As the COVID-19 crisis wreaks havoc on the daily and weekly routines of people all around the world, religious congregations in Oxford are finding new ways to hold worship services.
The virus is causing worry, but the mindset of the local faithful remains hopeful.
Many houses of worship in Oxford and the surrounding region, including Cobblestone Community Church, Oxford Bible Fellowship, Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Hillel at Miami, St. Mary’s Catholic Church and the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati have canceled regular services along with other group events in efforts to slow the spread of the virus. Many local congregations have moved to a live-stream virtual experience over websites, YouTube or Facebook to carry on through the pandemic.
These changes come after Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine suggested canceling such large-group gatherings while ordering the shutdown of bars, restaurants, schools and sporting events around the state. Though houses of worship were not included in the mandatory shutdown, many assemblies have voluntarily complied to practice social isolation.
Cobblestone’s lead pastor, Andrew Holzworth, is confident God’s work will go on despite an unprecedented situation.
“We just really love getting together with you and seeing God show up,” Holzworth said. “We believe God can do that in your living room.”
Though local religious leaders would love to continue to hold weekly services, the health and safety of the greater community is the top priority, according to Rev. Sara Palmer of Holy Trinity. In her mind, this virus is not something to take any chances with, especially with a large contingent of elderly people in her congregation.
“We can’t be smug or complacent because this is not a virus that respects whether you believe or don’t believe,” Palmer said.
Tuesday, the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio suggested to Palmer and other churches around the area to cancel weekly services. Additionally, Palmer said that weekly community dinners held among Oxford churches of different denominations have been canceled for the foreseeable future.
Garrett Nates, lead pastor of Oxford Bible Fellowship, agreed with Palmer, taking into consideration the imminent threat that the virus poses. In his mind, this is a situation referred to in Romans 13 in which the church should “be subject to the governing authorities.”
“The socially responsible thing for us to do is honor the local government,” Nates said. “We’re in this together.”
Despite having to shut down Sunday services, Palmer along with other religious congregations remains active around Oxford, even if what they are doing looks different than the traditional church model.
Palmer and the rest of her staff are checking in via phone with at-risk members of their church body while also sending out cards and holding small group prayer sessions.
Nates is leading the charge with his church to donate to local entities who help feed low-income families. To Nates, the current situation means the church has to move into a more active role in the community instead of a simple gathering once a week.
“The church was never about buildings,” Nates said. “It’s about a community living on a mission to reach the lost.”
Holzworth echoed a similar sentiment, realizing how uncertainty in a health crisis means Christians must show love to the people around them.
“He loves you,” Holzworth said. “He loves your neighbors, and He might want to use you to show them.”
Still, the threat of coronavirus continues to grow by the day. Wednesday, the first confirmed case of COVID-19 was reported in Oxford with the number of cases growing daily both across the nation and across the world.
However, Palmer, along with other religious leaders in the area, clings to scripture when each day seems to bring a new challenge. For her, Psalm 46 stands out as an especially relevant passage right now.
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” reads the first line of Psalms 46.
Psalms is sometimes read in Jewish, Catholic, Anglican and Protestant services.
“We believe that Christ did not stay dead and was raised from the dead,” Palmer said. “That, to me, gives me more courage and hope.”