Over winter break, Max Shapiro, a sophomore at Santa Fe Preparatory School, opened her front door and found a package of Jewish Apples to Apples, bingo cards and materials to make Shrinky Dinks. These games and activities were a regular part of Wednesday evenings at Temple Beth Shalom, where Shapiro’s youth group shared pizza pies.
On holidays, Shapiro and her family received similar packages containing challah — a traditional braided bread — and prayer books to follow along with Zoom services. Shapiro has spent the past 10 months at home, strictly abiding by COVID-19 precautions and is grateful for the temple’s efforts to preserve community.
This pandemic has been a time of fear and uncertainty for many. The Rev. Greg Schneeberger, senior pastor at Christ Church Santa Fe, says religion can offer relief to those struggling with these feelings. Schneeberger’s church and other local religious organizations have had to be creative in providing the answers, connection and meaning parishioners are seeking.
At Christ Church, Schneeberger and the other governing members had to reassess their priorities. Above all, the church is protecting people’s safety. As Schneeberger points out, “One of the beautiful things about a church is that it is multigenerational,” which raises the stakes for adhering to COVID-19 safety measures. While some services are being held in person, mask-wearing is nonnegotiable. Christ Church also offers online options for worship as well.
Schneeberger and his colleagues also recognize the church is a place for gathering and fosters community, which is especially important now. In order to meet this need for connection while complying with state public health orders, Schneeberger has hosted casual happy hours at his house every night for a different family from the church. These COVID-19-compliant gatherings include warmth from heat lamps, cheap wine, food and casual games of basketball. The deacons of Christ Church also called all the people in the church directory.
In addition to safety and fostering community, the third priority at Christ Church is community service. This has always been a priority, but COVID-19 has amplified the need, Schneeberger says. He adds that although the church has had to make cuts to its budget, it has not sacrificed “caring for the needy and downtrodden” members of the larger Santa Fe community. Additionally, Christ Church has continued its involvement in aiding fledgling churches in Cuba and Mexico.
“God has put us here at this time to care,” Schneeberger says, explaining that the church should resemble a metaphorical field hospital that welcomes “saints, sinners and skeptics” and seeks to heal the wounded and enables those who have been healed to help others through the same process.
The Rev. Robin Dodge, rector of the Church of the Holy Faith, recognizes some of the same priorities as Schneeberger. Since in-person worship was discontinued, all of the Episcopal church’s services have been livestreamed. This essentially required creating a sound set in the church because without people, Dodge says, the church became an “echochamber.”
Although attending church looks drastically different than it used to, Dodge reports that Holy Faith’s membership and community has grown during the pandemic. He attributes this to the platforms where services are streamed, Zoom and YouTube, being accessible to members of the church who have moved away from Santa Fe and also to people who recently moved here and are looking to find a community.
Dodge, like Schneeberger, says community service has been vital throughout the pandemic. The Women’s Guild at the church held an online version of its annual St. Nicholas’ bazaar to benefit people in need. Members of the church also volunteered at Interfaith Community Shelter. Dodge says the church has had to “become a little more creative” and “a little more nimble” in response to the pandemic.
Theo Standridge, a senior at Mandela International Magnet School and a member at Christ Church, says religion has been a “constant” in his life. The pandemic marks the first time he has not attended church every Sunday. He says he has felt disconnected to the church because of the pandemic.
Shapiro agrees, saying online services are “a lot less intimate” and difficult to follow along with because she does not have her own prayer books. She recalls pre-pandemic temple fondly as a “safe place to connect with other teens” and also as a space to forge intergenerational bonds she doesn’t think she would have made otherwise. Meanwhile, she says, her youth group teacher has worked hard to keep the teens together and has been rewarded with high attendance despite the transition online.
Not only has the physical act of worship been transformed in the last year, but Dodge has observed altered ideas about faith. “Some people have had their faith strengthened because of the pandemic,” he says. “And others have had their faith challenged wondering what God is up to.”
Schneeberger adds that despite the challenges presented, he feels thankful the pandemic prompted his church to reset and “get back to creativity and innovation.”