Religious leaders recast COVID-19 moment: We can’t come back the same

Rev. Niecy Dennis White, lead pastor at The Lord’s Church in Monroeville, founded Pittsburgh F.R.I.E.N.D.S.: First Responders’ Initiative – Ensuring Neighbors’ Diversity Stands. The group seeks to unite Pittsburgh churches traditionally divided by race, geography and denomination. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

One year into the pandemic, some faith communities in the Pittsburgh area aren’t returning to normal. They’re redefining it.

by Chris Hedlin

It’s Ash Wednesday, and Christine Ferguson-Rau, a member of St. Mary of the Assumption and St. Ursula Parish of Glenshaw and Allison Park, is in a parking lot. 

Through her car windshield, she can see her priest on a makeshift platform, partially shielded from the snow by sheets of plastic stapled to 2x4s. His voice, beginning the service, reaches her over a loudspeaker. Later, he walks around the icy lot, passing out ashes to each car.

“Blessings out of adversity!” Ferguson-Rau wrote to PublicSource, recapping the scene.

Without question, COVID-19 has presented houses of worship with challenges. The losses have been spiritual, emotional, social and financial. The pain has been real.

Yet faith communities in the Pittsburgh region have also innovated. They experimented with space, converting their buildings into food banks, learning hubs and COVID testing sites. 

They played with tradition. They carried on rituals in ways that would have been unthinkable prior to the pandemic: Zoom shabbats, baptisms in bathtubs, plastic prayer mats for Jumu’ah and drive-through confession. 

Finally, in some cases, they invented new programs altogether.

For communities in this third category, COVID shone a light on problems that were present long before the pandemic — problems including systemic racism, class inequality, elder neglect and siloing within religious traditions.

It also shone a light on their own potential. 

“We do have the ability to adapt,” said Rev. Dr. Warren Lesane Jr. in a Zoom event on Black Presbyterian history organized by the Pittsburgh chapter of the National Black Presbyterian Caucus, the Metro Urban Institute, the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and the Pittsburgh Presbytery and Synod of the Trinity PC(USA). If houses of worship could shift their entire operations online overnight, he asked, what else might they be capable of? 


Religious leaders recast COVID-19 moment: We can’t come back the same.



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