How Some Bushwick Houses of Worship Weathered the Pandemic

“Church and community is very much about being together, so online services only met a certain aspect of the need,” Pastor Daniel Klaus told Bushwick Daily.

Klaus is the senior pastor at Ridgewood Baptist Church, which merged with Calvary Life Brooklyn last January. The church now offers in-person services again, though they continue to livestream for those who can’t be physically present.

Houses of worship, which often serve as community centers and places of gathering, were forced to shut their doors during the height of the pandemic. As the city gradually returns to normal, the majority seem to be holding hybrid services, with both in-person and virtual offerings.

Churches in the Diocese of Brooklyn, including St. Barbara’s and St. Joseph Patron Roman Catholic Churches among others in Bushwick, were allowed to re-open for mass on June 29 of last year. This June, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio lifted capacity limits and social distancing regulations.

St. Barbara’s Roman Catholic Church, on Bleecker Street, is one of many churches in the Diocese of Brooklyn.

However, not all houses of worship have reopened. The Mount of Olives Seventh-Day Adventist Church, for instance, is still operating on Zoom. They have a tentative reopening date in late September. Elder Marilyn Hendrickson estimated that pre-pandemic attendance to Sabbath services used to be about 300 people, but that being online for so long had decreased that attendance by about 50 percent.

According to Reverend Vince Anderson, the pandemic has induced multiple permanent changes to Bushwick Abbey, an Episcopal church and English-speaking counterpart to Iglesia de la Santa Cruz. These changes include increased membership, which he believes came from an escalated “need for community and spiritual uplift” during quarantine, and greater food distribution efforts, as the church saw a surge in need among neighbors.

Bushwick Abbey formed just a few years ago, when those at Iglesia de la Santa Cruz noticed “artists and young white people moving in” to the neighborhood and “worked with the diocese to have two parishes” to address the changing needs of the community.

The two churches share a ministry and host bilingual services four times a year. During the height of the pandemic, both hosted services on Zoom and offered daily online events, such as a weekday prayer on Instagram.

Iglesia de la Santa Cruz and Bushwick Abbey are Episcopalian churches who share a location and serve Spanish-speaking and English-speaking congregations, respectively.

To Anderson, the daily virtual gatherings helped “to provide that space for people to have a part of their day not be filled with dread or work or loneliness, to have a space they know that they could come to.”

Not all houses of worship were able to offer virtual services during the height of the pandemic. For example, as Rabbi Menachem Heller from the Chabad of Bushwick told Bushwick Daily, the traditional synagogue’s observance of Shabbat prevents the use of electronics on Friday evenings and Saturdays, so traditional Shabbat dinners and Kiddush services could not be held on Zoom.

As such, the Chabad re-opened for these services as soon as it was legally able to, in June of 2020, though they remained strict about social distancing and offered to-go Shabbat dinners. Though it has been over a year since in-person services resumed, Heller notes that in person attendance is still half of what it used to be.

He attributes this, in part, to the changing population of Bushwick: many of their regulars moved away during the pandemic and are not living in the neighborhood anymore.

Anderson noted the same phenomena when talking about Bushwick Abbey’s “young and transient congregation,” many of whom left Bushwick last year. However, since the church held Zoom services over quarantine and now offers hybrid services, people who have moved away can remain “involved in the mission and vision of the church even though they might be remote.”

Bushwick Abbey and Iglesia de la Santa Cruz intend to keep this hybrid format moving forward. Though Anderson says it felt slightly “dystopian” at first, with only a handful of people attending in-person, now about half of the congregation is physically present at services. In addition, they’ve installed a camera so that the people who choose to be on Zoom can be see the rest of the congregation, which he says adds immensely “to the energy of the room.”

Mural on the side of the United Methodist Church located on Knickerbocker Ave.

As the city emerges from the pandemic, houses of worship have a new landscape to navigate, adapting to a variety of lasting consequences like hybrid services and changes in membership. But after months of challenges and isolation, there is also perhaps a renewed sense of the role these spaces serve in the community.

Pastor Klaus remarked that, more than anything, the pandemic “reminded us of the importance of community and being there for each other.”

All photos courtesy of Paige Cromley.

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