Even before Governor Jared Polis issued his stay-at-home order at the end of March to prevent the spread of Covid-19, leaders at churches, temples, and mosques across Denver knew they had to quickly devise ways for people to worship from home. Religious services, by their very nature, involve people sitting closely together indoors, singing, shaking hands, even hugging—all potential virus-spreading behaviors.
Most faith communities already offered video streaming of services, but it was often just a camera at the back of the sanctuary with little production value. “We knew almost instantly that we had to create something more immediate, more intimate,” says Clover Beal, co-pastor at Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church. The church staff decided to use a professional cameraman to pre-record the services, including highly produced musical numbers and sermons delivered with the minister looking directly into the camera. “We invited members of our congregation to create a special place in their home and light a candle so it would feel like worship. Of course, we thought this was just going to last a few weeks or so,” Beal says with a laugh.
Now, seven months into the pandemic, faith leaders say they’ve found multiple new ways to not only worship, but to conduct meetings, youth group fellowship, even communion, bar mitzvahs and baptisms. “We suddenly had to learn about this thing called Zoom,” says Rabbi Joe Black from Temple Emanuel. “They didn’t teach us in rabbinical school how to make a tv studio in our basement but that’s what I had to do.” Black says the first thing the temple did was prioritize what services it could provide. “Our number one value was saving lives. We didn’t want to put our congregants or our staff at risk.” It has meant streaming worship services, postponing weddings, and limiting graveside services to immediate family members. Bar mitzvah services were held outside this summer and early fall, but have now ended for the winter.
Arise Church Denver (formerly Stapleton Church) also initially offered only video-streamed services, but in June it added an outdoor service which attracts as many as 150 people each Sunday. In November, worship moves back inside—with precautions. “We’ll have two services, allowing just 100 people per service. Everyone will have to wear a mask, even when singing,” says Pastor Matt Wolf.
Catholic churches in Denver resumed in-person masses in mid-May, but initially just for 10 people at a time. As state regulations loosened with “Safer-at-Home” guidelines, churches were allowed 50-100 people per service indoors, depending on the size of the sanctuary. Several Catholic churches also offered outdoor confession and drive-by communions. “I’ve been so impressed with how the parishes have reacted to the pandemic,” says Mark Haas, with the Archdiocese of Denver. “They know they serve a vital role in people’s lives so they’ve found new ways to connect with them.”
In-person services at the Northeast Denver Islamic Center mosque have also resumed, but with some important health precautions. Everyone must have their temperature checked at the door, they must perform their ritual washing before prayer at home instead of at the mosque, and they must bring their own prayer rugs. “We only allow 35 people inside, we keep an overhead fan on to keep air flowing and I’ve shortened the service to just 30 minutes,” says Imam Abdur-Rahim Ali. The mosque’s weekend school, which serves 125 young people, holds classes via Zoom.
Zion Baptist Church, the oldest African American church in the Rocky Mountain West, is holding indoor services but with greatly reduced numbers. Prior to the pandemic, over 300 people regularly attended every Sunday. Now about 60-70 attend in person, all wearing masks and spaced far apart in the sanctuary. “We’re making do. We’re social beings so this is difficult. We have a custom of expressing our faith by coming together, so this is a dramatic change,” says Pastor Frank Davis.
The biggest challenge for all of these houses of worship is planning for some of the most important religious holidays, which traditionally draw large crowds of people. For Yom Kippur at the end of September, Rabbi Black hired a professional video production team to record and edit portions of the service. More than 8,000 people tuned in to watch.
Leaders at the Catholic Archdiocese, Arise Church Denver, and Zion Baptist Church say they are still trying to figure out how to best meet their congregants’ needs for Christmas Eve. All hope to offer multiple services indoors, but with coronavirus numbers spiking in Denver, they will keep a close eye on any new restrictions that might be put in place by either the mayor or the governor.
Montview Presbyterian, which added outdoor vesper services in July, will continue holding services outside as long as it’s not raining or frigid. “We figure if folks can bundle up for Bronco games, they can bundle up for a 30-minute outdoor worship service,” says Beal. Last year, more than 4,000 people attended Christmas Eve services at Montview. This year the church plans to offer up to six outdoor services in its parking lot, with hopes of creating a live-animal nativity scene for young families.
NOTE: In late October, a federal judge ruled the state cannot force congregants to wear masks or limit gatherings at two Denver-area churches, citing religious freedom. Governor Polis has filed an appeal. All religious leaders interviewed for this story say the ruling would not change how they proceed with worship services.