Faith in the face of fear: How spirituality is helping Steamboat residents cope with COVID-19
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — For Tim Selby, pastor at the Heart of Steamboat United Methodist Church, nearly every aspect of his life has been upended in a matter of weeks.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, he has not been able to host Sunday services within the chapel of the church. Out of concern for his elderly parents’ health, the pastor has been forced to keep ample distance between himself and others, including his own congregants.
Despite the disruptions, one thing has not changed. Every Sunday morning at the corner of Eighth and Oak streets, he rings the church bell, more than 100 years old, and lets the chimes echo through the neighborhood in downtown Steamboat Springs.
“For us, the bell is a symbol of hope and good faith,” Selby said.
A beacon of hope
In times of hardship, many turn to their religion for comfort and community. With churches shuttered, people have reverted to virtual platforms like video chats and phone calls to support one another and continue to practice their faith.
Some of the most important holidays for religions around the world occur in April: Easter for Christianity, Passover for Judaism and Ramadan for Islam. But due to concerns over social gatherings, congregations have been forced to cancel planned celebrations on top of regular services. These, too, are being replaced with virtual celebrations, reminding people they are not alone although they cannot be together in person.
The Heart of Steamboat has been hosting online services at 10 a.m. every Sunday. People can follow the services live on the church’s Facebook page or watch them later. Last weekend’s sermon received almost 1,000 views, whereas a typical Sunday service attracted about 200 people, according to Selby.
“There is definitely a lot more viewership than when in person,” he said.
Other church gatherings, such as Bible studies and breakfast groups, meet over video conferences.
“It helps people to feel connected when we are in a time of isolation,” Selby said. “We can share our fears, our anxieties, our struggles.”
Congregants also share messages of hope and silver linings they find amid the mayhem, such as opportunities to slow down and focus more on family. Some members have been helping with food drives for LiftUp of Routt County.
The Heart of Steamboat United Methodist Church Foundation, which supports nonprofits, is in the process of allocating over $14,000 to local organizations.
For Selby, these acts of goodwill in the face of adversity get at the very heart of Christianity. It serves as a daily reminder of the importance of faith in his life and the lives of his congregants.
“We are reminded that the Judeo-Christian story so often is a story of people finding hope and life in the midst of difficult circumstances,” he said.
To spread positive messages beyond the church, Selby’s congregation has started what they are calling a “virtual parade of hope.” The purpose is to find creative ways of writing the word “hope” around Steamboat. On Wednesday, Selby and his wife wrote the word in large letters on their street. Then a snow storm hit.
“We got up, and it was gone,” Selby said.
The unfortunate turn of events has served as a lesson to remain steadfast when faced with unforeseeable setbacks, to have the gumption to pick up and start again. His family has since strung lights on the side of their garage in the shape of the word, which Selby hopes can weather future storms.
People can send their own submissions for the virtual parade of hope to email@example.com.
A confrontation with suffering
For many, the days of social isolation and self-quarantine have been opportunities to invest more time in one’s own spiritual practice.
Marchele McCarthy has practiced Buddhism for about 20 years and been a longtime member of the local Buddhist Center. The group usually meets on the west end of Steamboat every Monday for a meditation gathering, but those meetings have transitioned online for the foreseeable future.
In addition to the mediation sessions, the group’s founder, Tim Olstead, has been leading discussions on how the congregation can use the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to open their hearts to others, a primary tenant of Buddhism.
The last couple of weeks have deepened McCarthy’s personal practice, making her mediation sessions — a time to create mental space to hold the vast emotions washing over her — feel especially poignant. The crisis also has reminded her how grateful she is for her husband and children with whom she has weathered these uncertain times.
“It’s ironic that being in isolation, we feel more connected,” McCarthy said.
A psychotherapist, she has incorporated some of the secular elements of Buddhism into her sessions, which have been carried out online amid the pandemic. She encourages her clients to look inward and confront the negative emotions they face. Doing so, she said, can reduce feelings of stress and anxiety by dealing with suffering rather than avoiding it.
Olstead, who has led the Buddhist Center for more than 20 years, believes his faith can serve as a guide through these dark times. As a senior instructor for the international Tergar Meditation Community, he has hosted online lectures teaching people how to respond to the pandemic with clarity and compassion, both for themselves and others.
“The essential teaching is that we are all completely connected to each other. We depend on each other, literally, including for our very lives,” he said.
On a local level, his group has started what congregants are calling a “Tonglen Practice Challenge.” As Olstead explained, Tonglen is an ancient exercise meant to relieve suffering of others, a process of taking in and sending out. For five minutes each day, one invites in the pain from the rest of the world, then releases sentiments of healing and goodwill.
“By inviting in what we otherwise try to keep away, what we are afraid of becomes something less terrifying,” Olstead explained. “There is no longer anything to be afraid of, basically. It opens us to the world.”
To create joy amid the current crisis, McCarthy and her family participate in nightly sing-a-longs that have been performed throughout Routt County in recent days.
“It’s so precious. It usually turns into a dance party, “ she said.
A founder of the interfaith group Exploring the Sacred, McCarthy is leading a virtual discussion April 16 that will feature a diverse panel of local religious leaders who will talk about ways to respond in healthy ways to the coronavirus pandemic.
A virtual feast
In mid-March, when Gov. Jared Polis issued restrictions on public gatherings, including religious events, the local Jewish community faced a troubling dilemma. April 8 marks the beginning of Passover, the most celebrated holiday of the year for Jews across the world.
Rabbi Scott Segal of the Har Mishpacha Jewish congregation in Steamboat, described Passover as a celebration of freedom that commemorates the salvation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt.
The eight-day holiday typically is a time for families to gather, share stories, recite scriptures and enjoy the Seder feast. Now, it seems many will have to cancel their Passover plans, leaving some at home all alone.
In the wake of this harsh reality, many are hosting virtual Seder dinners.
Joella West, a longtime member of Har Mishpacha, attended a video conference Friday that offered tips on organizing Passover celebrations online.
“There are probably hundreds of these things going on around the world,” West said.
Rabbi Segal’s family is organizing an after-party at 8 p.m. April 8, the first night of Passover. More than ever, he believes the best thing people can do is to be there for others, particularly those who may not have anyone else to lean on.
“We are fortunate in this time to have the technology we do to be able to do these kind of things,” Segal said. “It provides opportunities for people to be together, if not physically.”
Ahead of the holiday, he is posting tutorials on how people can lead the different parts of the Seder, since many will be leading the feast for the first time. Information is available at the congregation’s Facebook page and website: http://www.harmishpacha.org/new-events.
For West, her religion is not necessarily a way to find answers amid the current chaos. She knows that no one can predict what will happen in the weeks and months ahead. Having a community of faith helps her to face the unknowns and to remind herself there is light beyond the darkness, even if she cannot see it yet.
“There are certainly no answers for our congregation or anywhere in the world,” West said. “It’s just a matter of trying get through it.”
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The pandemic is wearing on a lot of people, especially frontline health care workers like Whittany Keating, a registered nurse at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs.