As both friends and colleagues who lead faith communities, Michael Knopf and David Dwight have been focused not only on leading their congregations through the COVID-19 pandemic these last few months, but also on providing hope.
Knopf, rabbi at the 800-member Temple Beth-El, and Dwight, senior pastor at Hope Church, which sees about 2,300 people over its four Sunday services, are trying to figure out how to best navigate the uncharted waters of providing community and safety for their flocks as the state and country begin to reopen.
Outside of Richmond, churches in the region were allowed to gather at 50% capacity beginning last weekend, though many chose not to reopen for in-person services. In the city, the Phase One opening Gov. Ralph Northam put in place won’t begin for at least another week after Mayor Levar Stoney asked the governor to delay it in Richmond.
It’s a complex and seemingly counterintuitive state for churches, synagogues and houses of worship, which are designed for physical gatherings — places to worship as a body of believers. They are also safe havens — not just spiritually, but also physically.
Worshiping together on one hand unites the body; but coming back too soon during the coronavirus could be harmful to that same body.
“Risking people’s health, and also risking being a contributing factor to people possibly contracting and spreading COVID, is a concern,” said Dwight, whose church on Patterson Avenue in Goochland County remains mostly empty as they’ve been worshiping virtually since mid-March. “We really want to be able to gather together since this is such a core aspect of being the church, but doing so in ways that are responsible and reasonable is important to us.
“All to say, we have not made decisions yet, but our current arc tends toward incremental regathering in smaller numbers and possibly doing so outdoors. A small benefit is that we are in the warmer months, so being outdoors is an option.”
At Temple Beth-El, located on Grove Avenue in the city’s Museum District, which is also meeting virtually, Knopf told the Richmond Times-Dispatch last week that he even at 50% capacity, coming together in person felt “unsafe” at this point. “We want to be good stewards of the community,” he said.
“We are already making plans for High Holiday services in the fall that are either fully or mostly virtual,” Knopf said this week.
In the meantime, Knopf and Dwight are still leading their congregations and have shared their thoughts on seeking to help people through the difficulties of life in COVID-19. (The questions and responses have been edited for length and clarity.)
Question: Are you both doing congregational life digitally these days?
Knopf: Yes, we’ve migrated most of our congregation’s work to digital spaces. When it became clear to us that we couldn’t safely gather for worship, learning, or fellowship, we pivoted quickly. We offered our first virtual Friday evening service on March 13 (using the online meeting platform Zoom), and our pre-K through 10th grade religious school went entirely online starting the following Sunday. In the weeks since, we’ve expanded our online offerings dramatically. We’re now holding Saturday morning services, weekday morning and evening services, adult education, and more all online, mostly through Zoom. We’ve also been utilizing email, social media, and other platforms to maintain regular communication with members of the congregation, and to provide a steady stream of meaningful spiritual content.
Dwight: March 15 was our first livestream-only service. This has been a significant change in emphasis for us. In pre-COVID days we still livestreamed our services but the livestream was the secondary element when speaking to a room filled with people. Now that there is no one in the room, we are speaking to a camera as the primary focal point. This has taken some learning and adjusting for us, but I think we’re getting a bit better at it.
Question: What do you find yourself saying in your sermons?
Knopf: I’ve honestly been preaching less frequently than usual. I personally have found delivering a sermon on Zoom, as opposed to speaking in front of an in-person congregation, to be difficult. Instead, I’ve been having “sermon dialogues” with a special guest each week, which have been a lot of fun and have helped diversify the messages, if not the subject matter. It’s been hard not to talk about the pandemic and topics related to the pandemic, because it’s the proverbial elephant in the room. But with a different partner each week, we can explore different aspects and angles because everyone brings their unique expertise, wisdom, and perspective. My guests and I have talked about nourishing our souls in a time of crisis and dealing with anxiety and anger in this moment. We’ve discussed the profound injustices of our society that have been laid bare by the pandemic, and what we are called to do about them as people of faith. And we’ve explored what we should be expecting of our leaders and elected officials right now. My hope, as always, is to muster the wisdom of my tradition to address our most pressing personal and social concerns, and to offer it in such a way that will enable, encourage, and empower those listening to be somehow different for having heard my words.
Dwight: We generally schedule a sermon series months in advance and we make plans accordingly. When the virus hit I wondered if we should adjust the plans to speak directly to the virus. At the same time, our scheduled sermon series right now is called “Character Studies,” and it’s a look at different people in the Bible and how their character grew through challenging times. In a way, it seems perfect for what we are dealing with, so we have kept it in place, seeking to offer some reference points of how the COVID world has pressed in on character development.
Question: Any tips for families whose relationships may be getting stressed?
Dwight: In my family, we have an acronym “EGR,” which stands for “extra grace required.” It’s intended to be a supportive idea when a member of the family is feeling extra stressed. For example, we might say something like, “EGR for Dad, he’s had a lot on his plate.” I have shared with our congregation that this experience with COVID may be a time where we practice EGR for everyone — from the person at the grocery store, to our family members. And then I also thought, “EGR toward all people might be a great thing to practice all the time, why limit it to the COVID times?” Giving our fellow human beings, including ourselves, extra grace might be a nice way to live life.
Knopf: I love what David said, and want to lift it up. In this moment it is so important to be extra gentle with and forgiving of ourselves and each other. This is an unprecedented situation, and I think we’re all trying to do the best we can under profoundly challenging circumstances. So in our home we’re all trying to practice extra grace, as David suggested. My wife and I have also created an imaginary co-worker who we can blame when things go wrong. It’s a little silly, but I guess that’s the point. Karen, as it turns out, is deeply incompetent. Blaming our own and each other’s mess-ups on her allows us to go easier on one another and lower the temperature in moments of conflict. I’m not sure it’s for everyone, but the strategy has helped us.
Question. What do you say to somebody who is battling significant fear or anxiety connected to the virus?
Dwight: I would seek to offer encouragement and support in this, to validate and affirm someone. At the same time, fear may invite us to develop self-control muscles. A remarkable part of being human is that we actually have an ability to override our spontaneous thoughts and feelings by disciplining our thoughts. I’ve sometimes counseled people that “worry is fearing the worst before we have enough information to really know.” In other words, we may have some information that sparks fear narratives that start running. But usually this happens when we don’t actually have the best, most concrete information to actually know. So we can get overtaken with fear that is the result of speculating on what could happen. But we don’t actually know yet. So this can require some self-control, to quell those narratives and stop the thought lines of worst case scenarios. Also, in the Bible, the idea of “daily bread” occurs in a few places. For Christians the most familiar place is likely the Lord’s prayer — “Give us this day our daily bread.” I take this to mean that we are invited to live with God by trusting him for each day, and then tomorrow we will trust him for one day again — and so on. Usually, we can do one day. We can do what needs to be done to move through the needs of one day. It’s when we enter a worst-case-scenario fear narrative of all the days piling up that we may struggle most. When times are hard for someone, you might hear them say, “I’m just taking one day at a time.” That’s wise. We’re in a time where times are hard for virtually everyone.
Knopf: I think it is both natural and understandable to be fearful or anxious right now. I know I am. I’m afraid of getting sick, of loved ones getting sick, of inadvertently infecting others, of making a choice for my community that puts people at risk. I’m nervous about what unknown hardships and dangers lurk in the weeks, months and years ahead. Those fears are real. And in a way, the fear is useful. It can keep us vigilant about our own safety, mindful of others’ well-being, and cautious with our resources. Of course, it can also make us paranoid and paralyzed, self-absorbed and selfish. Better, I think, is to reframe the fear as love. So, how will I encounter each day, each moment, each choice, if I love myself? If I love my family? If I love my neighbors and my community? On a practical level, many of my choices might be the same as they would be if my dominant feeling was fear. But on a psychological and spiritual level, it makes all the difference. And on a moral level, there’s no question as to whether love is preferable to fear. When I’m afraid, I’m inclined to circle the wagons, batten down the hatches, and hoard scarce resources. But if I’m loving, my concern shifts, not only to caring for myself, but to caring for others as well. That, I think, is why the Bible commands us to guard ourselves against the fears that hold us back from living out our purpose while also reminding us we must love our neighbor as ourselves. We can be so much more when we live in love — love of ourselves, and love of our fellows.
Question: What words of hope can you offer us?
Dwight: This is not the first time hard times have happened in the world and it wont be the last. That doesn’t mean it’s not hard, but people have made it through hard times in the past, and we will make it through this. It’s important to be mindful of others, to be kind — and in time, how long we don’t know, this too shall pass. Some favorite verses of mine come from Psalm 27:13-14: “I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.”
Knopf: Hope is at the heart of the Jewish tradition. That may be surprising, given all the hardships the Jewish people have endured over the centuries. But it is actually one of the secrets of our survival. The stubborn persistence of a state of affairs and the intractability of those responsible may present the illusion of inevitability. Yet Jewish tradition insists, and Jewish history affirms, that what we see as impossible is usually just a thing that has not happened yet, and moreover that hopelessness can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Only with a hopeful outlook can hopeful outcomes be achieved. At the same time, it’s important to note that hope is not passive. We can believe all we want that things will be better, but they will never be unless we work to make them so. A bright future is possible, but only if we get to work building it.