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Sonoma County churches, temples, closed by coronavirus order, turn to internet streaming to reach the faithful

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Rev. Alvin Villaruel, resplendent in his priestly vestments, stood at the altar for a service Friday morning inside the cavernous St. Francis Solano Church in Sonoma, home to a 197-year-old Catholic parish that ministers to about 2,000 families.

There wasn’t a parishioner in the vast rows of wooden pews, yet Villaruel was unperturbed.

“I still felt the presence of the community,” he said. “I imagined they were present, as well.”

The pinging noises Villaruel heard as he offered a prayer to the empty space were proof that people were tapping into his Facebook Live session, a real-time video feature on the popular social media platform.

So it is with religion in Sonoma County, under virtual lockdown to curtail the spread of the coronavirus that has infected 22 people here and more than 1,400 statewide.

Not deemed providers of an essential service like law officers, grocers and refuse collectors, leaders of Catholic, evangelical, Protestant and Jewish congregations have closed their doors — another historic move in an unsettling week — and relied on the internet to sustain their outreach to the faithful.

“These are important times for us,” said Santa Rosa Bishop Robert Vasa, who on Tuesday ordered the closure of all 61 churches and missions in his diocese, a step he surmised is unprecedented in the church of Rome’s 2,000-year history.

Unlike past contagions, the world now knows how a deadly virus passes from person to person, he said. A Catholic church, with thousands of people coming and going, touching hand rails and seats, would be a “vector for contamination,” Vasa said.

So there was Villaruel, a digitally savvy priest with more than 4,000 followers on Facebook, using a laptop computer, with his Samsung f10 smartphone providing a hot spot, to reach the flock he calls a “global parish.”

It was a bit awkward, he said, when the liturgy called for him to say “the Lord be with you” and there was no one to say, in response, “and with your spirit.”

Villaruel said he had no qualms with the state and county shutdown orders because having people stay at home is saving lives — “a noble mission.”

His Facebook Live session drew 72 likes, 40 comments, 10 shares and 260 views.

Rich Cundall, lead pastor at Hessel Church south of Sebastopol, shuttered the home for his evangelical congregation March 12 following the Sonoma County health officer’s recommendation to cancel nonessential indoor meetings of 50 or more people.

“We felt we needed to be part of the solution,” Cundall said, noting that his Sunday services draw as many as 700 people.

The church has been streaming Sunday services online since 2012 as a “way we can connect with people,” the pastor said.

Cundall recorded his upcoming sermon Thursday night and it was being edited Friday for broadcast at 10:15 a.m. Sunday. Starting Monday, Hessel will be streaming a daily devotional message.

The church has called its senior members to see if they need assistance and added a page to its website — hessel.org/together — with information on coronavirus and two tabs: “I need help” and “I can help.”

When epidemics struck during the time of the Roman Empire, prompting people to flee from cities, Christians went into cities to care for the sick, Cundall said.

“We’re not canceling the church,” he said. “The Bible tells us the church is not a building. The church is the people who love Jesus. This is our time.”

Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa closed the doors to its hilltop synagogue over a week ago, Rabbi George Gittleman said. The congregation of about 450 families has been streaming services for several years, but now has an empty sanctuary.

“It’s lonely not to have the community there, but it’s great to serve and connect with people,” he said.

Last weekend Shomrei Torah streamed Friday night’s Shabbat service, Saturday morning’s Torah study and a mindfulness meditation session Sunday afternoon. With help from his daughter, Sophia, Gittleman intended to use Zoom, a videoconferencing program, to capture Saturday’s study session on the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, considered the most important document of Judaism.

Given the current emphasis on frequent hand washing as a key defense against COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus, Gittleman noted that pouring water over the hands and saying a blessing before a meal is Jewish spiritual practice dating back about three millennia.

People need spiritual sustenance “now more than ever,” he said.

“Try to do things that are self-soothing and if you have a spiritual nature now is a great time to lean on it,” the rabbi said. “Compassion is really the best response to hard times. Try to be kind to each other.”

Rev. Lindsey Bell-Kerr, who divides her time between First United Methodist Church and Christ Church United Methodist, both mainline Protestant congregations in Santa Rosa, has taken self-isolation seriously, remaining at home since the churches closed Tuesday.

Bell-Kerr planned to upload her sermon to YouTube Saturday night and send links to both of the congregations. She is also working on a midweek devotional time on Zoom.

Internet connections are more important than ever, she said, adding that the Methodist congregations are especially concerned for the well-being of people “who live alone and may be isolated at this time.”

Christ Church operates a food pantry on Thursdays that had been run mostly by volunteers over 65 and is now turning to younger help, Bell-Kerr said. First United has converted its Tuesday night sit-down dinner for homeless people to a brown-bag food distribution outside the church.

Both churches have safe parking for homeless people that used to function overnight and is now used around the clock, she said.

“Do the practices that you need to ground yourself,” Bell-Kerr advised, such as prayer, meditation or yoga.

“Reach out to loved ones, and folks who might not have anyone else to talk to,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner

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