A 'very different' time: Virus hits holiday worship for Metro Detroit faithful

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

In any other year, Easter would be a cherished day for Valaurian Carter and her fellow parishioners.

The Detroiter typically gathers with family and friends at their parish, St. Augustine and St. Monica on the city’s east side, for an inspirational sermon and uplifting hymns amid colorful flowers and packed pews. Still dressed in finery once outside, they assemble to snap a group photo to mark the congregation’s anniversary.

But when the holiday returns this weekend, none of that is happening.

Since the coronavirus pandemic has largely shuttered houses of worship across Metro Detroit, Carter and other parishioners must worship separately, at home, streaming services on their cellphones or computers. 

“It’s not even comparable” to the past, the 32-year-old said. “It’s going to be another day of the week, it feels like.”

As COVID-19 upends all aspects of public life nationwide and keeps most Michiganians at home, the holiest times for the region’s Jews, Christians and Muslims also are affected. Passover starts at sundown Wednesday, Easter is Sunday and Ramadan begins the week of April 23. 

Hugs among worshipers, ceremonial meals for dozens and carnivals or processions in spring sunshine are gone, replaced by prayer calls, digital devotionals and even drive-through events.

“Not being able to worship as a community — it’s difficult,” said Laura Knaus, a Nebraska transplant who lives in Detroit and attends St. Aloysius Catholic Church. “It’s very different.”

Exterior shot of the National Shrine of the Little Flower Roman Catholic Church.

The area’s faithful insist they can meet their spiritual needs while focusing on helping the less fortunate as the crisis rages, but shifting away from the social intimacy accompanying the holidays presents fresh challenges.

“This is unprecedented for us in Metro Detroit and, dare I say, anywhere in America,” said Dawud Walid, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Michigan chapter. “There’s uncertainty. None of us have ever experienced this.”

Some are adapting creatively. 

Triumph Church has started drive-through worship at its Southfield campus, allowing members to watch the Rev. Solomon Kinloch on a massive monitor from their cars.

All God’s People Church in Roseville touts its weekend services on Facebook with the message: “Safety of the Members and People are First. Drive-In hear the Word and Drive off.”

Late last month, as the Lenten season wound down, Msgr. Daniel Trapp led a "parking lot confession" at St. Augustine and St. Monica that lured at least one motorist, he said. "They were happy to be able to do that."

Members view Pastor Solomon Kinloch deliver the virtual communion service on a large monitor from their cars in  the parking lot of Triumph Church north campus.

In the Jewish community, preparing for Passover, the holiday that commemorates how plagues skipped enslaved ancestors in ancient Egypt, has meant crash courses on Zoom, the popular online conferencing program, and other web-based platforms.

"People are working so hard to connect,” said Rabbi Asher Lopatin, executive director of the JCRC/AJC, which represents Metro Detroit's Jewish community. "Some of the creative ways really were things that we never did before."

The newness is evident the first two nights of the holiday, when adherents traditionally coordinate a Seder, a communal dinner featuring food that represents the captivity centuries ago.

Ken Goss of West Bloomfield Township and his wife, Karen, normally welcome many relatives. This year, “we are having a family Zoom Seder,” he said. “It has always been face to face, 20 people at the table. It’s never been just two people at the table, the rest through some sort of technology. … We know many people who are doing that, also.”

An interfaith Seder featuring religious leaders slated for Wednesday also has moved online in modified form, Lopatin said. 

Among those dialing in is the Rev. Stancy Adams, who has been active with the InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit. Inspired by talks with others who fear the end times and the threat of death from the virus, the hospital chaplain plans to share a Bible-based message to “give people peace in knowing there is still some normalcy to life,” she said. “Right now, people are so distraught. There’s a tremendous level of anxiety and fear.”

Rabbi Aaron Bergman of Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills has been posting encouraging videos online — including one about early Seder celebrants. “They were able to visualize leaving captivity,” he said. “We’ve always been able to visualize being free when things are tough.”    

The Rev. John McKenzie at National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica after a Palm Sunday service.

That idea guides Christopher Vos of Plymouth. The pandemic forced him to end a two-year missionary project in Brazil with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and into a quarantine back home that meant greeting friends and family from the porch.

The 22-year-old recognizes he’ll watch Easter services online and adjust dinner plans his large family has long cherished. Yet Sunday “still has the same focus: to remember the death, atonement and resurrection of our savior Jesus Christ,” he said. “... He died for all of our sins. And not only that, he passed through physical suffering.”

Throughout Holy Week leading up to Easter, Christian churches recount the days leading up to and including Christ’s crucifixion. But the absence of those activities and in-person worship during the pandemic “has helped us get back to the basics, the things that are important in life,” said the Rev. Mario Amore, pastor at St. Aloysius in downtown Detroit. “For people of faith, we recognize that we’re striving for a kingdom of heaven. ... We’re called to draw closer to the Lord to persevere in a life of holiness that God calls us to right now.”

For Michigan Muslims, the holy month of Ramadan is a time to enhance their spiritual lives through daily fasting, frequent prayer and focusing on charitable deeds. 

With little chance of visiting the mosque or inviting neighbors to iftars, or breaking of the fast meals, Afshan Siddiqi of Lathrup Village hopes to focus on an initiative she spearheaded to donate homemade masks to first responders. Modeled on a West Coast effort, the project has already produced more than 300 pieces delivered to Beaumont hospitals, she said.

“As long as the need is there, we’ll keep going,” said the mother of five, adding a quieter Ramadan could "change how we think about how things typically are and being grateful for the things we have in our life. In some ways, it just might put us in a more spiritual state.”

To those disappointed about missing festivities and in-person worship, Imam Mohamed Almasmari of Muslim Unity Center in Bloomfield Hills and others in the Michigan Muslim Community Council imams group have a message: “We’re doing this for a greater purpose. Rather than relying on the mosque to be the force of strength in faith, allow yourself to be the greatest motivator.”

At Hartford Memorial Baptist Church in Detroit, which has both streamed and taped services through its website, that equals embracing outreach. The congregation that can boast thousands in the audience on Easter recently held an appointment-only blood drive, plans to continue a weekly food distribution and has offered to become a remote hospital or virus testing site, said its pastor, Charles Christian Adams.

“We know that people are going to be in need, and we’re going to keep coming up with ways to support community. What the church needs to do right now is to ask: ‘What can I do to help with the most essential functions and necessities of the community?’”

Margaret Betts, a physician who heads Hartford’s medical ministry, was thrilled to learn the blood drive she helped coordinate would benefit dozens of patients. Yet the Detroit resident stopped in the church at one point to pray that parishioners could return soon. “I miss everything about church,” she said. “All of it.”

The mood underscores how significant communal elements are to modern faith communities, said Elaine Howard Ecklund, a sociology professor and director of Rice University’s Religion and Public Life Program.

Jessica Bradford, 50, a member of the church, enjoys the communion service from her car in the parking lot of Triumph Church.

“We sometimes see religion as private, but I think this disease that’s affecting us all in some way is revealing how public it is. When you have it taken away, there’s a great pain that results from that. … People are trying to find alternative ways to gather.”

Marilen Martinez appreciates the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit's online offerings, but joining from afar is “definitely not the same," she said. "There’s still something that’s going to feel missing until I’m back in church.”

The looming uncertainty also hits the Rev. John McKenzie, associate pastor at National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica in Royal Oak, which could not hold its traditional palm distribution on Sunday.

"I've just been used to being with the community here," said the priest, who was ordained last year. "We want to have our people around to gather again when we can."