Religious Groups Working Around Pandemic to Celebrate Holidays and Tend to Flock This Year

First Baptist Church of Huntsville offers services online as well as in person. It is converting its popular Living Christmas Tree to a virtual musical program this year, recording in smaller groups and stitching together the performances digitally. (Source: First Baptist website)

Religious communities are exploring new ways of observing religious holidays, as well as for presenting their regular weekly services, this year as the coronavirus pandemic resurges across the nation.

Religious groups in Birmingham and across Alabama turned to Facebook, YouTube, Zoom and their own websites earlier this year when COVID-19 spread across the state. The recent rise in the number of cases of the disease has prolonged the use of those alternate methods of worship and has led to innovative ways of celebrating religious holidays.

The Alabama Department of Public Health has issued guidelines for places of worship, and many groups are using them to plan ways of safely carrying out their activities.

That means significant changes in holiday observances this year in many houses of worship.

The bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Birmingham, Steven J. Raica, last week extended until Jan. 10 an order, originally issued in May and renewed several times, relieving members of the obligation of Holy Mass on Sundays and holidays.

His decree encourages Catholics to attend Mass when they can do so safely, adhering to public health guidelines. “Those who legitimately and physically cannot participate in person are urged to participate through social media and make a spiritual communion,” Raica wrote.

New Ideas for Celebrations

First Baptist Church of Huntsville has drawn upwards of 10,000 people in recent years for performances of its Living Christmas Tree, an annual tradition featuring choir members singing from a “tree” behind the pulpit area, accompanied by the church orchestra.

This year, the downtown church is presenting a “virtual tree,” said the Rev. Travis Collins, the senior pastor. Music is being recorded in smaller groups, and the segments will be joined together digitally as a choir for the program.

In addition, mostly white First Baptist is joining with First Missionary Baptist Church, a black congregation, to hold six, 12-minute, outdoor Christmas Eve services at Huntsville’s Big Spring Park.

Birmingham’s Temple Beth-El is closed to the public and offering minimal services, which are accessible via YouTube and Facebook.

Rabbi Stephen Slater has determined that Kaddish, a traditional prayer, may be said virtually during Friday evening services and when 10 people are present on a Zoom meeting, according to the temple’s website.

With Alabama’s seven-day average for new cases of COVID-19 above the 2,000 level, leadership of the temple and physicians who are members are studying when it will be safe to reopen..

Some Churches All Virtual, Others Meet Onsite

At Sixth Avenue Baptist Church, all services continue to be virtual, available on Facebook, YouTube and the church’s website.

“We’re still functioning, but the building is closed,” an official said. Some meetings are being held via Zoom, but there will be no in-person worship or holiday observances for the rest of this year.

“You don’t have to be in a building to worship God,” said the Rev. Roosevelt Morris, associate pastor of the Birmingham church.

At Valleydale Church, a Baptist congregation in north Shelby County, there are in-person services, but some of the traditional holiday activities are being curtailed.

The church halted in-person services shortly after the pandemic began in early March but reopened in June, following guidelines that encourage use of masks and social distancing.

Communications Director Johanna Horstmann said Valleydale had a weekly average attendance of 1,000 to 1,200 combined for its two Sunday morning services before the pandemic. She said about 500 to 600 people now attend on Sunday mornings, with another 500 participating virtually.

There will be no Christmas musical programs this year, Horstmann said, and traditional Christmas eve services will be split into programs over two nights. Those and other programs will be livestreamed.

Birmingham First Seventh-Day Adventist Church, which holds worship services on Saturdays, continues to adhere to use of masks, distancing and sanitizing as recommended by federal, state and local health agencies.

Attendance is about 30% to 40% of pre-COVID levels, elder Leighton Vance said, but many members watch online. Sabbath school classes are offered via Zoom as well as in person, he said.

The church’s school will present its annual Christmas program on Dec. 12. It will be accessible in the sanctuary and simulcast to rooms throughout the building so that social distancing can be maintained, Vance said.

First United Methodist Church of Florence resumed onsite worship Oct. 4, limiting attendance to 100 people for each of two Sunday morning services. But the downtown church once again suspended in-person services last weekend after consulting with four physicians who are members, according to the Rev. Dale Cohen, senior pastor.

“Taking this action today will improve the chances that we can gather together for Christmas Eve,” he said in an email to members. He said the church is planning “alternate worship opportunities” for the evening of Dec. 24.