With Bay Area Worshippers Stuck at Home, Religion Goes Virtual

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Harpreet Singh stands in a Restaurant Depot, collecting supplies for the Silicon Valley Gudwara's free grocery delivery service. Local temples and churches have been brainstorming how to support their congregations under COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders. (Photo courtesy of Harpreet Singh Kohli)

St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Saratoga is one of more than 400 houses of worship in Santa Clara County that moved online last week following shelter-in-place orders to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The church has some experience filming services for online audiences, so it wasn't completely unprepared for the abrupt transition, said the Rev. Peggy Bryan. But the change has still been jarring.

"We're used to talking to people in front of us," Bryan said. "So I delivered a sermon to a hundred empty pews. Where do I look? How do I engage?"

For the past few weeks, as officials have sought to prevent large gatherings, religious congregations around the Bay Area have moved their services and communications online — using video apps like Zoom, YouTube and Facebook Live. The United Church of Christ, a national Protestant denomination, and other organizations have provided training and other resources for churches that are trying to begin livestreaming their services.

That effort at Bryan's church has been paying off, she said. On average, there are about 400 people in the St. Andrews congregation, but once she began recording her services using the Zoom video conferencing platform, she began noticing new names in the attendee log.

"We had actually quite a few people who are not members," Bryan said. "I got feedback from one person that it was her first time she had ever been in a church service."

Because so many religious communities have moved their services online, she explained, worshipers can now more easily either tune in to their own regular service or experiment with any number of other services streaming online.

"But then they said watching us was actually more comforting because there were familiar faces," Bryan said. "So, how can we keep that comfort and normalize community feel in a time that looks like, for at least the next few weeks, we're not going to be able to get together at all?"

For some, digital offerings from religious institutions during a time of uncertainty and isolation can't come fast enough. Kyle Matsumoto Burch, who lives in San Jose's Japantown neighborhood, regularly attends worship services at San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin, located just a few blocks from his house.

"I [normally] walk to temple in the morning, usually when I hear the bell go off," Burch. "There's a bell that they ring outside and then I just go and attend the service."

Attending these services in person, Burch said, is what he misses most about having to shelter in place. And with newfound time and additional anxiety, Burch said he now watches multiple services a day.

"I started getting curious about what the Oregon Buddhist [Temple] was doing and what the Orange County Buddhist church was doing, so I watched all of them," Burch said. "So I ended up watching about three dharma talks."

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Burch particularly misses the community he's cultivated at the temple. And now, more than ever, he's relying on his faith to guide him, he said.

"Being able to hear something positive for a change, which is what I get from hearing the dharma talks, is a nice, welcoming relief from the news that we keep hearing," he said.

In addition to moving services online, some houses of worship have tried to reach out to their communities and provide offline support to those in need.

The Silicon Valley Gurdwara, a Sikh temple in Santa Clara, typically has religious services every day and serves langar, a free vegetarian meal, all of which it has had to suspend under COVID-19 restrictions. The temple has since started streaming its services on Facebook Live and last week, began delivering free groceries to members of its congregation. 

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Harpreet Singh Kohli, a volunteer at the temple, works with about 100 other members of his congregation to buy groceries and make care packages and then deliver them to people's doorsteps.

"There's lentils, rice, laundry detergents and diapers and toilet paper rolls, sanitizers, milks, fruits and veggies," Kohli said. "A family can last [on] it for a week. And it takes around $100 to $120 for making one package."

The temple serves about 40 families and delivers everywhere from Fremont to Gilroy. "It's going smooth and thanks to God, we're able to sustain it because we expect this to get much worse in the coming weeks," Kohli said. As long as the temple keeps receiving donations, Kohli is certain his team will be able to continue meeting the need.