Unlike myself, tens of thousands of folks in the Tri-Valley have been active participants of a faith institution their entire lives. In the midst of a pandemic faith institutions and their members have been forced to adapt to unprecedented times.
According to Father Ron Culmer from St. Clare’s Episcopal in Pleasanton, during the last two years many people were hungry for aspects of their faith that had sustained them through their life. When the pandemic hit, his parish was confronted with the question - “What are we going to do now?”
Father Ron went on to relate that St. Clare’s was pushed to use their imagination and flexibility to adapt quickly and discover new ways of empowering people to keep their traditions and maintain community.
One of the biggest changes that occurred was taking services virtual. Many institutions such as St. Clare’s quickly set up virtual systems and advised their parishioners to attend services through Zoom, FB Live, or Youtube. These avenues gave people who were stuck at home the ability to partake in services and feel a sense of normalcy during these times. In addition, these virtual sessions afforded folks the ability to connect with their fellow parishioners in a way that wasn’t possible as social distancing was in place.
Initially many older community members found the process of new technology alienating and intimidating. Volunteers at these institutions were often the first people to reach out to these parishioners and help them connect to virtual services. These connections to virtual services such as Zoom gave those who had previously been left behind the ability to connect more deeply with family across the world.
In addition to bridging the digital divide, religious institutions began reevaluating how their outreach services reached those in need. The pandemic had devastating effects on employment, and there were more people who were food insecure than ever. At the same time, faith institutions had to shut down their onsite kitchens and outreach services that relied on heavy person to person interaction.
Many institutions quickly brought together core volunteer groups to fundraise and then use those resources to coordinate food delivery efforts, financial assistance, mental health counseling, and eventually vaccine distribution. Some even rallied members to speak out in support of affordable housing, such as the hearing in Livermore over the Eden Housing project. This allowed faith institutions to play an integral part in lifting up members who play a crucial role in our community and workforce.
As mask mandates are lifted and large gatherings are once again beginning to take place, the virtual broadcasting of services and events remain along with the revamped outreach efforts that reach more people than before the pandemic. For Father Ron there is no going back, and St. Clare’s has fully embraced the technological revolution. Moving to a hybrid service has allowed St. Clare’s and other faith institutions to reach members who have moved across the United States and the broader world.
For me, the experiences working with faith institutions during the pandemic has pushed me to revisit my own faith in an attempt to find purpose. Hindu scripture cobbled together with Buddhist books and conversations with my parents on our shared culture have helped me reassert meaning in my life and find direction.
Witnessing how different faith traditions have worked together with secular institutions to help community members in a time of crisis has been a ray of hope. Although the shape of our belief (or non belief) can vary, the underlying solidarity we find amongst ourselves as humans holds strong.