The novel coronavirus pandemic has had a tremendous effect on the world as we know it. U.S. businesses and schools have been shuttered indefinitely, unemployment rates have reached a record high in America, and people everywhere are locked up and shut-in in their homes.
Although some states, including Georgia, have re-opened their economies, COVID-19 deaths and cases in America continue to increase daily. Wearing a mask and practicing social distancing in public is now the new normal.
Many Metro Atlanta faith institutions, like churches and mosques, have been among those businesses that shuttered their doors. In fact, many congregants across Georgia have not been able to go to a physical building to worship since March.
From Easter Sunday and Mother’s Day to the Islamic holiday Ramadan, which ends tomorrow, faith-based institutions around the state have made major shifts in the way they deliver their messages of perseverance and love to their congregants, including both how they conduct worship services as well as how they perform their outreach to the community.
A number of Metro Atlanta faith leaders, like the Rev. William L. Sheals of Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church in Norcross, have shared that despite the pandemic, they have continued to provide their parishioners hope, inspiration, and safety tips. They have also found unique ways to serve its members and communities through various “essential” ministries while maintaining social distancing.
“The world, media, and government say we are locked down, but I say we are shut in with God,” Sheals said. “God has opened millions of home sanctuaries during the pandemic. We will not be guided by the government or by decisions made by the governor. When God says open, we will open.
“This is a serious and deadly virus, but we have been handling it well,” Sheals explained. “God has been good to us. It is necessary that we have a full service for my flock.”
Other than the fact that the sanctuary is closed, Sheals’s ministry has continued at Hopewell.
The church offers a full worship live-streaming service every Sunday at 10 a.m. and offers live-streaming Bible study services at 7:30 p.m. each Wednesday.
Hopewell also offers a live-streaming Sunday School session at 9 a.m. before its Sunday Worship services.
The services, which people can also access through Facebook, are taped in Sheals’s meditation room in his home, where cameras, lighting, and a podium have been assembled for him to preach.
During each worship service, pre-recorded church announcements and musical guests are featured alongside a short program that includes a scripture, a prayer, an offering, communion, and then preaching.
Sheals said his goal is to keep the streaming services as normal and as close to the regular church services for his congregation as much possible, as “the worship experience to him is important.”
Maintaining the Ministry
Meanwhile, the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia and Impact Church in East Point have also managed to maintain their church services through the pandemic using virtual services via live streaming technology to connect and communicate with their congregations.
The Rev. Jamal Bryant, the senior pastor at New Birth, said his church services have been virtual for the past seven weeks. New Birth, whose membership exceeds 5000 people, offers a modified service each Sunday at 10 a.m.
“The governor is putting us in reckless endangerment,” said Bryant, who also had major concerns about Gov. Brian Kemp reopening the state economy too soon. “Georgia is ranked number five with positive testing and ranks 12th in the nation for COVID-19-related deaths. (New Birth) will not be opening until the numbers subside in the state and once the CDC says it’s safe.”
The Rev. Olu Brown, the senior pastor at Impact Church, said his church hosts three virtual services each Sunday at 8 a.m., 10 a.m., and 12 noon. Brown said Impact will slowly open the church back up in phases, but not quite yet.
“We will come through this,” he said. “We have seen pandemics and trials in the past. We need to stay connected to that Source, that Creator, that is still in control. We Believe in Christ and the power of Christ.
“We are showing details to our congregation from the healthcare community how people can stay safe,” he added. “We are keeping people aware and keeping people encouraged as well.”
Sheikh Musah Salih, imam at the Henry County Islamic Center, said he and other center leaders closed their masjid right at the beginning of the pandemic.
He and other area Muslim leaders have decided to remain closed during Ramadan, worldwide monthlong observance of fasting, prayer, reflection, and community.
Typically, Muslim worshippers would gather at masjids around the world to practice their faith and fellowship with each other throughout the four-week span, which this year lasted from April 23-May 23.
This year, however, Muslim families like Salih’s, found themselves fellowshipping privately or virtually with their loved ones.
“The life and the safety of our members is important and goes in line with the objection of our religion of protecting human lives,” Salih said. “Preservation of human life is far more significant than the continuity of the practices of devotion.”
Services have not stopped for these metro Atlanta faith leaders. These faith leaders also said they are still serving and helping their communities, where their members and the public can drive by and to get what they need.
Both Bryant and Sheals said their churches have distributed communion packets for their congregations, provided complimentary coronavirus testing, and handed out food boxes to the community.
On Mother’s Day, New Birth hosted a drive-thru testing site on its campus, providing as much as 10,000 tests for people to get tested at church’s premises.
The church also hosted a mobile hospital in their church parking lot that afternoon. Further, every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., New Birth distributes enough groceries to feed 1,000 families in need.
“We are doing community service and providing testing,” Bryant said.
In addition to food distribution, Hopewell has also offered complimentary COVID-19 testing, Sheals said.
“It is necessary to reach out to the community. Our outreach is still productive,” Sheals said. “We gave out 2,000 communion sets in ziplock bags and we gave out 200 boxes of food for people to take for themselves and to share with others. We will be giving out more food again in a few weeks.”
Financing the Ministry
Due to the pandemic, many faith institutions have been threatened with closing their doors forever. Smaller community churches, which welcome their parishioners in person each week, have suffered from an inability to collect tithes and offerings in person.
These faith leaders, however, said their places of worship are doing fine.
Bryant said New Birth has been practicing online giving since he was named senior pastor of the popular megachurch last year. Having the virtual option available to its members has enabled the church to continue receiving donations from its congregation throughout the pandemic.
“By the grace of God, we’ve been maintaining our budget,” Bryant said. “We’ve been able to maintain our budget and stay on track.
Brown said his church offers a number of alternatives to in-person giving, including a portal available on its website, PayPal, CashApp, payments through the church’s mobile app, or even through mail-ins to the church.
“Thankfully we’ve already been on the front of generosity,” Brown said. “Overall, we’re pleased that generosity has been consistent. People can even mail in their tithes and offering. Sixty percent of income before COVID-19 was digital.”
Said Sheals about his church’s giving, “We fasted and prayed as a church before the lock-down, asking God to keep us during this chaotic time. We are amazingly blessed and I am humbled by the faithful members. We are being obedient to God to bring the tithes to the storehouse.”
Musah expressed similar sentiments. “We have funds to extend our hand to help our members and our community is very responsive to that and is doing pretty well,” Musah said. “Our members support each other and are even making donations.”
Zooming into homes
Zoom has become the new sensation and phenomenon since the coronavirus pandemic began.
Founded in 2011, the cloud platform used for video and audio conferencing enables users to utilize collaboration, chat, and webinars across mobile devices, desktops, telephones, and room systems.
People everywhere have been using the virtual meeting software to communicate with friends and family. These faith leaders are no different, as they too have used the service to communicate with their members.
Salih said that his members are allowed to stay home and pray and do their religious duties. He said his center will remain closed until healthcare professionals say it is safe to open. “There is nothing wrong with members observing prayers at home,” Musah said. “For now we are staying closed, taking precautions and following shelter-in-place and social distancing guidelines.
“We have virtual meetings and services via Facebook and Zoom, where we motivate and inspire members of the community,” he added. “Teachings are done online to teach and guide members. Just because the center is closed, it doesn’t mean our services are closed.”
In addition to utilizing Zoom, Sheals said he also keeps in contact with his membership through e-blasts and inspirational emails throughout the week. “I ‘zoom’ on Saturday mornings with the children’s choir and I enjoy it,” Sheals said. “It is important for the church leaders to know and feel the pulse of the church. I have a teleconference with the deacons, ministers, and church leaders regularly.”
Ultimately, Salih said he feels things will not return back to normal if people together do not make this a part of their individual responsibility to take preventative measures.
“We believe in listening to the health practitioners of the community and listening to healthcare professionals who are the experts that are evaluating the situation,” Salih said. “Any faith community can talk to the community about the seriousness of this situation, that we all help each other to fight this disease.”