Palo Alto church reports that a person with COVID-19, and the person's relative, were on the campus within past two weeks | News | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto church reports that a person with COVID-19, and the person's relative, were on the campus within past two weeks

Faith communities turn to livestreaming, acts of kindness as virus spreads

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Last Sunday, the leadership at First Presbyterian Church of Palo Alto, like at many local faith communities, discussed how to respond to the coronavirus epidemic in light of the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) recommendations against large public gatherings.

The very next day, that decision on what to do was all but made for them when they heard from a group that rents space at the Cowper Street church.

"We were informed by a tenant that less than two weeks ago a member of their group, who tested positive for COVID-19, attended a meeting on the FPCPA campus. We were also informed that a relative, who had yet to be tested but had been in close proximity was present just three days ago. As far as we understand both individuals were only in one classroom," the church wrote in an online message to the congregation.

"With this news, late into the night on Monday, the Session (church governing body) decided that, in addition to a deep clean of the facilities, with an abundance of caution and care, we would close down the FPCPA campus and that all FPCPA gatherings and meetings would take place online through the end of April."

The decision to suspend face-to-face worship is particularly difficult because of the impending Holy Week and Easter, among the most important times of Christian worship when many people come together, Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow told the Weekly by phone on Wednesday.

But more than 60% of First Presbyterian's congregation is over age 60, a demographic the CDC says is at higher risk of complications and death from COVID-19. While it was difficult to make the decision to close his church campus, "once we realized this is not about us, this is a public health issue, it became very easy to make that decision," he said.

Faith communities across the country are wrestling with how best to serve their members while also keeping them safe from the coronavirus, which is now designated a pandemic by the World Health Organization.

In-person worship is giving way to live-streamed services; meetings and classes are going digital. Even in churches continuing to meet, many are foregoing the tradition of shaking a pew neighbor's hand with a greeting of "Peace be with you"; donations are no longer being collected in baskets handed from parishioner to parishioner. And communion, a most revered sacrament of wine and bread, is now coming in sanitary, prepackaged containers.

The social and structural changes necessitated by COVID-19 pose a challenge to faith communities' basic identities as places to congregate, some faith leaders said.

Faith communities are places "where people want to go. ... When they are going through a hard crisis, we want to tell them, 'Come here,'" said Ellen Bob, executive director of Congregation Etz Chayim in Palo Alto.

But now these same places of solace and community are telling people to stay away.

The coronavirus outbreak has even forced one congregation out of its place of worship. James Bailon, director of operations for Grace Presbyterian Church of Silicon Valley, said his church rents space at Palo Alto High School. The school has ended all of its rentals to outside groups until the end of the school year, he said.

With 150 to 250 members, his church has been holding two services at Paly, and the small staff is looking at all alternatives, including pre-recording and broadcasting Sunday services. They are also looking for another site to rent, he said.

Plenty of other faith communities are also turning to tech. First Presbyterian's Reyes-Chow led a Zoom conference with 70 other pastors and staff from various faith communities to discuss how they can best transition to technology. As a church, First Presbyterian has been using social media for a long time and is currently planning to make its whole religious service accessible via Zoom. Smaller groups that formerly met at the church will also use the Zoom platform, he said.

The transition might be harder for some in his congregation, however -- especially the many members who live in retirement communities. The church is sending out "tech deacons" to help people access services and communicate with the church, he said.

The church is also stepping up its outreach strategy.

"One pastor's job is making sure we don't forget anyone," he said.

Rev. Kaloma Smith, pastor of University AME Zion Church in Palo Alto, said his church has also suspended services and face-to-face meetings. AME Zion has offered live-streaming of its Sunday services for the past two years and now is doing the same with all of its small-group meetings.

"Faith is absolutely critical at this time," he said, noting the importance of creating virtual spaces.

His staff is focusing on digital efforts that give the community "a safe haven in a storm," such as through the community-based Faithlife Equip, an online and social media tool for managing congregations.

Staff is also reaching out to seniors and those who are most vulnerable, who may be isolating themselves to stay away from the coronavirus, to see if they need help with shopping or errands, he said.

Other religious congregations are taking precautions but trying to keep a semblance of normalcy. Rabbi David Booth of Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto said so far his synagogue is continuing its services, but it has canceled activities geared toward older members of the congregation.

The synagogue did live-stream its Purim services so that congregants had an option if they didn't want to attend in person. There are also virtual options for classes.

"We do have a lunch and we're having volunteers serve rather than have an open-buffet line. We're paying attention to Santa Clara County's guidelines," he said.

Kol Emeth also has a volunteer squad to check on elderly members, and Booth has also urged parents through social media to talk to their children to help dispel fear about the coronavirus.

Kol Emeth is also using its ongoing kindness program, which helps to build a more positive and connected community. Booth has asked the congregation to engage in one small act to help people feel they can be proactive and positive even at a time when they might feel fear.

"Think of something kind that someone did for you and something kind you can do for someone between now and the next time you wash your hands," he said.

Bob said her small congregation isn't canceling its services or meetings yet -- Etz Chayim's classes have five to 15 students -- but there's a sign on the door asking all who enter to wash their hands first before entering.

The congregation still had its Purim pizza party on Monday, with a Purell hand sanitizer station at the front of the line. Staff watched closely to make sure people used it before grabbing a pizza slice, she said.

"We're trying to balance prudence and living," she added.

Etz Chayim's leadership is working on a contingency plan if they do have to close. There are many questions yet to be answered: How will they redefine what it means to congregate and to help their members in a crisis? How do they balance public safety with their mandates as religious communities? What would constitute an "essential activity?"

Bob is especially concerned with this question and how the age of the coronavirus could change the fabric of society.

"Is a funeral an essential activity?" she asked.

Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and Almanac here.


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6 people like this
Posted by PBC
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 12, 2020 at 7:07 am

Peninsula Bible Church cancelled services last Sunday and had a livestream instead. This will continue to at least the end of March. Please join us next Sunday. Web Link

5 people like this
Posted by Paly dad
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 12, 2020 at 11:55 am

They have been holding meetings at Paly? How about a park outside!

6 people like this
Posted by Local family
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 12, 2020 at 2:18 pm

Dear Weekly,

Will you please pull together all the streaming resources for local churches? We are in the midst of finding the right place for our family, and this would be a real help.

6 people like this
Posted by Jennifer
a resident of another community
on Mar 12, 2020 at 2:39 pm

Our church isn't cancelling services. We're doing away with the Challis cup and we won't be shaking hands at the beginning of service. The greeters won't be shaking hands either. Other than that, church service goes on. What good does it do not to gather for church when 80% of those people return to work on Monday, surrounded by more than 50 people. Will they be cancelling work next?

4 people like this
Posted by Mike
a resident of Gunn High School
on Mar 12, 2020 at 5:09 pm

Hello PAUSD,

I'm coming! Are you going to close all the local schools after someone tested positive?


6 people like this
Posted by Johanan
a resident of another community
on Mar 12, 2020 at 5:50 pm

To worship in your own house is just like the early Church in Acts chapter 2.

Jesus said this "Amen I say to you, whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever you shall loose upon earth, shall be loosed also in heaven. Again I say to you, that if two of you shall consent upon earth, concerning anything whatsoever they shall ask, it shall be done to them by my Father who is in heaven. For where there are two or three gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them."

LORD Jesus, by thy blood heal, bless and protect everyone and family who amen your blessing. Amen. Just for two, you and I to agree for a prayer fulfill the quorum. Many charismatic believers watch TV, hear radio and Yourtube. They have seen signs and miracles to those who believe.

By the way, in the old covenant, they require ten people to have a quorum. In the New Covenant Jesus said you only need two. Remember Moses (picture of LAW), ten spies failed and then with Joshua (picture of Jesus), two spies succeeded with Jericho.

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