Coronavirus: How Silicon Valley worships in the age of social distancing

The South Bay’s store shelves have emptied of toilet paper, streets have cleared of traffic and social calendars have emptied as residents scurried inside to preserve their health and encourage the coronavirus infection curve to flatten. But in recent livestreamed services, religious leaders connected with their congregations, offering messages of hope and advice to cope.

Gov. Gavin Newsom on March 20 ordered California’s 40 million residents to stay home. Many area churches, synagogues and mosques have been broadcasting services, meetings or messages through their websites, Facebook Live or YouTube channels for days, or weeks.

On Sunday’s morning prayer livestream, the Revs. Nikki Wood and Matthew McDermott of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto encouraged visiting web surfers to settle in, take a deep grounding breath, listen to the prayers and join peers in commenting in the box to the video’s right. Digital good mornings stacked up dutifully. One viewer, whose screen handle was April Flowers, wrote, “I miss everyone, but I’m glad that we can connect here.”

McDermott prayed for the people devoted to fighting COVID-19 — political leaders, scientists, engineers, medical personnel, doctors, convalescent caretakers.

“For all who are serving and sacrificing safety,” McDermott said, “for all essential workers.”

Off-camera, a voice added coronavirus-specific prayers — for laid-off workers wary of their futures, people suffering from anxiety, people who are alone — and offered thanks for Santa Clara County’s medical workers, businesses that have helped one another in new and surprising ways and for the technology to work and connect.

Santa Clara University President Kevin O’Brien, also speaking Sunday, acknowledged feeling unmoored, frustrated, even angry, amid the widespread social distancing. Students, he suggested, may resent going online instead of to a campus and classroom.

But he added that the Jesuit university’s community and Christian mission have withstood massive interruptions — the Civil and Vietnam wars, the Great Depression, the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Now, as then, people will find ways to care for and protect one another, he said.

“Amid all this disruption, we see signs of so much goodness and so much patience and so much generosity, wrapping friendships in a protective assurance that says, ‘All will be well,’” O’Brien said. “Distancing is an unusual sign for a Christian response, which usually means closeness and connection, but such is our moment now, such is our call now.”

Lead pastor Mark Riggins of Los Gatos’ Calvary Church, which, according to its website, will stay closed through at least April 9, used his livestream to welcome congregants, and internet interlopers, to “Sofa Sunday.” Though people are quarantined and physically separated, they’re not alone, he said. Many church congregants he said, have stayed close by meeting virtually; a grid of grinning webcam-captured faces peered out from kitchens or living rooms proved it.

“It’s a wonderful time to make the extra phone call,” Riggins said, “to send the text.”

Temple Emanu-El, a San Jose synagogue, offered a plethora of streamed events, including a Lunch and Learn, a Shabbat service and film discussion. In a Wednesday post, Rabbi Dana Magat acknowledged his congregation was enduring another week at home and recommended they drink water, sleep if they can and avoid getting overwhelmed by the torrent of coronavirus reports. Magat said he and his wife watch a little news in the morning and a little in the afternoon, but no more.

Like Riggins, Magat suggested people connect, perhaps with daily video chats. Seeing someone else’s face always helps. Beyond that, he said, there’s email, adding that his inbox is open for messages.

“Hang in there,” Magat said, patting his chest above his heart. “We can do this. We can hang in there together.”

Follow Matthew Crowley on Twitter @copyjockey.

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