In the Christian world, this is the season of Lent.
It’s a time known for sacrifice, for giving up something you love as a sign of faith and a test of self-discipline. For some, that oblation most years is chocolate or alcohol or video games.
The point of the Lenten offering is to take a spiritual inventory, to let go of something so you can ask yourself life’s bigger questions: What really matters? What is my purpose? What do I want my legacy to be, and have I been living in a way that ensures it?
In the midst of this global coronavirus pandemic, when facts and figures — thousands dead in a single day, more than a million sickened worldwide, another month of isolation ahead — seem more apt for fiction than reality, these are the questions that rise to the surface.
For many, the answers lie in faith. But even our religious practices — oftentimes the only facet of life that stays regular — have bent to the virus’ will.
In Granger, a Bosnian Islamic mosque that would normally be packed for Friday prayers was limited to a select few, with one congregant designated to hold up an iPhone and livestream the imam's message. Some tuning in from home had attended in-person prayers through war, genocide and immigration, their streak ended by this public health crisis, but their God’s word still heard.
At Christ the King, a Des Moines parish, one pastor first took confessions outside, using a homemade shriving pew. But when movement was further restricted, he scheduled appointments, meeting people in the church parking lot or at home, the glass storm door acting as the holy partition.
And at Hope Lutheran Church in West Des Moines, where more than 10,000 people regularly come through the doors for weekend services, the church has transitioned everything online — ramping up 90-second morning liturgies, lunchtime services and worship podcasts. Their church may be closed, a senior pastor said, but their message is clear and ongoing.
No matter the religion, coronavirus has changed the physicality of faith — but not the spirituality.
At its core, faith is a conviction of things not seen. It is giving in to the mystery that maybe we can't know how or when, but there will be a resolution. It is not letting fear or worry crash over us like a wave, and instead believing with a clear heart that, as a community, we will prevail.
Watch: How central Iowa's faith communities are staying connected through a pandemic
Kelsey Kremer and Brian Powers, Des Moines Register
This Lent marks a test of faith not seen in generations — a test of faith in each other. We sacrifice not sweets or carbs, but everyday life as a sign that we all have a role to play in ensuring humanity’s future this side of heaven.
In the Christian world, Lent is capped off by Easter. For those who celebrate, it is a time of resurrection — of their lord but also of themselves. It marks the moment they take what they learned in their spiritual inventory and put it to use.
Even if you don’t celebrate Easter, there is a kind of comfort in the belief that after this sacrifice, our community will be rebirthed, revived and restored. That life will find a way.
Until then, all we can do is keep the faith.
Like many other churches, Christ the King, an 1,800-member parish on Des Moines’ south side, has gone digital. For masses, that technological tether offers some measure of comfort, allowing church members to see the incense’s smoke and hear the Rev. P.J. McManus’ voice.
But for confession — the highly personal, almost therapeutic exchange between priest and parishioner — a socially isolated solution just wasn’t going to cut it. And considering McManus normally hears about 10 hours of confession a week, he needed to figure out a COVID-safe solution fast.
At first, he MacGyvered a raw-iron kneeler from the grotto and a banner from inside the church into an outdoor confessional. Members lined up, standing or idling in cars, and waited until McManus was free.
But when state leaders recommended people stay inside as much as possible, McManus worried he may endanger his flock by having them leave their homes. So he decided to go to them.
Now, McManus, a graduate of Dowling Catholic who moved back to Des Moines three years ago, is hearing church-goers’ confessions in parking lots, on their front steps or under their windows, Romeo and Juliet-style.
While COVID-19 has presented some unique challenges, these are hardly the weirdest confessions he’s heard. Once, about two years ago, a man dressed as Santa Claus stopped him at a dry cleaner.
“He said, ‘Are you a real priest?’ ” McManus recalled. “And I smiled, and I said, ‘Well, are you the real Santa?’"
The man in the red suit wanted to confess, so the pair went outside, Santa knelt in the cold Ninth Street snow and McManus listened.
“Everyone feels out of control right now,” McManus said. “The world seems very insecure. A lot of people are struggling with just kind of doing anything that they can to get a resemblance of normalcy."
If that one hint of regularity is confession, McManus is more than happy to oblige — no matter where he has to hear it.
HOPE, in a digital world
Pastor Mike Housholder has been preaching for 30 years — 27 of those at Lutheran Church of Hope — but when he stood on stage, looking out over 3,000 empty seats, his first thought was: Do I know how to do this?
Hope, which normally hosts 10,000 church-goers a weekend at its West Des Moines campus alone, was one of the first churches to go digital-only, making the decision to close its doors just before its March 15 service. And as far as moving online, Hope had experience, having begun to stream some of its services a few years ago.
On a recent Saturday night about 20 minutes before the livestream was to launch, 400 people were already waiting in a digital queue.
In the sanctuary, the HOPE simulcast setup would make even professional filmmakers jealous. Four broadcast cameras normally relegated to the back of the room had been moved up to the front seating section, and two mobile cameras roamed the proscenium for tracking close-ups. In the production booth, about a dozen people called shots, added lower thirds or tossed to video packages.
After their performance, the band spread out across the house, kindly giving Housholder multiple spots to rest his gaze. He started the sermon, still overcome with the surreal nature of this uninhabited space, until a new perspective suddenly dawned on him.
“Instead of being in the room worshiping together, the congregation is in thousands of different rooms, but we were all still together,” he said. “And in a way, I started to realize that even though, physically, we're apart because of this virus — for good reason — God keeps us together.”
Across the metro, in Waukee, the Burch family — Asheley, Matthew, 5-year-old Harper and 2-year-old Hudson — munched on eggs and cinnamon rolls as they watched the 8 a.m. Sunday service.
The family normally attends 8 a.m. “adult church” before leading Harper’s Bible school class at 9:15 a.m., so wrangling kids while taking in the sermon was nothing new, Asheley said. But, at home, there are a lot more distractions — namely Paw Patrol stuffed animals — to steal the kids’ attention from the age-appropriate, worship-related worksheets Hope provided.
Members of the church for about nine years, the Burches are dedicated to their Sunday Hope habit and grateful for the pastors’ efforts to get the digital sermons going on such short notice. In this abnormal time, the routine of tuning in provides them at least one facet of normality.
“It was relieving,” Asheley said after the service. “This is my workspace. This is our home. This is our whole world, like, we can't really go outdoors. So it's nice to be able to watch and see what we would see if we were there.”
Now the family is branching out into some of the additional online worships Hope is providing, including podcasts and shorter weekday devotions. Feeling a bit out-of-control, Asheley took a 20-minute break to watch a lunchtime service Wednesday, giving her some much-needed respite.
Although all this digital connecting has been “awesome” given the current climate, it's not how the family wants to go to church indefinitely.
“We want to get back to normalcy,” Asheley said. “You can listen to the same thing online, but you can walk into church and be like, ‘I feel at home.’ ”
Facebook, an Instrument of God
When Wilfrido Matamoros signed on to be the business and communication director at Our Lady of the Americas Catholic Church, he never imagined that he’d one day be the most important member of the staff.
Since coronavirus moved all Diocese of Des Moines services online, Matamoros, who runs the church’s website and social media feed, has taken the digital reins. Every day, he ensures the regular Mass gets out to the church community, which includes a large segment of faithful Latino Iowans.
Compared to other worship livestreams, Our Lady of the Americas’ started simply, with Matamoros using just an iPhone and an external microphone to record the service.
But as the audience grew — one recent service had 1,400 viewers — so, too, did the sophistication of their setup. Now, Matamoros uses a camcorder, wireless microphones, a laptop complete with broadcast-quality editing equipment and, most importantly, a strong WiFi signal to stream the mass.
Still, with just the daily officiant and Matamoros on site, the church can feel empty. It typically has a daily service and five on weekends.
But then Matamoros looks down at the stream. As he watches the number of Facebook Live viewers tick higher and higher and the “Amens” — written comments instead of spoken aloud — flow in like rushing rapids, he knows many, many people are listening to the message.
“I feel like I’m an instrument of God in that moment,” he said.
'At least they could hear'
Muslims had a bit of a head start on the coronavirus hand-washing edict, Imam Nermin Spahić joked recently. As followers of Islam, they were already supposed to be scrubbing their palms before every prayer — at least five times a day.
In a makeshift space on the grounds of the grand, still-under-construction Es-Selam Mosque in rural Granger, Friday prayers were downright sleepy compared to the joyous, boisterous crowds that normally fill the space for end-of-the-week worship.
Spahić and a handful of board members found seats socially distant from one another as board president, Elvedin Sivac, closed blinds, turned on and off lights, and settled into the front corner, iPhone in place, ready to stream.
Almost immediately, appreciation for the digital service started flowing in, Sivac said, including heartfelt gratitude from a thankful imam in Chicago whose mosque is closed due to the state’s shelter-in-place order. The previous Friday, Sivac recorded only the Khutbah, a teaching sort of like a Christian sermon, but this week, he balanced the phone on a ledge and streamed all the prayers, as well.
“Even if the picture wasn’t great, at least they could hear,” he said.
Taking his place in front of the small gathering, Spahić began the week’s Khutbah. Speaking in Bosnian, he reminded those watching the three most important ways they can affect the flattening of the curve: praying, washing their hands and staying at home.
It’s the last part that has been hardest on his community, especially the elderly. Some of them have prayed with others every Friday for 50 years, so not being in the room is a feeling “more than pain,” he said.
But Spahić has been staying in regular contact, calling them to ensure they are doing well physically, emotionally and spiritually. Even though they all might feel a bit unmoored, Spahić's community — one that literally survived genocide — understands deeply this, too, will pass, he said.
“As Bosnians, we faced death,” he said. “The people who came (to) Des Moines, they came with one bag. And we established our lives and our families and worked very hard.”
“Sometimes, we cannot see, but, tomorrow, we will see that the situation will be better,” he added. “And God will help us if we continue to take care of each other.”
Brian Powers and Kelsey Kremer are visual journalists at the Des Moines Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @bpowersphoto. Reach her at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @kelsey_kremer.