St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston prides itself on a strong tradition of choir music. When Thom Walstrom moved to the city with his wife a decade ago, he chose to start attending St. Luke’s in part because he loved the music.
“I think the best way to describe the approach at St. Luke’s is that it’s beautiful, and it’s a beautiful space with beautiful music,” Walstrom said. “And the beauty we create worshiping together, brings me closer to God and, and I think that’s what keeps me going.”
It feels harder for Walstrom to access the beauty of the services now that they’ve been moved online.
“It’s been frustrating,” Walstrom said. “I thought we were done with a pandemic last summer.”
Religious organizations, including St. Luke’s, have been exempt from some COVID-19 mandates, including vaccine requirements for entry. But such exemptions left faith leaders and their followers in the precarious position of determining how to worship safely.
That burden was amplified with the arrival of the omicron variant this winter. Some houses of worship went to online-only services while others opted for a hybrid online and in-person model. Each congregation is different, but they share a common experience: flipping to-and-from worshiping in the same physical space to at home. Despite such obstacles, congregations and their followers have found there are some silver linings to the frustration and loneliness of worshiping during an isolating pandemic.
Beth Emet Free Synagogue is just one example.
Beth Emet Director of Operations Geoff Prass said the synagogue had to start offering an online option again at the start of the year because omicron was impacting attendance.
“It was going down, in effect a combination of the current influx as well as just the natural Midwestern it’s really cold outside on a Friday night situation,” Prass said.
Prass said this also leads to complicated social interactions.
“It’s having to enforce sometimes something as simple as making sure that a mask is on properly and having to be that person that said to an 85-year-old person, ‘Can you please pull up your mask?’ It’s hard,” Prass said.
COVID mitigation efforts can also add financial obstacles. Houses of worship trying to adhere to restrictions have spent money to provide equipment like thermometers and disposable masks.
“There’s been a financial investment in terms of both the technology of thermometers and hand sanitizer, but also updating live streaming and the personnel required for that as well as the technology and researching all of those things,” St. Luke’s Rector Kat Banaskis explained. “And the determination of what makes sense for our community and building in terms of air exchange rates and sanitization.”
Banakis said wanting to prioritize the health of her community, as well as their mental and spiritual needs, was difficult.
Still, the constant change has presented worshipers a chance to grow in their faith.
Keyal Abbullah Peebles describes herself as an “in-person person.” She prefers to worship at Masjid Al-Taqwa in-person if the option were available.
“Zoom hasn’t been a favorite of mine in the beginning, or even before even prior to even prior to the shutdown,” Peebles said.
The mosque, like many houses of worship in Chicagoland, moved from strictly online services at the beginning of the pandemic in spring 2020 to a hybrid version with outdoor services once the weather warmed up. With omicron on the scene, Masjid Al-Taqwa is back to online-only worship.
Peebles said being by herself on Zoom has forced her to confront silence in a new way.
“There was no more distractions and I was a person of distractions moving through distractions completely got cut off,” Peebles said. “Like the two year just got cut off for me. There was no more distractions. You ain’t going nowhere. There’s no place to go.”
With no place to go, she dug deeper into discomfort. She said the isolation of the pandemic made her grow closer to Allah and to herself in ways she did not expect.
“I got okay with being uncomfortable,” Peebles said. “Maybe I needed the whole two-plus years to be able to now be comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
Although Peebles and Walstrom said worshiping online isn’t ideal, they used the struggles to create new patterns that ultimately improved their prayer lives.
While it was disappointing that the pandemic didn’t end last summer, Walstrom said it opened the door for him to deepen his faith practice.
“I started new routines and one of the new routines I started was, I started every day with prayer, meditation and exercise just to begin the day,” Walstrom said.
Such adjustments may help congregants in the future as Banakis said online worship is here to stay to some extent.
“We are open for business 24/7, and I don’t see that going in reverse,” Banakis said. “For people to be able to dip their toe in and experiment with us to see if this might be a good fit in a way that they wouldn’t have otherwise.”
She said having an online option creates a lower bar of entry for people who may be curious about St. Luke’s.
“The pandemic encouraged us to find ways to worship outside to worship in smaller settings,” Banakis said. “And I don’t know that we would have ever left the walls of the building, physically or virtually, had that not been an opportunity.”
Adora Namigadde is a metro reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @adorakn.