No matter how you pray or where you worship, religious practice took a hit during the pandemic. From the CDC recommending people skip weekly services altogether, and the limitations of religious gatherings like weddings, christenings, and burials, to the virtual cancelation of holiday celebrations, gathering to pray with your community was banned or discouraged all around the world in the name of public health. By mid-March of 2020, Rhode Island’s Catholic Bishop Tobin – a conservative and perennial opponent of LGBTQ+ rights– issued a directive suspending all mass obligations and religious services.
After speaking with numerous spiritual LGBTQ community members, it seems most people made adjustments and did not let the pandemic diminish their religious devotion. Monetary contributions to the church appear to have dropped somewhat, but contributions in general have risen, be they in clothing, food, housing or educational supplies. Some made seasonal floral donations to church instead. For those who believe that God is everywhere, people offered up their prayers from wherever they physically were. Some set up makeshift altars in their homes.
As restrictions eased, religious leaders were tasked with limiting their attendance to a fraction of their parishioners, turning hundreds of people away or holding services in parking lots or virtually. Many churches and individuals were defiant. While Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas gatherings were advised to be as small as possible, many family members traveled to be together regardless, and Covid cases spiked in the new year. Religion has certainly been severely tested. As of May 16, the RI Dept of Health reported that 2,503 Rhode Islanders between the ages of 60 and 100 have died of Covid 19, many in nursing homes or in ICU beds without the comfort of their loved ones holding their hand. The only spiritual service of any kind might be a priest, pastor, imam, rabbi, or even a nurse or doctor giving a blessing or offering a prayer up to the universe.
I spoke with two clergy, who are also members of our local community, to find their perspective on tending to the flock throughout this era of isolation.
Rev. Dr. Donnie Anderson of the Pilgrim United Church of Christ in New Bedford was one who felt challenged by the lack of formal structure. Like so many, she loves worshiping and singing with others, and communing with like-minded individuals on a regular basis. During the pandemic, she carved out more personal time to worship, and adapted to conduct services on social media.
Rev. Anderson has faith that God is everywhere and it’s her job to find him, because at times God is not always evident. Her faith in our national leaders is shaken. “It is shameful the way they have handled the struggles of people of color and especially trans people. God, where are you here?... The venom and hate people feel in the name of Jesus is beyond heartbreaking. I thought we had come further. Such giant steps backward... There is so much work to do to live authentically as ourselves and love as one together.” She has participated in Queer Vespers on Zoom and “it has meant so much.”
Queer Vespers was founded by Rev. Gwendolyn Howard in order to bridge the gap of those who might be feeling isolated or estranged from their normal religious channels. To fill the weekly spiritual void, she created an ecumenical service to provide fellowship for the LGBTQ community. It takes place on Thursdays at 7pm via Zoom, except for a special Pride Service on Friday, June 18 in place of the Thursday service. What began as an experiment on April 15, 2020, has lasted more than a year. You can e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for more information and to obtain the Zoom link.
While there are many who are still searching for a safe place to worship, Rev. Howard has managed to give the LGBTQ community just the shot in the arm it needs.
Note: Look for a story about Queer Vespers by Rev. Gwen Howard being published by Options ahead of the Queer Vespers Pride Service on June 18, 2021.