance of 30 or so patrons, and have never imagined the possibility of growing their church beyond their local community? God, in His wisdom, found a way to force this to happen with COVID-19, requiring people to step out in faith.

Living in a nation founded on religious liberty, many Americans seek answers from the clergy during a time of crisis. All over the country houses of worship have been closed to safeguard the health of their congregations and comply with local COVID-19 restrictions. Leave it to the resilience of Americans to find a way to gather safely. A shift of faith was seen when the pandemic first hit. According to the metrics observed by the popular YouVersion Bible App, streaming quadrupled to 4.7 million users on March 19th and rose to 7 million users by March 22. This was at the beginning of the global shutdown and the numbers have surely increased since. It’s because faith provides something that no government, mask, or vaccine can. It has been what so many of us have chosen to cling to knowing that it is truly our only hope. I lost my Yaya (Greek grandmother) on Long Island, a friend in D.C., and our family rottweiler Bruiser during COVID-19. If I had not been grounded by something bigger than myself, this would be all too much to handle.

Leaders in houses of worship have been asked when their doors will open. Under Georgia’s current restrictions our church has the option to open. For choosing to keep the church closed a bit longer in what he feels is in the best interest of our congregation, our beloved Pastor has been accused of bowing down to the fear-driven media. Some members have asked how mass protest gatherings have occurred while our doors stay shut. While I support my Pastor’s decision, I’m off-put by the restrictions and lack of this option in other states.  Churches in California and Minnesota are in the process of taking the grievances to the court “contending that the state pandemic restrictions are violating their religious liberty.

There seems to be a growing contention in the mainstream media that those who cling tight to their faith are somehow ignorant. It is hard to believe that the roots of “American journalism lie in the particular theology and practices of Puritan New England.” As science and “expert” opinions control the narrative for decision making as to who and what are qualified as “essential” during this pandemic, the church found its voice becoming a mere whisper. It is encouraging as a believer to see that there are representatives from various faiths demanding that their voices be heard and that their places of worship open safely.

After months of COVID-19 and turmoil in the streets of our cities, the need for Americans to find peace and a place of refuge is great. For many the places that best provide solace are our houses of prayer. It’s time we allow churches nationally the option to safely open their doors as they see fit so that the free exercise of religion is properly restored.