For Michael McKeating, 75, a devout Catholic from Orchard Park who has attended church almost every Sunday since he was a toddler, watching Mass on a TV or computer screen just doesn’t cut it. He gets together with friends and family members to pray the Rosary.
Kathy Barber, 67, a Methodist from Amherst, really misses going to Sunday services, but she is happy to stay home to help preserve the public health.
In the Town of Tonawanda, United Church of Christ Pastor Ruth Snyder is streaming Sunday services and using weekly online “fireside chats” to comfort members of the Church of the Nativity.
Pastor Darius G. Pridgen closed services to the public at three True Bethel Baptist churches in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, but he said he was encouraged to hear that record numbers of people watched a live streaming service on Sunday.
At the Miracle Missions Full Gospel Church on Buffalo’s East Side, Pastor James A. Lewis III plans to go forward with his normal Sunday morning service. He said his church will distribute hand sanitizers and masks, require worshipers to sit far apart from each other and limit attendance to 50. Lewis said he realizes that the vast majority of religious services are now canceled or closed to the public because of health concerns.
“We’re going to take every precaution we can, but I believe now more than ever, people need to hear the word of the Lord,” Lewis told The Buffalo News.
Apostle Garney Davis Jr., pastor of the Impacting Love Global Ministries church in Lackawanna, said he too plans to welcome people on Sunday. “But no more than 50, and we’re advising people who are ill or over 60 years old to stay home.”
These are just a few of the ways that hundreds of thousands of people who belong to religious organizations in Western New York are coping with the unprecedented shutdown in church services ignited by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Church services in the Buffalo Catholic Diocese and most other religious organizations in Western New York are closed to the public until further notice. Many churches are urging worshipers to watch services that are streamed online or broadcast on television.
McKeating realizes he is just one of more than 500,000 Buffalo Diocese Catholics who are affected by the closures, which are in effect until further notice.
For him, the inability to attend a Sunday Mass, coupled with the inability to have a priest hear his Confession, is “very painful.”
“Usually, I go to Mass on Sunday and a couple of mornings a week,” McKeating said. “The Mass means a lot to me. Going to Confession means a lot to me, especially in these times we’re going through now.”
An attorney and former deputy Erie County executive, McKeating said he understands the public health concerns that caused Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger, like most other bishops throughout America, to temporarily discontinue public religious services.
“I understand it, but a lot of devout Catholics feel the bishop went too far,” McKeating said. “Wouldn’t it be possible to have Masses for small groups of people, sitting far apart from each other? Couldn’t we have outdoor Masses, or priests hearing Confessions outdoors, maybe at your car window?”
Watching Mass on television or on a computer screen “just isn’t the same,” McKeating said. “You can’t take Holy Communion, which has been called the source and summit of the Christian life. Watching on TV, I’m just not present, not really part of the Mass. Spiritually, it doesn’t work for me.”
“I’m disappointed," said Diane McKee, a Catholic from Grand Island and close friend of McKeating. "Our church is already going through such difficult times. It really makes me sad to think we will miss going to Mass, for many weeks to come and maybe even many months,”
The bishop sympathizes with Catholics who are unhappy about the changes, said the Rev. Peter J. Karalus, vicar general and moderator of the curia for the diocese.
But Karalus told The News not to expect any improvement in the situation as long as “social distancing” is urged by government health officials.
“We do understand – for Catholics, going to Mass is how we breathe,” Karalus said. “It’s especially difficult during Lent, such a holy time of year for Catholics. Prayer and worship are so important, but we need to listen to science as well. We’re acting for the public good here. We just can’t bend the rules here or there.”
On Friday, the bishop issued a statement asking local Catholics to pray and reflect at home. He also asked Catholics to “reach out by telephone” to people in need of encouragement, especially older individuals who may feel more isolated than others because they do not use the Internet or iPhones.
Karalus said many parishes are streaming Masses, prayer services and other features, and added that he hopes many local Catholics will take advantage of those services. He said the diocese is talking with local TV stations in hopes of presenting a televised Mass on Easter.
(Karalus spoke to The News on Friday, one day before he was placed on administrative leave after the diocese said an allegation of sexual misconduct was filed against him. Karalus denies the allegation.)
Diocese officials offered the example of the region's largest parish, St. Gregory the Great in Amherst, whose website, stgregs.org, features Masses, Rosaries, prayers, Lenten reflections and other services which are updated daily.
Catholics are not the only ones who miss Sunday church services, said Barber, who attends Christ United Methodist Church in Amherst. Christ United has suspended all services and church activities until at least April 20. The church is offering services on its website.
“I’ll be looking at the sermons online,” said Barber, who has been going to the same church since she was a child. “That won’t be the same as going to church, but this is what we’re all going to have to do to stay safe. We have a lot of elderly people who attend our church, and I think this is best for them. This is a very strange time.”
“It’s a real challenge,” said Snyder, who has been pastor for 12 years at Tonawanda’s Church of the Nativity. “We’re dealing with the general feeling of anxiety that the whole world is dealing with. People look for solace in places of worship. How do you stay spiritually connected with your church during a time of pandemic? We’re using technology to help our people do that.”
The church is streaming Sunday services and Snyder recently began posting “fireside chats,” with her sitting beside a campfire and offering comforting words to parish members. “People are telling us that they miss going to services on Sunday, but they appreciate what we’re doing.”
Pridgen, who is also a bishop in his church, said he spoke to about 100 pastors during a Wednesday conference call on safety issues. He said all but a handful of the 100 pastors have – like Pridgen – decided to close their services to the public until the health concerns are mitigated.
"We're doing live broadcasts, and we had more than 3,000 people streaming it on Sunday. That is by far our biggest streaming audience ever," Pridgen said. "But it pains me to close the services to the public. Something is missing – the interaction between the preacher, the musicians and the people. People come to church to be part of a community."
Although his churches received some online donations on Sunday, Pridgen predicts that many churches all over the country will suffer serious financial losses because of the shutdown. He believes some churches will even be forced to close their doors for good.
Despite the safety concerns voiced by health officials, some pastors insist that they must keep their church doors open.
"I've given this a lot of prayer," Lewis said. "I know a lot of people are scared, a lot are torn and a lot of people won't come. But I feel the Lord's protection will be over us."