The Rev. Larry Toschi, a Catholic priest at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, has been dealing with a lot of frustration and disappointment lately.
He was supposed to celebrate a Mass in honor of a young parishioner’s quinceañera this weekend. It got canceled and she was devastated.
A woman recently called him seeking comfort after her son died. Normally, the priest would go to be with her, but Toschi could only say prayers with her over the phone.
Mass is canceled until further notice. First Communion and confirmations scheduled for the coming months will be postponed.
"They’re calling us all sissies," Toschi said with a laugh, referring to the many parishioners he's heard from who don't want Mass and church life to grind to a halt.
"They’re seeing it as being (done) out of a lack of faith," Toschi said. "It’s really out of love for all the people, for their well-being, even physically."
At a time when some feel fellowship and spiritual connection is needed most, nearly all religious services and gatherings have been canceled or postponed out of concerns over the new coronavirus. Beyond the weekly ritual, many Christians are trying to comprehend what the Easter holiday will be like with no church service to attend. But church leaders say they are taking necessary precautions to protect their flocks and the wider public, even as they strive for alternative ways to meet their spiritual needs.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno announced the cancellation of all services and meetings and the closure of most churches last week. But now that Gov. Gavin Newsom has ordered residents throughout the state to stay home until further notice, some are coming to terms with the fact that their faith lives, like work and school and sports, have to shift during this time.
Ryan Renz, a teacher and coach at Liberty High who attends a local Catholic church with his family, said he understood why church has to shut down.
"I think they’re doing the right thing," he said. "It’s kind of like we’re all making a sacrifice at this point and that’s the ultimate one — to not be able to go to church."
‘ACCEPTANCE IS THE ANSWER’
Even the way people mourn the dead — which is so closely linked to faith and spirituality — has changed.
John Basham, owner of Basham Funeral Care, which has four locations in Kern, said no services are being held inside mortuary chapels or any local churches right now. Indeed, the Fresno Diocese announced no memorial services will be held until further notice.
Graveside service is possible but Basham said it must be limited to immediate family only — parents, siblings, children and grandparents — and no more than 10 people. An additional 40 people are allowed in the cemetery but must keep their distance from the graveside. Likewise, funeral viewings are done by allowing no more than 10 people in at a time, he said, allowing one person to enter as one leaves.
Families could opt to put off a funeral until the limitations are lifted, Basham said. Funeral care facilities like Basham's have the ability to hold the deceased body for a period of time.
"But the challenge with that is we have two pandemics. We have the coronavirus and the pandemic of anxiety. If we just wait and postpone the services indefinitely, that just adds to the pandemic of anxiety. And so we’re encouraging families to get the closure, so that does not add to the anxiety," Basham said.
Basham also tries to convince people not to do things that are only natural when grieving — hug each other, hold each other.
It hasn't been easy but Basham said he tries to help families understand it's the best way to proceed for now.
"We’re encouraging people to have acceptance. Right now, acceptance is the answer," he said.
One saving grace for the local faithful has been technology, which is allowing church services to be streamed online. At St. John's Lutheran Church, Pastor Eric Van Scharrel said his church scrambled in the past week to get equipment to record its services and so far it's been well-received online.
“We've gotten really good engagement. We’ve gotten probably more people engaged than we would even have gathered on Sunday morning," he said.
People from as far away as North Carolina, Texas, Canada and Mexico have watched the services, he said.
His church also has reached out to all of its members over age 65 and compiled a list of members who are ready to help them get groceries or pick up medicine at the pharmacy.
"This is a chance for the church to look out for each other," he said. "Not that many people take us up on it but to know that’s available, we’re a family and nobody is going to let you be alone."
Our Lady of Guadalupe is live streaming daily Mass and Valley Baptist Church also is providing live services on Facebook. Valley Baptist's Sunday morning service also is being aired on Channel 23 today, according to its Facebook page.
Temple Beth El had canceled all its religious education and shut down its day care and members are now mostly communicating online. And Chabad of Bakersfield announced a virtual Hebrew school for children that would be offered worldwide Sunday morning on its Facebook page.
In a video message on Facebook about plans to offer church service online, Valley Baptist Pastor Roger Spradlin put a positive spin on the situation.
"It’s been years before our church has met at the same time," he said. "We’re going to sing together. We’re going to hear God's word together. Ministry has not stopped it's just going to be a little different going forward."
Taschi, of Our Lady of Guadalupe, also has encouraged people to see what's happening — though it may feel chaotic, different and uncontrollable — as a gesture for others.
"We believe our church is very important, and our sacraments are very important, but it’s not the only way God can work," he said. "It’s an act of kindness and charity on our part to (take these precautions) for others."
He said the early church began in people's homes and this period of time away from the usual trappings of Mass, the congregation and Communion may very well reinvigorate people's faith.
"We have to live our faith in our homes for this period," he said. "Eventually it will pass and hopefully people will be stronger and realize their need for God more."