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Faith communities do what it takes to soothe, support their congregants –

by Terri Hogan

Senior Staff Writer

Olney-area faith communities are facing obvious challenges during the coronavirus crisis, but that has not stopped them from doing whatever it takes to support their members, and that includes learning new skills.

Rabbi Jonah Layman of Shaare Tefila Congregation said that in an effort to connect with its members, the congregation is learning to use technology “on the fly,” which isn’t easy.

The congregation is willing to do whatever it takes.

“We are connecting with people who are not comfortable using computers by having our Caring Committee reach out to them by phone to see if they need anything,” he said. “As for the other members, we are actively connecting through emai­l and providing resources. We are also providing video classes and other opportunities for people to check in and virtually see their friends.”

Layman said the congregation livestreamed the Sabbath services with no one in attendance other than he and the cantor.

“The biggest problem is not being able to give a hug to people or offer a shoulder to cry on,” he said. “This concept of social distancing goes against human nature. We need to find other ways to be compassionate.”


Finding ways to create social, spiritual solidarity


The Rev. Sue Shorb-Sterling, pastor of Salem United Methodist Church in Brookeville, agreed.

“During this time of social distancing and isolation, it is vital that we find ways to create social and spiritual solidarity,” she said.

Her church set up a Zoom virtual room for its Sunday morning worship service.

Congregants received instruction on how to log in to the video conferencing site, and were given the liturgy, prayers and songs needed to participate.

One Sunday morning, three people came to the church to create worship — the pianist, a technology person and Shorb-Sterling. Others joined in via the Zoom room.

On the second Sunday it was offered, even more congregants joined in the Zoom service.

“If we all are told to stay home, then I will continue with this from home,” she said.

Salem also established a COVID-19 Care Team. Members of the team were given a set of names from the congregation to contact on a regular basis to check on their needs.

Shorb-Sterling said she recently participated in a Virtual Town Hall that was hosted in part by the county’s Office of Emergency Management .

“One of the speakers stated that faith communities are on the front line of this pandemic,” she said. “We were encouraged to stay in contact with members of our communities to see how they are doing and if there are needs. We were also given a list of resources within the county. This speaker affirmed our efforts in establishing our Care Team.”

Shorb-Sterling said Salem is also making plastic gloves available to the congregants to wear when they go out in public and is encouraging members to make financial donations to Olney HELP, which continues to serve the neediest in the community.

“With lay-offs and children home from school, the need is growing in the Olney area,” she said.

Shorb-Sterling said no one seems to be panicking, but if they are they have not let her know.

“The response has been that of gratitude — that we are thinking ahead, planning and reaching out to each other,” she said. “My message has been creating a sense of peace and calm — keep the faith, take one day at a time, and we are going to get through this together, but separately. I am not sure what things will be like if this goes on for two or three months, but for now, consider it like the Sabbath — rest and take a staycation.”


Masses posted on YouTube help fill the void


St. Peter’s Catholic Church is normally a robust parish and school with several Masses and various classes and programs each week. But now, the campus is unusually quiet.

Until Sunday morning, when the church bells ring.

The Rev. Thomas Kalita, pastor, says that is when he finds the situation particularly difficult. He hears those bells, but knows his parishioners won’t be coming to worship.

“It’s been very surreal,” he said.

Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory announced on March 12 that Masses open to the public in all archdiocesan parishes, missions and campus ministries will not be celebrated until further notice.

The church is open from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. each day and Kalita says people have been visiting throughout the day.

On March 21, St. Peter’s offered confession and the typical number of people showed up.

In the confession rooms, the priest is more than six feet away from the confessant.

Kalita said he wore a mask and sanitized the room before each confessant. While waiting, the confessants sat in every other pew, keeping them separated by a distance of at least six feet.

Kalita said St. Peter’s offered its first Mass online on March 21.

“We recorded it and then broadcast on YouTube at the time of our normal Saturday Mass,” he said. “We are looking to do it again and hope to eventually get to the point of livestreaming.”

It is not new to have Masses on television and Kalita is one of the priests that regularly says Masses at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, which are televised.

“But there is something special about participating in Masses at your own church,” he said.

Kalita said one of the most dramatic changes is that St. Peter’s is responsible for ministering to nine local assisted living facilities, but is no longer able to do so, due to visitor restrictions.

Priests and Eucharistic minsters also regularly delivered Holy Communion to patients at MedStar Montgomery Medical Center.

“Priests can go into the hospital if it is an emergency, but the daily visits to offer Holy Communion have had to stop,” he said. “That has been a great comfort to many people over the years.”

With Easter approaching, Kalita said he is waiting on instruction as to how St. Peter’s can best continue to serve its people during its High Holy Days.


    During a press conference on March 23, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) encouraged Marylanders to “keep giving to your local churches who are not able to pass the collection baskets on Sundays,” as well as other organizations, so they can continue to help others.

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