Religious leaders recast COVID-19 moment: We can’t come back the same.

One year into the pandemic, some faith communities in the Pittsburgh area aren’t returning to normal. They’re redefining it.

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Rev. Niecy Dennis White photographed standing in the pews of The Lord's Church in Monroeville, where she is lead pastor.

Rev. Niecy Dennis White, lead pastor at The Lord’s Church in Monroeville, founded Pittsburgh F.R.I.E.N.D.S.: First Responders’ Initiative – Ensuring Neighbors’ Diversity Stands. The group seeks to unite Pittsburgh churches traditionally divided by race, geography and denomination. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

It’s Ash Wednesday, and Christine Ferguson-Rau, a member of St. Mary of the Assumption and St. Ursula Parish of Glenshaw and Allison Park, is in a parking lot. 

Through her car windshield, she can see her priest on a makeshift platform, partially shielded from the snow by sheets of plastic stapled to 2x4s. His voice, beginning the service, reaches her over a loudspeaker. Later, he walks around the icy lot, passing out ashes to each car.

“Blessings out of adversity!” Ferguson-Rau wrote to PublicSource, recapping the scene.

Vehicles gather in the parking lot of St. Ursula Parish as Father Tim Whalen presides over mass from a makeshift platform

When COVID forced St. Mary of the Assumption and St. Ursula Parish to close their physical doors, they began hosting services drive-in style. Here, Father Tim Whalen presides in St. Ursula’s parking lot. (Photo courtesy of the Knights of Columbus and St. Mary of the Assumption and St. Ursula Parish)

Without question, COVID-19 has presented houses of worship with challenges. The losses have been spiritual, emotional, social and financial. The pain has been real.

Yet faith communities in the Pittsburgh region have also innovated. They experimented with space, converting their buildings into food banks, learning hubs and COVID testing sites. 

They played with tradition. They carried on rituals in ways that would have been unthinkable prior to the pandemic: Zoom shabbats, baptisms in bathtubs, plastic prayer mats for Jumu’ah and drive-through confession. 

Finally, in some cases, they invented new programs altogether.

For communities in this third category, COVID shone a light on problems that were present long before the pandemic — problems including systemic racism, class inequality, elder neglect and siloing within religious traditions. 

It also shone a light on their own potential. 

“We do have the ability to adapt,” said Rev. Dr. Warren Lesane Jr. in a Zoom event on Black Presbyterian history organized by the Pittsburgh chapter of the National Black Presbyterian Caucus, the Metro Urban Institute, the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and the Pittsburgh Presbytery and Synod of the Trinity PC(USA). If houses of worship could shift their entire operations online overnight, he asked, what else might they be capable of? 

Lesane is among religious leaders who see the present as full of potential. Rather than romanticize a pre-pandemic “normal,” they are channeling the momentum of the moment to try out new approaches to old crises. 

Here are four examples of Pittsburgh-area initiatives.

Seeking racial justice

Rev. Niecy Dennis White wears a face mask that reads "Not Perfect. Just Committed."

Rev. Niecy Dennis White’s face mask reads, “Not Perfect. Just Committed.” It was a gift from a congregation member after White preached on the theme. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

“Our neighbors are off the beaten path, our neighbors are out of our comfort zones, our neighbors are not in our communities.”

Rev. Niecy Dennis White, lead pastor of The Lord’s Church in Monroeville, wears a face mask while she talks. A gift from a congregation member, it reads “Not perfect. Just committed.” 

2020 hit White and her congregation hard. They lost three community members to COVID and one to cardiac arrest. Meanwhile, at a national level, patterns of police brutality, including George Floyd’s death, were vivid reminders of the racism and segregation built into many U.S. systems, including religious institutions.

As a Black woman pastor, White felt God was calling her to respond. She saw an ironic opportunity in COVID’s climate of disconnection — a chance for people to rebuild their communities differently. (“I love God! He’s so smart!” she said.) 

With Pastor Jeff Leake of Allison Park Church as a mentor, she created Pittsburgh F.R.I.E.N.D.S.: First Responders’ Initiative – Ensuring Neighbors’ Diversity Stands. The group’s aim? To unite religious communities that racism, geography and tradition had for generations kept apart. 

It seemed only natural to her to start the initiative in Pittsburgh, the City of Bridges. “Build the bridge and break the barrier,” she said. 

F.R.I.E.N.D.S. has five phases, progressing from clergy conversations to collaborative service projects to community-wide worship celebrations. In each phase, participants seek racial justice and reconciliation through the same five actions: lament, listen, learn, lead and love.

For White, being a loving neighbor requires moving beyond the easy familiarity of the pre-pandemic past. When the church reopens, she said, it needs to reopen “interrupted and inconvenienced and uncomfortable.” 

Fostering interfaith understanding

Kohonet Keshira haLev Fife holds a clove of garlic as she explains its significance.

Kohenet Keshira haLev Fife describes the role of garlic in earth-based Jewish practice. Each "Sofa Spirituality" interviewee shares just one object or ritual from their tradition. (Photo courtesy of "Sofa Spirituality")

A pastor, a priest and a rabbi walk into a church basement. 

For Rabbi Ron Symons, founding director of the Center for Loving Kindness at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, that’s not the set-up for a joke. It’s instead the premise for a worn-out model of interfaith dialogue. The rest goes something like this: People gather, the faith leaders take turns describing their religions, then everyone eats a potluck dinner and goes home.

“Sofa Spirituality” reinvents interfaith dialogue for the 21st century. A collaboration between Symons and Rev. Liddy Barlow of the Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania, the program uses short video-recorded interviews with spiritual leaders as starting points for small-group Zoom discussions that Barlow and Symons facilitate.

The goals of the program are connection, conversation and community. 

This isn’t World Religions 101, Symons said. You’re not going to walk away with 10 facts about the Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist faiths. Instead the program aims to help participants make meaningful connections between traditions— to discover why people have the traditions they do and where their own and others’ values intersect.

Imam Abdullah Antepli explains the meaning of his Muslim skull cap or head covering

Imam Abdullah Antepli explains the meaning of his Muslim head covering in an episode of “Sofa Spirituality” entitled, “What we wear for God.” (Photo courtesy of "Sofa Spirituality")

Barlow and Symons see these dialogues countering people’s sense of spiritual isolation, a problem that was present even before the pandemic. The conversations also build trust across differences, a necessary precondition for social change.

“So many of the current divides we see in American society have a religious component,” Barlow said. To foster better understanding is “something our world really, really needs.”

Creating supportive spaces for women

There is no agenda for Muslimah Mornings, and that’s the point. Anything the women attendees want to discuss is fair game.

The Capitol insurrection, the COVID vaccine, the craziness of managing kids while on Zoom meetings — all those have been conversations, said Christine Mohamed, the executive director of the Council of Islamic-American Relations Pittsburgh, the organization that hosts the meetings.

Christine Mohamed, executive director of CAIR Pittsburgh, wears a flag-themed headscarf. She is photographed outside a polling place on election day 2020.

Christine Mohamed, executive director of CAIR Pittsburgh, created Muslimah Mornings to support women coping with COVID-era concerns. She is photographed here outside a polling place on election day 2020. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Muslimah Mornings started when Mohamed observed unmet needs in her community. Women were stressed. They were working from home, bearing the brunt of child care and remote learning responsibilities and deprived of their normal social outlets at their masjids or mosques.

Now, two mornings a month since December, a small group of Muslim women have gathered remotely to share advice, talk through fears and just let off steam. Mohamed plans for the meetings to continue in person after COVID and even expand to include a parallel Brothers’ Brunch.

“It turned out, there was a big need for it,” Mohamed said. “It’s sad that COVID is what brought it to our attention — all these vulnerable pockets of our community.”

The goal of the meetings is to empower women to share honestly what’s on their minds— something Mohamed feels is “priceless in today’s world.”

“In Islam, we call each other sisters,” Mohamed said.  “From that, you just build up this close bond and safe space where you’re like, ‘They understand who I am … My voice is valid.’”

Prioritizing mental and spiritual health

In 1845, seven Sisters of Mercy began walking the streets of Pittsburgh, caring for the sick, poor and orphaned. From those humble beginnings sprang the Pittsburgh Parish Nurse and Health Ministry Program. 

The program, a branch of the wellness provider Pittsburgh Mercy, has recently served mostly as an educational resource center. It trains people to serve as faith community nurses in their local houses of worship, tackling tasks from blood pressure screenings to new mother classes to readying elderly congregants for doctor’s appointments.

Pittsburgh Mercy Parish Nurse and Health Ministry Program team members Sister Rebecca Nolan, Amy Armanious and Kathy Conrad (L to R) in their home clinic.

Pittsburgh Mercy Parish Nurse and Health Ministry Program team members Sister Rebecca Nolan, Amy Armanious and Kathy Conrad (L to R) in their home clinic. (Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Mercy Parish Nurse and Health Ministry program)

When COVID hit, the Health Ministry Program jumped into action. It began offering COVID educational sessions and added a COVID page to the health documentation software it offers congregations.

It also created new programs to support people’s mental and spiritual health. These include monthly candlelight meditations and health ministry peer support groups on Zoom. Although open to anyone, they specifically target clergy and health ministry leaders who may be struggling to be anchors for their congregations amid loss and uncertainty.

The goal of these programs is to support people’s holistic well-being. “It’s one thing to have physical health and mental health,” said Amy Armanious, a registered nurse and doctor of nursing practice, who is among the program staff members. “But you need spiritual health, too.”

Chris Hedlin is PublicSource’s faith and religion reporter. She can be reached at chris@publicsource.org.

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