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How Faith Leaders Have Approached Worship Differently In The Pandemic


Just a few weeks into last year's pandemic shutdowns, former President Donald Trump suggested that Easter Sunday - remember, that's last April - would be the day that life returns to normal. Of course, that did not happen. And a year later, many houses of worship are still figuring it out. NPR's Lee Hale looks back on how some faith leaders have approached worship differently during the pandemic.

LEE HALE, BYLINE: March 9 of last year was a big day for Pastor Rick Henderson.


RICK HENDERSON: Hey, Autumn Ridge Church. I'm Rick Henderson, your brand-new senior pastor. And this is probably my first...

HALE: This was his first message to the thousand-plus members of his nondenominational congregation in Rochester, Minn.


HENDERSON: Jesus said that the defining characteristic of those who follow him is love. And as we process all the latest recommendations from the CDC and our local medical professionals, we're doing our very best to be prudent and loving.

HALE: Henderson says shutting down in-person worship was the right thing to do, but not ideal as the new guy taking over for a pastor who had been at the helm for over 30 years.

HENDERSON: There are many books written about this, and every single one of them says, don't do anything for at least 18 months; keep everything the exact same. And we changed everything the first week.

HALE: At every stage of the pandemic, Henderson says he's followed state and federal guidelines.

HENDERSON: If ever there is a time that honoring elected officials means compromising our faith, we're going to go with our faith over honoring elected officials. We just haven't been put in that position yet.

HALE: But one pastor who says he has been put in that position is Che Ahn of the evangelical Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena, Calif.

CHE AHN: I believe that Jesus is the head of my church and our church and the church universal, not the civil government.

HALE: Ahn says he initially complied with California state requirements and paused in-person services, but then he grew frustrated as he saw businesses like liquor stores operating.

AHN: The church was not declared essential from the beginning, and I believe with all my heart the church has been essential for 2,000 years.

HALE: Of course, there are some sound public health reasons to avoid in-person worship. Sitting close together and singing are effective ways to transmit a respiratory virus. But Ahn believes it was his decision to make, so he opened his doors, and he sued California, going all the way to the Supreme Court.

ASMA UDDIN: We have to demand that the government is more precise in the way that it restricts these fundamental rights.

HALE: Asma Uddin is a religious liberty lawyer and writer. While she doesn't condone ignoring government regulations, she is glad that the Supreme Court has forced some states to loosen and clarify guidelines.

UDDIN: This precedent is something that's going to be applicable in the future to other states of emergencies, where the government thinks it can just come in and take away our rights without being precise about it.

HALE: Uddin says it's easy to group faith communities into two big categories - those who followed local laws and those who defied them - but the reality is more complicated. Take the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in the Bronx, where Rabbi Steven Exler has followed New York state guidelines but was stumped by one detail last spring.

STEVEN EXLER: You could gather outdoors for religious worship services in groups of no more than 10.

HALE: Ten is the number of men required to read from the Torah scrolls or say certain prayers.

EXLER: You would think, OK, that's perfect for us. But what was terrible for us was then we would be forced to make a horrible choice, which was between being able to gather and do the quorum activities and then say women couldn't attend.

HALE: They improvised. Men and women gathered separately, both in eyesight. And they used speakers to hear each other, although they couldn't use that setup on the Sabbath. Exler tried contacting New York officials to ask for some leniency.

EXLER: If we had had more of an ear, that's something I would certainly have advocated for and would advocate for.

HALE: Tonight, as they welcome the Sabbath, members of the Hebrew Institute will gather in small, distanced groups to begin the final weekend of Passover. And in Rochester, Minn., Pastor Rick Henderson has been preparing his congregation for Easter Sunday with weekly announcements like this.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) ...We praise you...

HENDERSON: Because of COVID restrictions and distancing, we have a smaller capacity than we could normally have, and so I want to make sure...

HALE: As he's watched some of his fellow Christians openly defy public health guidelines, Henderson says it's made him sad.

HENDERSON: Sometimes I even felt embarrassed by what I saw. One day we're going to look back, and this is just going to be a story that we tell. What kind of story do you want to tell?

HALE: Henderson wants his story to say that he protected the people in his care.

Lee Hale, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.