Interfaith Council Discusses Worship Plans, Hopes For Approaching Holidays
Members of Newtown Interfaith Council (NIC) met on March 10, when they marked a year of conducting meetings virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Those present last week discussed their current and future worship plans, and offered an overview of the council’s regular offerings to its newest member.
Participating in the meeting, which ran just under an hour, were Reverend Matt Crebbin and Reverend Kristen Provost Switzer from Newtown Congregational Church; Steve Bamberg, from Congregation Adath Israel; Reverend Leo McIlrath, chaplain, the Lutheran Home of Southbury; and Rev Wyatt, rector, Trinity Episcopal Church.
The council expects to meet virtually for at least the next few months, Crebbin said in response to a question from McIlrath. The council generally meets September through June, with a break during the summer months.
“We will probably reassess in the autumn how to meet moving forward,” Crebbin said.
In reporting on current pandemic standings, McIlrath opened the conversation by stating that in-person services had only recently resumed at the Lutheran Home.
“We have been trying to keep up with the Joneses, so to speak,” he said, mentioning the creation of weekly recorded Eucharist celebrations that are then aired on an in-house channel.
While the Lutheran Home has traditionally welcomed visiting clergy for its residents and patients, McIlrath has been serving as the sole leader of faith since last March, he said. There were a few months where even he was unable to visit the facility. As a staff member, he was the only leader of faith to be admitted into the home by late summer and autumn, once pandemic guidelines opened up again.
Very small in-person services resumed recently, he said, but only for small groups.
McIlrath reported that March 9, the previous day, “was the first time in weeks that visitors have been allowed into the facility.”
Bamberg said that during the High Holy Days last year, members of Congregation Adath Israel met in the synagogue’s parking lot.
“It was great, a lot of people came,” he said.
Aside from that, he said, services have been online for nearly a year. He has not participated in or viewed many of the online services, he admitted.
“I get enough of Zoom with my work,” he said. Others nodded, mentioning the challenge of “Zoom fatigue” that is affecting people of all ages.
McIlrath laughed, saying last week’s meeting was his first Zoom experience.
“It’s good to be with you this way, to see you,” he told the others. “I’m still Zoom 101.”
After telling McIlrath that Zoom has been “a big learning curve for all of us,” Crebbin told the group that Newtown Congregational is still doing remote worship services on Sundays. The church has additionally been hosting weekly virtual Vespers gatherings during the current season of Lent, he said.
“I’m hoping to meet with our team next week, to talk about looking at spring, and try to narrow down our metrics, to determine when we might begin meeting again,” he said. “And then, of course, we’ll have to determine what this means — how will we host these services?
“I don’t think it will be like ‘Now we’re starting worship, and we’re singing hymns, and we’re all sitting close together and we have no masks,’” he added. “No, it’s not going to be that. We have to decide whether it makes sense to be thinking about what might transition towards the future.”
Bamberg said that warmer weather should mean outdoor services could begin.
“You have lots of room, you might be able to bring out folding chairs and sit outside,” he said of NCC’s West Street property. Crebbin agreed that “that might be one of our options.”
Provost Switzer said the church had done a few “small scale versions of outdoor services,” including a baptism last spring.
Wyatt said Trinity is livestreaming its worship services each Sunday from its sanctuary.
“We have a small crew doing filming, and then we do lots of smaller things on Zoom,” she said. “We have consistently done some outdoor gatherings,” she added.
While many of the outdoor events have been “pretty sparsely attended,” Wyatt called the offerings “the hybrid approach. We have some who really, really want to be in person, and will not be satisfied by a Zoom. Then we have others who love it.
“It’s just such a wide range right now,” she said. “We’re trying to have something for everybody.”
Wyatt later talked about a baptism her church recently hosted, “with adaptations.”
The ceremony was conducted indoors, with the bare minimum number of attendees. It was also livestreamed, “so more people were able to witness it that way than could be there.”
Memorial services also have been conducted, with new variations, Crebbin noted. He and McIlrath both said they expect many families will want to have delayed services to honor those who have died in recent months. Winter months are usually impossible for graveside services, but the pandemic has meant that most funerals and memorial gatherings have been postponed, they said.
Passover And Easter Plans
When the topic of Easter and Passover came up, it was clear that those in attendance did not want to celebrate these important holidays away from their followers again. When the first wave of COVID cases hit last year, most faith communities canceled Easter services or were just getting into the idea of online presentations.
For the second year, however, the pandemic is still not making it easy to plan.
Bamberg said that while he has not yet heard anything formal from his fellow members of Adath Israel, he felt confident saying that anything that does happen “is definitely not going to be in person again.”
Wyatt said she and others at Trinity “have been having lots of conversations about how best to do this.”
They are hoping, she said, to create “opportunities for some kind of outdoor gathering” as well as a recorded presentation. Palm Sunday may offer an opportunity for “some kind of processional,” she added.
“We’re trying to, again, do that hybrid approach, with opportunities to gather outdoors safely for those who want to,” she said.
There is a group with Trinity, she said, that has been offering an outdoor Stations of the Cross presentation each week.
Trinity Church, she said, is following the State of Connecticut COVID-19 average daily rate map in determining when and how to begin gathering indoors in larger groups.
The map indicates by color how each town and city across the state is doing in terms of the average daily rate of new cases for two weeks. Gray indicates fewer than five reported cases per 100,000 residents; yellow is five to nine cases per 100,000 people; orange is ten to 14 cases per 100,000; and red is 15 or more cases per 100,000 people.
“Our metric, in terms of gathering,” Wyatt said, “is we will not gather until Newtown is gray, perhaps yellow, with the presence of vaccines into the mix.”
Conversations continue, she said, concerning those numbers, which last week were trending down. Nevertheless, the initial gatherings in the sanctuary will be in a very limited capacity.
Crebbin said Easter sunrise service is his “great debate right now.” He does not know if it would be prudent to do a full outdoor service, or try to limit the number of attendees.
With Bamberg encouraging Crebbin to do the outdoor service — “You can do anything, as long as you’re careful,” he said — Provost Switzer noted it is impossible to control everyone and everything.
“We can have the best of intentions, but we can’t always control what our flocks are going to do,” she said. “Even if we’re managing to control social distancing, people are going to want to run up and hug each other. I know that’s what I would want to do.”
Crebbin agreed with his associate pastor, saying it is a balancing act between being responsible for communities versus individuals. Being unable to really trace the spread of the virus, he said, is a huge part of his inner struggle.
“Nobody’s able to trace anymore,” he said. “That’s the unfortunate thing. The reality is, I’m sure there have been a lot of spreader events, but nobody has traced them.
“A lot of things happened, and we had an explosion of illness over the holidays,” he added. “It wasn’t just private, it was public events too. It was all that stuff.”
Meanwhile, he also knows that there is “a hunger” to gather, especially for Easter. That, he said, is what he continues to wrestle with: Is there a safe way to gather outdoors, with masks? There was no formal answer during the May meeting.
The newest member of NIC, Reverend Wyatt has met her colleagues virtually since being named pastor of Trinity Episcopal Church last summer. During a pause in the meeting last week, she asked about the annual NIC events.
In non-COVID times, Crebbin told her, NIC does an interfaith Thanksgiving service, usually on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. NIC members take turns hosting the public event. In 2020, when they were still unable to gather in person, many members of NIC offered messages to readers of The Newtown Bee.
An interfaith Seder had been done for a few years, he also mentioned. A guest rabbi would oversee the event, with additional participation from NIC members. The public participated as guests.
Crebbin said Christians enjoyed participating in the event, “without co-opting it. We honored it, without taking over,” he added.
“Everyone who went always said it was great,” Bamberg told her.
Provost Switzer had been planning an interfaith Seder last spring, in fact, but that event was among the first to be canceled when pandemic closures began rolling on.
For nearly a year after 12/14, the council hosted monthly prayer events, again rotating the location around the community.
CROP Walks (Communities Responding to Overcome Poverty) are held each autumn — including last year, with modifications and a virtual offering, and a much smaller group than normal — when residents are invited to walk and/or support others in spreading awareness about hunger.
Prior to the pandemic, NIC had also been hosting conversations on resiliency, “engaging in community dialogue,” Crebbin said.
Additionally, the council has invited guest speakers to its monthly meetings, including First Selectman Dan Rosenthal, representatives from the Newtown Center for Support and Wellness, and Health District Director Donna Culbert, among others.
Culbert was the special guest of the March 2020 interfaith council meeting, the last time the group met in person.