CHEYENNE – As congregation members gathered at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Cheyenne last Sunday, they knew it might be their last chance to worship together for a while.
Just a few days removed from Wyoming seeing its first case of the coronavirus March 11, the state had yet to issue a closure of many public spaces, but uncertainty hovered over the service. Nonetheless, the congregation carried on with its normal traditions, aside from a few off-script deviations by church minister the Rev. Hannah Roberts Villnave to discuss plans for the coming weeks.
“There were some people in the room where you could feel the air being sucked out of the room almost,” Villnave said. “It was just really hard to look around and know that this would be our last time together, and to know it was about to be a really difficult time for all of us.”
The sense of unease has not been unique to Villnave’s congregation. With the state facing a public health emergency brought on by COVID-19, faith communities across Cheyenne are looking to maintain intimacy while keeping their distance.
Pews will be empty in virtually every place of worship in Cheyenne over the next couple weeks – and potentially much longer. But that won’t stop people from continuing to practice in both traditional and new ways.
Take Cheyenne Hills, one of several churches offering a livestreamed service in place of in-person gatherings for the next two weeks. Over the last couple weeks, church staff have created a podcast for those who are isolated and seeking some guidance.
“We’ve had several listen to the podcast already who just had great ideas on how to structure your day, how to stay connected with your kids, and then my wife and I did one on marriage,” Cheyenne Hills Senior Pastor Galen Huck said. “You’re basically saying, ‘Hunker down, but also work on some things that are really important.’”
On top of their new podcast, the church has seen a substantial rise in its livestreaming activity. Cheyenne Hills already had a livestream to accommodate military members who might be elsewhere, and it typically gets around 300 viewers. Last weekend, as many began to stay home, more than 2,000 people tuned in.
“It’s definitely reaching our crowd,” Huck said. “In fact, it’s reaching even more than we ever, ever thought even possible.”
The world’s sudden turn has come in the buildup to some world religions’ biggest celebrations, including Passover and Easter. Dave Lerner, board president of the Mount Sinai Synagogue in Cheyenne, said the community-wide Passover Seder slated for April 8 has been canceled, and the synagogue’s Friday services have been suspended indefinitely.
“I don’t think in the 110-year history of the synagogue have those ever been canceled,” Lerner said of the Friday services.
The synagogue won’t be livestreaming its services for the foreseeable future, however, largely out of observance of Shabbat, a day of rest in Judaism. Many observant Jews refrain from using electricity during that period, which lasts from nightfall Friday until nightfall Saturday.
“Our services take place at seven in the evening (Friday),” Lerner said. “Later in the year, when the sunset is later, we may be able to do it with streaming, but for now, our rabbi decided it was not a good idea.”
As faith leaders grapple with how to best stay in touch with their congregants, other aspects of in-person worship will also disappear. With her congregation at Unitarian Universalist Church, Villnave will lead the singing on the livestreams, and she’s encouraged others to join in, but keep their computers muted.
“(With muted mics), we don’t get the delightful cacophony that happens when people try to sing over an internet lag,” Villnave said wryly.
The closure of Cheyenne’s churches also comes just a few weeks before Easter on April 12. Villnave’s church has already suspended its in-person gatherings for the next eight weeks, while most others have committed to two-week closures with plans to continue monitoring the situation.
In the meantime, faith leaders are trying to keep open a few essential services for those most in need. For example, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings will continue at First United Methodist Church of Cheyenne for the foreseeable future.
“While we all need personal contact, they absolutely have to have it,” FUMC senior pastor the Rev. Mark Marston said of meeting attendants. “(The current reality) can exacerbate what can already be a difficult situation, so it is a calculated risk.”
Multiple faith communities in Cheyenne are also active with Family Promise, an organization that provides support to children and families experiencing homelessness. Several leaders interviewed for this story mentioned their desire to continue supporting the organization as it tries to meet growing community needs.
Christopher Xanthos, presiding priest of Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church, said it’s been beautiful to see the people of Cheyenne helping one another through the pandemic. His church will continue to monitor messages from the governor and from the CDC, but Xanthos was optimistic for the future.
“The church has faced plagues and pandemic and war and civil strife and all of these great challenges in its 2,000-year history,” he said. “We just look forward to the day of coming back together, probably more than ever, in the church and worshiping in the services.”