Local religious services cancelled or held online in response to virus

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WALLINGFORD — Religious services are being canceled or held online as faith leaders try to strike a balance between spiritual well being and public health as new cases of coronavirus are detected in Connecticut.

Standing before rows of mostly empty chairs and a video camera set up opposite the stage, the Rev. Will Marotti, of New Life Church in Wallingford, reminded his congregation this wasn’t the first time of uncertainty they weathered together. For the first time in its history, the church told its members to watch the Sunday sermon on Facebook Live and sing along to the music from their homes.

Saying his church centers on worshipping alongside his fellow believers, Marotti said it was a “very difficult decision because many of our people wanted to meet … the essence of Christian faith is to meet.”

Marotti said the church was focused on trying to hold as normal a service as they could Sunday, to reassure the congregation that there will be a return to normal. During his sermon, he encouraged members to call into the church throughout the week to keep its community in solidarity.

“For people who are religious, particularly people who are Christian, what more important (time) to activate your faith and trust than a time of crisis?” Marotti said.

The church’s administration, which is non-denominational, will be meeting weekly and conferring with state health officials to determine if future services are safe to be held. Only the church’s support staff, around 30 members, were at the church Sunday, well short of more than 700 people who typically attend the three services.

Kris Bellemare, New Life’s family care pastor, said many in the congregation were disappointed when the decision was announced Saturday morning, however, they recognized that it’s important to protect the health of members who are elderly or have compromised immune systems. The church has long held a live stream of its services, but this was the first time they canceled the in-person service.

“I’m really excited that we have the technology to still have church even remotely,” he said, noting that people can still have some measure of community by commenting.

As of Saturday afternoon, 20 people in Connecticut had tested positive for coronavirus and schools and large gatherings across the state had been canceled. The CDC reported 1,629 confirmed cases nationally and 41 deaths as of Friday afternoon.

Temple Beth David in Cheshire has suspended its religious school until March 31 and will not hold Shabbat services until April 3, according to its website.

The Rev. Mike Brunjes, of Christ Presbyterian Church in Wallingford, said their administration felt a responsibility to protect the health of their members and the wider Wallingford community by not holding a service at the church at all. Instead Brunjes and the church’s music leader met at his home and live streamed a sermon from there.

“We took into consideration the decisions that the schools were making and …. then I started really reading more intently the information out there about … flattening the curve,” he said, referencing the notion of slowing the virus’ spread.

Prior to canceling the service outright on Friday, the church planned to reduce the amount of contact worshippers had to engage in by having the offerings basket left on a table by the entrance, rather than passed through the pews, and by having Brunjes wear gloves and pass out the communion wafers in lieu of congregants reaching into a basket to take them.

“As a church we are very much here for our community,” he said, “and that we want to love people like Jesus has loved us and that means making certain sacrifices for the good of others.”

The Rev. Will Marotti, of New Life Church in Wallingford, gives his sermon on March 15, 2020. The church asked all non-staff members to stay home and watch a live stream of the Sunday service to help stanch the spread of the coronavirus. | Devin Leith-Yessian/Record-Journal

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