Keeping the faith in Richmond during COVID-19 pandemic

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A banner recently erected at the Buddhist Monastery in Richmond. (Photo credit: Linda Ruiz Lozito)

By Mike Kinney

Prayers abound for those impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The question remains, however, how the shelter-in-place order is impacting local faith communities.

“You’re not just dealing with faith, but culture,” said Michelle Milam, the City of Richmond’s crime prevention manager who often coordinates with faith leaders to respond to community emergencies. “Many clergy feel you should not close the doors of the church in crisis and they are not going to respond simply because it is a government message.”

But with the aim of protecting congregants, including older members who are among the most vulnerable to the virus, faith organization have, indeed, closed their doors and instructed their members to shelter at home, per the public health requirements.

In the meantime, residents seeking spiritual guidance are using the Internet to continue practicing their faith.

“We are seeing a rise in online worship and small group meetings as well as organizing to provide food to those in need,” Milam said.

On Sunday at Saint Luke’s United Methodist Church on Barrett Avenue, where this writer is a member, online church service was held from 11 am to noon. About 25 members of the congregation took part. Also holding online services were Temple Beth Hillel in Hilltop, along with Hilltop Community Church.

“We have moved our evening services to Zoom online and we had about 20 participants at our first online service,” Rabbi Dean Kertesz of Temple Beth Hillel stated. “We are also holding adult education online with Zoom as well.”

Rabbi Kertesz said the online services are “much more personal than I thought it would be.”

Monitoring health of congregants

Pastor Jim Heden of Hilltop Community Church is encouraging his congregation to stay sheltered-in-place and to employ social distancing.

“We make wellness phone calls to our older members on a regular basis to make sure they are doing well,” Heden said.  “We make sure our seniors who do not have the ability to go online receive a weekly DVD of each Sunday’s online service.”

Rabbi Kertesz says Temple Beth Hillel is also making wellness calls to ensure older members don’t feel isolated under the shelter-in-place order.

“We also have a list of resources for our congregation who maybe financially stressed,” the rabbi said. “We encourage them to help one another with chores such as cooking meals, making deliveries to people’s homes and doing shopping with respect to social distancing.”

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Temple Beth Hillel is located at 801 Park Central in Richmond (I-80 Exit /Hilltop Drive).

Pastor Heden noted this is a time where families can reconnect with one another, and to spend more time alone with prayer.

“This is a time when faith leaders are figuring out how to rise to the challenge to keep vibrant communities connected in new ways with technology,” Milam said. “It’s an opportunity to connect the generations.” 

Meanwhile, the Gyuto Foundation Buddhist Temple in East Richmond Heights is also temporarily closed, with all current and future programs cancelled until further notice. That includes the Foundation’s 20th Year anniversary and its plans to coordinate that event with the Dalai Lama’s 85th birthday and the Cherry Blossom festival.

While the Foundation Center is closed to the public, its vast land remains open to individuals to hike and walk their dogs to provide community members with relief from the indoors.

“We have a 25-foot-long by 2-foot-wide banner that will be hanging at the front of our complex that is a prayer asking that all the people in the community and world to be protected from this disease,” said Thupten Donyo, Buddhist monk and founder of the Gyuto Foundation. “We do prayers daily and weekly to have this coronavirus be gone.”

The Sikh Gurudwara Sahib (Temple) in El Sobrante is closed, but members remain vigilant in praying for all of humanity, outreach worker Amrik Singh Pannu said.

“We Sikhs pray once in the morning and once in the evening,” Pannu said. “Our Guru Gobind Singh states: ‘Recognize ye all the human race is one.’ Sikhs will conclude their prayer with a request, ‘May God bless whole humanity.'”

Faith communities stepping up crisis response

Faith communities continue to be important in the COVID-19 response. The Christian-based Bay Area Rescue Mission and Greater Richmond Interfaith Program both run shelters for the community’s most vulnerable members. They’re working directly with public health officials on handling those vulnerable populations.

Hilltop Community Church financially supports Convoy of Hope, a faith-based nonprofit that provides food, supplies, and humanitarian services to impoverished or otherwise needy populations throughout the world. It also engages in disaster relief work.

Temple Beth Hillel is financially supporting the Contra Costa County Food Bank and is “encouraging our congregation to to follow suit and make financial donations as well,” Rabbi Kertesz said.

Milam said communities of faith “have always been the heartbeat of helping to respond to times of crisis.”

But while religious centers are doing their utmost to help community members in need, they’re going to need help with the expectation of decreased contributions.

“The churches run off donations and many have mortgages,” Milam said. “They can only last a few weeks or months without it impacting their ability to pay them.”

Still, all local religious leaders had one thing in common known to weather such storms: their faith.

“St. Luke’s congregants are strong believers in the merciful and gracious, loving God who is sheltering all humanity,” Rev. Haunga said.

She cited Psalm 27:4: “One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after, to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire on his temple.”

St. Luke’s Methodist Church, 3200 Barrett Ave.