POWELL — In the gravel parking lot of Powell’s American Dream Drive-In, Elsie Wagler waited patiently in the passenger seat of a white Chevy pickup, ready to hear the word of God.
It was a beautiful day in the farming community two dozen miles south of the Montana border – with temperatures in the 50s, clear blue skies and the morning sun glistening off the frosted tips of the Absaroka Range. The trip out was a new routine for Wagler, who had long ago grown accustomed to spending her Sundays among the pews of Trinity Lutheran Church in nearby Cody.
Then last month, Wagler and religious people across the country were told their churches would no longer allow them to visit as part of the global effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
It was a necessary decision – the most active attendees at church, according to Pew research, are often older and therefore more susceptible to the virus. But it was a devastating one nonetheless for people who visit places of worship not only for religion, but community.
“I thought that was the main thing they shouldn’t have taken away,” Wagler said. “But I knew we had to do it. We just missed seeing all of our Christian brothers and sisters.”
So did the leaders of her church. Shortly after announcing she would be closing the church in mid-March, Kay Wittman, the pastor of Trinity Lutheran, began to wonder whether alternatives were available to bring her flock back together. So Wittman looked to a Powell drive-in movie theater that, since opening in 1949, has served a similar role in the community, hosting everything from church groups to prom nights.
“Right now, people want to be together, pray together, sing together, hear a good word,” Wittman told the Cody Enterprise at the time.
And come together they did. Last Sunday morning, Wittman stood on the bed of that Chevrolet, a congregation of dozens of vehicles before her with engines idling in the bright Wyoming sun. Word had spread quickly of her socially-isolated services. Among the regulars, several new faces could be seen peering out from behind their tinted windshields, the windows cracked open only enough to feel the breeze while the scripture crackled through the vintage, monotone speakers spaced a car length’s apart up and down the aisles of the open-air church.
The change in venue may be inventive and unorthodox. But for the parishioners themselves, Wittman’s service could be seen as a welcome respite following weeks of uncertainty: a return to some normalcy amid an unprecedented public health crisis.
“We don’t need to be inside a church building or sanctuary to be at church,” Wittman’s fellow pastor, Donna Putney – the pastor of Hope Lutheran Church in Powell – said in her sermon Sunday. “Hopefully, the majority of what our churches do has nothing to do with being within the walls of the building. Hopefully you see church everywhere you go and in everything you do.”
The need for normalcy
For Rock Springs Catholic David Fedrizzi, the weekly trip to mass had been one of the few certainties in a lifetime of tumult.
As a young boy growing up in Wyoming, Fedrizzi, now 83, lived through the rationing policies and uncertainty of a world war. He recalled his family being unable to purchase a car until 1948, the gas rationing, and a day when he, like dozens of his classmates, rushed down to the schoolyard like a herd of animals for a chance to get one chocolate bar from a case of 24.
“I think there’s been probably two generations now that has no idea what that was like,” he said. “There was no guns and butter during World War II, is what I’m saying. There was only guns.”
Later, he lived through the draft and the chaos of a country fighting to redefine itself – he being one of many people seeking certainty and normalcy at a time where normalcy was hard to find. But throughout it all, and for all the uncertainty, Fedrizzi at least had church, something stable to return to in times of doubt and of crisis.
Every Sunday like clockwork, he and the nearly 200 members of Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Rock Springs would come forth to worship in the same tranquil setting they always had, little mind to whatever chaos raged in the world beyond the churchyard.
“Beyond going to the church and going to the movie theater, going to school classes… that was your social life,” Fedrizzi said. “The draft required so much attention and people leaving all the time – by the dozen, you know – that you didn’t think too much about doing anything else.”
For millennia, religion has served as a way for people to cope with fear and uncertainty in times of crisis, whether through war, fiscal hardship or even pandemics. Researchers who have studied the connections between pandemics and religion throughout history have found that, consistently, faiths can often be shaped and defined by their role in galvanizing a community against shared hardships. One of the strongest examples was exhibited in a recent study of how Christians in the East African nation of Malawi coped with the fallout from the AIDS epidemic, in part due to a differing perception of the disease among its members and the religion’s heritage of healing.
The nature of the COVID-19 outbreak, however, has fundamentally altered how worshipers like Fedrizzi can interact with their church, physically barring them from connecting with their faith community. Many have turned to social media, using platforms such as Facebook to not only broadcast services, but to allow individuals to visit with one another virtually. Others have had to find other creative ways to keep their members engaged. In addition to posting video of his services online, Dan Odell, the pastor at Casper’s Christ United Methodist Church, has weighed the possibilities of implementing something like a drive-through communion, and said that he has actually been typing out and mailing copies of his sermon to some of his older parishoners who lack access to a computer, a way of “reclaiming” old technologies to bridge the needs of one generation to another’s.
“It’s been a challenge, you know, just staying in contact with folks,” he said. “But we’ve been sort of looking to the past as well as looking to the future as to how we can meet this challenge.”
So far, Fedrizzi hasn’t allowed coronavirus to separate him from his faith. While Sunday masses have long been televised, on Tuesday mornings Fedrizzi and his brother Fred – who lives with him – come together to say a novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. On Sunday afternoons, the pair say a “patriotic rosary” for members of government – state, local and federal officials included – as they work to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We don’t feel as if our religion has abandoned us, nor have we abandoned our religion,” he said.
Faith can provide understanding and wisdom to make sense of difficult situations. But it is often the people in those communities that offer the strength and support needed to weather the storm.
The spread of COVID-19, however, has forced leaders of all faiths to be physically distant from their congregations. Not just because the state has told them to, but out of a genuine concern for their members’ safety.
“Saving a life takes priority over all other religious commandments and obligations,” Larry Moldo, the rabbi of Cheyenne’s Mount Sinai Synagogue, wrote in an email to the Star-Tribune. “If cancelling all group activities including services can save lives, then staying at home is a religious act. Relying on doctors and other medical professionals to help in the healing process is also a religious obligation.
“As disruptive as minimizing the spread of Covid-19 is to the regular way the Synagogue operates, every aspect of it is not only medically sound, it is also a religious requirement,” he added.
In the time of coronavirus, tangible support networks still exist. Food banks, charities and other programs run by the state’s churches, temples and synagogues haven’t ceased to exist just because times have gotten tougher. People still need to eat, after all, and people still need to be clothed, no matter how difficult the logistics become.
If faith is persist, the people practicing that faith must as well – something that has been a key focus of religious leaders as they guide their members through the crisis.
“Catholics do ritual,” Bill Hill, a Catholic priest in Rock Springs, said in an interview. “Helping people to engage the ritual is a way to help them to pray. That’s why we’ve switched over to providing Sunday masses on Facebook Live — because to help people to pray in that liturgy is a very profound way that people interact with God.
“We’re just inviting people to stay with some of the rhythms of the life of the church,” he added. “It’s Lent right now, preparation for Easter. And so just trying to hold on to some of those things that do root us, even if we can’t gather and engage the liturgy in a church building.”
A deeper appreciation of life
But facing down what could potentially become months of separation, faith leaders across Wyoming are now contemplating how to maintain a long-term sense of community in a time when they can no longer be together. In a recent survey of its membership, the Wyoming Interfaith Network – which represents practitioners of all faiths across the Equality State – asked religious leaders what religious concepts or spiritual practices gave them the strength to cope with the crisis, and what within their faith communities was keeping members grounded in compassion, love, hope or duty.
Despite the differences in each religion, the answers had much in common. Laramie resident Katrina Bradley, of the Baha’i faith, said that the crisis has made her acutely aware of the oneness of mankind, and how “we all need to rely on each other and put others first.” Others shared passages from leaders within their own faiths, offering their own universal messages of hope.
“Our hope with this is to inspire and give hope to each other in this time of fear and suffering,” Jordan Bishop, executive director of the Wyoming Interfaith Network, wrote in an email. “We’ve been posting these on social media and through our email chain. We’ve received responses from Christians, Jews and Baha’is…all offering beautiful notes on hope that they are gathering from their religious traditions.”
For many, that hope, and the desire to return to a sense of normalcy, is what matters most.
As the cars and trucks began leaving the American Dream Drive-In after the March 29 service, Wittman and Putney stood together in the sun, discussing the preparations needed to be made for the next week’s mass. It was Palm Sunday, and both were wondering how to act out some of the rituals of the day: namely, the parade of palms representing the arrival of Jesus to the city of Jerusalem.
The solution was simple: they would distribute the palms and allow people to drive around in their cars with their palms aloft.
It was another means of adopting to the new normal created by the virus. As the virus spreads, faith leaders are looking to maintain some sense of ritual in daily life. Whether it’s a service broadcast over social media, a drive-through communion or the honk of a car horn when it’s time to wish peace to one’s neighbor, people are often looking for the same thing. They want something unshakable in a time of uncertainty.
“There’s a great author, I can’t think of his name right now, but he wrote a book as a family who is struggling with cancer,” Wittman said after service. “But they said, in times like this, that what you long for is normal. Usually, normal is the thing we’re so bored with, and we’re so ready to do anything to stir up and change normal. But right now, you know, that’s what we long for – to not have to think about going to the grocery store, to rile ourselves up every time we go outside.
“I think we’ll all come out of this with a deeper appreciation for a life that is more simple, just because we’re not always trying to get away from that feeling of normal.”
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