The Rev. Carmen D’Amico stood before his congregation in Muse, a former coal town in western Pennsylvania, and talked about not giving into despair and darkness.
“Being in a pandemic doesn’t mean you stop doing what is good,” he told the members of Holy Rosary Catholic Church on a recent rainy Sunday morning, all wearing masks and sitting in every third pew to keep safe distance. “If you know someone is alone, call them up. Reach out to them. Do you have elderly neighbors who need their leaves raked? Do it. Don’t wait for anyone to ask you.”
Simple actions matter, he says. “We need to support each other to get through this. We need to be the light for each other.”
Religious and community leaders, who like everyone else have been grappling with the pandemic for months, need a special message for the 2020 holiday season. People are exhausted by the crisis that they thought would be over by now. Many have lost loved ones and jobs. They miss family and friends they can’t safely visit, an absence deeply felt during a season traditionally filled with gatherings and festive concerts and pageants.
Here are some of the messages that spiritual leaders are delivering during a time of distress.
Make a Difference
The pandemic has made many people feel helpless, says Rev. Mark Feldmeir. “How do we create an opportunity for people to feel empowered and make a difference?”
He and his staff at St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch, Colo., talked about the importance of nostalgic family rituals, especially in a year when the pandemic has interrupted so many traditions. They came up with a twist on the Advent wreath, a practice that involves lighting candles to mark the passage of four Sundays before Christmas.
The church distributed small cardboard boxes in the church parking lot to members of the congregation before the Nov. 29 start of Advent. When the lid is removed, the sides fold down and become a flat cardboard wreath with tea-light candles attached—one for each Sunday before Christmas and another in the center for Christmas Day. Members are invited to join a virtual candle-lighting service at 5 p.m. each Sunday on Zoom.
“We also had a little outreach component,” says Rev. Feldmeir. Each week, members have been asked to drop off a particular item, such as socks, hats or mittens, at a station in front of the church. Just before Christmas, they will bring sleeping bags and winter jackets. All the items will be distributed on Christmas Day to four agencies serving the homeless.
For Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish Festival of Lights which began on Thursday, Rabbi Batsheva Meiri of Congregation Beth HaTephila, a Reform congregation in Asheville, N.C., tells the story of how the Jewish people lost their temple and reclaimed it: They had only one day’s worth of oil to light the menorah to rededicate their temple, but the candles continued burning for eight nights.
“I talk about this every year, but this year it takes on new significance,” she says. Nine months into the pandemic, people feel spent. “We have just a tiny bit of gas left to get us through this. But we surprise ourselves,” she says. “We see and hear all those stories of people, health-care workers and others on the front line, who are able to tap into a reserve and do what they need to do in the darkest of times.”
How can people keep going? Look outward. Notice if a neighbor needs something. “When we are engaged in serving others, there isn’t the same place and space for darkness,” she says.
Being separated from loved ones during the holidays is difficult, she says, but such longing is also a sign of the many deep connections in our lives. “If we didn’t feel sadness and longing, that would be really sad.”
Write a Letter
This year, Christmas cards matter more than ever, says Rev. Michael Curry, presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in New York. He recently received a handwritten letter and immediately sat down to read it, feeling touched that someone had taken the time to write.
“It is worth the extra effort to send a handwritten Christmas card. I may not be able to touch you, but I can see your handwritten words,” he says. “Let me tell you, that makes a difference, especially this holiday season, when so many people will be alone.”
He encourages sending cards to family and friends—but also to one or two others: “People in your community, your church or club, someone you normally wouldn’t send a card to.”
Every day, he says, he asks himself how he will intentionally and deliberately love God, himself and his neighbors. Sending a Christmas card is one of those ways. “Anything we can do to brighten the life of another,” he says. “Even if it’s just a little bit. That’s OK. It doesn’t take a ton of light to cast away the darkness.”
Adrian Williams considered cancelling her annual Kwanzaa celebration this year because of Covid-19.
“Then I looked at what was happening in our country and our community and thought we need it now more than ever,” says Ms. Williams, who is director of the Village Project in San Francisco, a nonprofit youth-enrichment program. Every year for the past 14 years, she organized a community celebration of Kwanzaa, which runs from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1 and celebrates seven values, one each day, with the lighting of a candle. The holiday, which isn’t tied to any specific religion, celebrates African heritage.
The first day honors unity, which this year takes on special meaning. “This country is so divided and in order for us to heal, we have to do it collectively,” she says. “We need to take care of each other. My brother’s problem is my problem.” With so many people unemployed and small and minority businesses hurting in the pandemic, Day 4, dedicated to Ujamaa, or cooperative economics, is even more important. “We encourage people to shop at small businesses and keep money in the community.”
This year, the Villages Project will stream nightly services from different venues, lighting the candles and honoring those who have died. As food is a big part of Kwanzaa, a no-contact meal pickup will be provided. Each evening’s program will end with a 45-minute performance of a local blues band. “I love the blues,” she says.
If Ms. Williams had to offer one message for Kwanzaa 2020, she says, it would be simple: “Be kind. Try to do something good and productive every day. Be a doer of the Word, not just a hearer of the Word.”
On the first Sunday of Advent, Rev. Paul Robeson Ford, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., talked about hope during a service live-streamed on YouTube and
“We light the first candle on the Advent wreath, representing hope even in the midst of a pandemic and everything we have endured,” he said, noting that a vaccine would be making its way to the public. “There is reason to believe that before Advent is over, the end of this pandemic will begin.”
It’s a message especially important for the large number of people in his congregation who are in their 80s and 90s and live alone.
“The church was the center of their social life,” he says. They participated in full productions of Handel’s Messiah, live nativity displays and organized elaborate Christmas-card exchanges. Some are gold-star members, meaning they have belonged to the 141-year-old church for 50 years.
Many didn’t know much about social media, but now have Facebook accounts so they can watch the services online. The church is making sure they receive Christmas cards and phone calls. Harriet Smith recently turned 100, and church members sent her cards and gifts. She sent a thank-you card, read at the Advent service. “You all make me feel so special,” she wrote. “Nice things seem to bloom from you.”
Write to Clare Ansberry at firstname.lastname@example.org
photos: Getty Images
Share Your Thoughts
What has inspired you and given you hope during the pandemic? Join the conversation below.
Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8