Worshipers have found religious homes near and far through virtual services: NPR

During the pandemic, people zoomed in with their places of worship — and with those across the country. The practice brought faith from afar and let the devotees find out what is to come.


Worship, like so much else, has moved online during this pandemic, but some people haven’t just zoomed in with their usual congregations. They were looking for a place where they really felt at home, even if it was on the other side of the country. Deena Prichep has looked into this distant cult.

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: Before the pandemic, Luca Guacci wasn’t really part of a congregation.

LUCA GUACCI: I went to the temple from time to time. I celebrated Shabbat from time to time. I lit the candles from time to time.

PRICHEP: But things have changed. Guacci’s family began zooming in with their sister’s congregation in Florida and streaming services with a local temple in Chicago, which they had never been to.

GUACCI: Now we get the challah. Every Friday we light the candles. We’re like, OK, it’s temple time. And it’s amazing because we don’t have to go anywhere.

PRICHEP: On Saturdays, they join Shabbat ShaMorning. It’s a children’s service in New York that Guacci says is especially welcoming to them as a queer family and where they are in their faith.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) Shalom to all the children. Shalom, shalom, shalom. Hello Hazel. Nice to see you. Shalom Yeladim.

SHIRA KLINE: We had people from England and Amsterdam. We have grandparents in Minneapolis who are online with their grandkids in San Diego. And it’s amazing.

PRICHEP: Shira Kline is worship leader at Lab/Shul, which started Shabbat ShaMorning with the Union for Reform Judaism. She says they don’t just bring this temple experience home. They do things they couldn’t do in a temple.

KLINE: There is this central element of the Jewish liturgy. This is called the Shema.

PRICHEP: This is a central prayer that points to God as the source of all connected life.

KLINE: And the last word is the word echad in Hebrew, and it means one.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) Stick out your number one finger. Get closer. Echad…

KLINE: Everyone approaches the screen, putting their finger near the camera. And we say, let’s do our Shema calculations. You know, one plus one plus one plus one plus one plus one plus one plus one equals one.

PRICHEP: These kids have spent the last year and a half growing up together. And when their fingers meet on the screen, you can see the connection.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Welcome. This is Sunday morning worship. This is a ministry of three local Lutheran churches who want you to know that you are unconditionally loved by God.

PRICHEP: Western New York Church Unleashed has also built a remote congregation on TV and online — snowbirds who fled Buffalo winters, others who just came across them. But there are downsides. Jeremiah Smith, one of the pastors, says when congregants don’t really see and know each other, it’s easier to drift apart.

JEREMIAH SMITH: Once they hear a sermon that preaches Black Lives Matter or proclaims that LGBTQ people are beautifully and wonderfully created by God, we get a letter that says, I’m not watching anymore. You lost me.

PRICHEP: And it’s a real loss.

SMITH: I think we’re all changed when we stay together. Church is one of the last places where we can’t choose who shows up.

PRICHEP: Smith recognizes that the church is not a neutral place. It represents something. People choose and form their congregations. Scott Thumma of Hartford Seminary has studied congregational life for more than 30 years.

SCOTT THUMMA: The country has always been kind of a competitive marketplace for religious ideas. And, you know, religious shopping has always been there.

PRICHEP: But it has intensified with the internet and with the rise of the Zoom cult.

THUMMA: Kind of a spiritual version of Amazon.

PRICHEP: And turning consumers into followers is tricky.

THUMMA: Worshiping and engaging in the life of a congregation – that’s all bad coffee. These are the hard benches. These are common prayers – all those things that don’t immediately translate into the virtual.

PRICHEP: Even for those who can navigate this translation, like Shabbat ShaMorning leader Shira Kline, there’s always the question of what happens next.

KLINE: If you asked me at the beginning, I would say the hope is that people are absolutely able to come back in person and that Shabbat ShaMorning can, like, send loving kisses because I’m all about the community.

PRICHEP: But Kline says these virtual practices also formed real communities, ones that shared songs and stories and supported each other through these strange times with love and hope. For NPR News, I’m Deena Prichep.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #3: (Singing) I said modeh ani. Yes, everyone. Animation mode. All right, Kelsey (ph). I love seeing that side-by-side dance you do. Try that.

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Perry A. Thomasson