How the pandemic changed how churches, synagogues from Naples to Fort Myers host worship

Harriet Howard Heithaus
Naples Daily News

Faith may be eternal. But the way we observe it has been shattered over the last six months. 

With the closing of church buildings for coronavirus restrictions, many of them needed to be baptized into new technology. Cameras, microphones and large-scale Zoom accounts were added to transform what was an online supplement into the main worship. Social distancing and the tricks of "touchless" services were devised in churches, which slowly began to open back up with the state’s Phase One transition April 29.

High-tech communication proved to be safely high-touchless, too. Rabbi Bruce Diamond of the Community Free Synagogue in Fort Myers created a daily blog to minister to a congregation he could no longer see on the sabbath.

“We’re keeping in really good touch with people, actually better than we did before,” he conceded. “It’s ironic that one of the unintended consequences is that we’re much more in touch with each other.”

“I sent a daily psalm for people to read, for people to think about and special readings from Scripture. We did that for about six months — I ran out of psalms,” he said, chuckling. So Diamond moved on to other passages of the Torah.

He likened the first three to four months after the coronavirus shutdown to “like the angel of death coming over Egypt This Passover, he added “we could really connect to the story. We felt the way our ancestors did.”

Community Free Synagogue meets in the Southwest Florida Masonic Center and has  just resumed first in-person services, with limited seating and face covering, Oct. 9.Diamond sees its fortified online component — extra mics and a second camera — as a strong continuing element.

For the annual Days of Awe, 10 days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, log-ons reached to nearly 500. Community Free Synagogue sent worshippers a pdf prayer book so they could follow all the service at home.

“That was a time of great creativity,” he said. “We’ve sort of made lemonade out of this. We’ve found different ways of relating and connecting.

“And there is a considerable silver lining. People have come to a much deeper understanding of how precious we are to each other when we come together. We’re not going to be taking that for granted anymore.”

At the First Presbyterian Church of Bonita Springs, communion became a Keurig moment. The church had already instituted touch-free entry, with doors held open by volunteers; a touch-free collection basket, hymns and service texts beamed from large video screens in the sanctuary.

But the church didn't observe the traditional communion until it discovered prepackaged sets. 

"They look like those coffee creamer packages. The wafer is in the top under the first lid. The second layer, under another lid, has a cup of grape juice. They take their kits to their seats. When it’s time for communion, they open the packages,” he explained.

Pratt said the church, which was one of the first to reinstitute services in its 1,300-seat sanctuary in May, has not pushed online services to the background; instead it invites people at home to join in live now.

“We used to record the service. Now, it’s streaming as well,” he said.

At another Presbyterian church, Vanderbilt in Naples, similar measures will be in place when the church opens for its first in-person service Oct. 18. There’s an additional stipulation: Congregational singing is gone, for the time being. 

 "As we try to move forward we're looking at keeping people stay as safe as possible but keeping a sense of community," emphasized minister Rob Marrow. 

Offering plates aren't gone, but they've become more symbolic.

"We want to make sure we keep that element in our service. We're not going to pass the plate, but we want to recognize our offering as an important part of our service," he said. A collection plate is available outside the sanctuary.

But just as the church has looked more toward high-tech solutions, so has the congregation, he said: "We see that more and more these days, people providing their funds electronically."

Vanderbilt has, in fact, instituted an extra COVID-19 fund for people who need help with rent and other expenses, and Marrow said donors have been really generous. 

Its early learning center has already separated its children into learning pods and masks are not an option: "They wear them all day."

Roman Catholic churches in Southwest Florida have taken their cues from Diocese of Venice leadership, which has set back its requirements for mandatory attendance to Nov. 27, according to a statement offered by the diocese. While those without pre-existing conditions of health or advanced age are encouraged to come, there’s no obligation such as the Diocese of Milwaukee recently imposed.

One of the Catholic church’s appeals is that live-streamed, and recorded, Mass is available from sources all around the world, from local parishes to a Diocesan feed on Sundays and as far away as the Vatican. Catholics can virtually attend Mass in any language at any time of day at catholictv.org.

For the Jewish Congregation of Marco Island, Rabbi Mark Gross has brought in the congregational participation via Zoom. Responding via email, he offered: 

"Our worship services continue to run, albeit Bette Midler-style — 'from a distance.'  Our Cantorial Soloist Hari Jacobsen and I conduct Friday night Sabbath worship from our respective homes by Zoom, which I also invoke to lead our Saturday morning Torah-study sessions. 

"For the current Jewish New Year season, Cantor Jacobsen and I live-streamed worship on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur from the pulpit of our otherwise empty synagogue. 

"Not only was the optic of seeing us leading services in our synagogue home reassuring and satisfying to congregants, but we were able to work the technology to allow for the ritual participation of our members reading parts in real time from their respective homes."

For churches like Celebration Beach Church in Naples, a streamed service has been part of the worship for years, "but it's always been a sideline," said Gene Scott, its pastor. 

"What we found out about COVID-19 is that it wasn't just a disrupter, but it was an accelerator for our church," he said. "We were always moving toward digital worship, digital church. But we thought it would happen in five or 10 years. And, of course, in COVID-19, everything arrived in days."

Celebration Church meets in Cambier Park on Sundays, which Scott said does give it a distinct advantage when so many people are uncomfortable with indoor crowds. Celebration Church has "taken it to another level," even outdoors, he said. Each weekend volunteers paint 250 "safe space" circles around the stage so household or close family pods are contained at least 6 feet from others. Church programs are downloaded and giving is online.

The church brings 3,000 masks to give out; that was the average Sunday attendance before COVID-19 during season. Scott said the capacity of Cambier Park is 6,000, and his church plans to cap it at 25 percent of capacity. There were 550 Sunday attendees by late September.

Will it increase to capacity? Scott says he can’t say.

“There are going to be some game changers,” he observed. “A lot of it has to do with how people will now view worship. I believe there’s been a huge paradigm shift."

He sees virtual worship as the future for churches: “I think the churches that think that things are going to get back where they were — where they’ll have a strong physical side and digital sideline — those churches, post-COVID, are going to be the difference between J.C. Penney and Amazon.”

Harriet Howard Heithaus (hheithaus@gannett.com) writes for the Naples Daily News/naplesnews.com. Reach her at 239-213-6091.

Celebration Community Beach Church returned to holding its Cambier Park services in July.  Circles were painted on the ground to help people social distance. If they were still uneasy, they could wear their masks. More churches are opening back up,  but no one is getting forceful; some even say their virtual service is here to stay.  This church encourages people to bring their dogs and individual communion is handed out to anyone who wants it. Pastor Gene Scott is the senior minister.
The congregation was asked to stand up, inside their circle, and wave to their neighbors. Celebration Community Beach Church has been holding its services outside at Cambier Park bandshell since July. It encourages people to bring their dogs and individual communion is handed out for anyone who wants one. Those who wish to are encouraged to wear their masks. More churches are opening back up, but no one is getting forceful; some even say their virtual service is here to stay.
More churches are opening back up. But no one is getting forceful; some even say their virtual service is here to stay. 
 At Celebration Community Beach Church the services are held at Cambier Park bandshell, with circles that keep the congregation in small groups. They encourage people to bring their dogs, and individual communion is handed out to those who want it. Pastor Gene Scott is the senior minister.
More churches are opening back up. But no one is getting forceful; some even say their virtual service is here to stay. 
 At Celebration Community Beach Church the services are held at Cambier Park bandshell, with circles that keep the congregation in small groups. They encourage people to wear their masks, but it isn't required.  Pastor Gene Scott is the senior minister.
More churches are opening back up. But no one is getting forceful; some even say their virtual service is here to stay. 
 At Celebration Community Beach Church the services are held at Cambier Park bandshell, with circles that keep the congregation in small groups. They encourage people to bring their dogs, and individual communion is handed out to those who want it. Pastor Gene Scott is the senior minister.
More churches are opening back up, but no one is getting forceful; some even say their virtual service is here to stay. 
Celebration Community Beach Church returned to holding its services at Cambier Park in July.