'A hunger for belonging': How faith communities are finding new ways to come together

Suburban faith communities emerging from a three-year pandemic that made them pivot from in-person worship to virtual sermons and livestreamed services now are finding new ways to connect with their congregations.

With the public health emergency phase of the COVID-19 pandemic over, faith leaders have been focusing on rebuilding community and bringing the faithful back into houses of worship.

“The pandemic awakened our faith communities to a reality that's been present even before ... for decades, we have seen reducing numbers of people going to churches,” said Bishop Robert Casey, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Chicago. “The pandemic also brought to light a hunger in society for belonging, a desire to feel like you are part of something more, a desire for something that has purpose and meaning. That's an opportunity for our churches.”

Here's how five suburban congregations of different faiths are bringing people back.

Coming together

Congregation Kneseth Israel in Elgin was among the early adopters of Zoom video conferencing for services before the statewide stay-at-home order went into effect on March 21, 2020, banning public gatherings.

“When I think about what we did creatively those first few months ... we kept an entire congregation together with a laptop,” said Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein.

This year, leaders are focusing on coming together in a hybrid setting.

“It's always about meeting people where they are and people have different understandings of what is important to them,” Klein said.

The pandemic led to increased social isolation and sparked a rise in domestic violence, mental health issues and alcoholism, Klein said.

“In talking to people all summer about what community is, it really seems to be about connectedness,” Klein said.

Relational Judaism is all about building personal relationships among congregants and with the larger community, she added.

“The wider community aspect of it is really important particularly in this age of rising antisemitism,” Klein said. “Slow church is about building the community one person, one story at a time.”

From pews to parking lots

St. Joseph Catholic Church in Libertyville was among the first suburban parishes to livestream Sunday services and implement drive-in Masses — moving congregants from the pews to the parking lot.

“It was a significant amount of change and it's still evolving,” said the Rev. John Trout. “We've looked at new ways in becoming more community oriented.”

This year, the church hosted 25 backyard Masses with small groups of parishioners and knocked on doors urging people to return.

“From there, we develop relationships bringing them back into the faith,” Trout said. “Clergy people are either in management or in sales. After the pandemic we need to shift to being in sales. That means building relationships and rebuilding community.”

The church launched a new welcome ministry with more than 150 volunteers engaging attendees during Masses, built and delivered 1,600 beds for children in need, expanded its food pantry and grew its social media presence on four platforms and started a podcast.

“We've increased our social media engagement 659% since January,” Trout said.

Food and faith

Food — a universal tool for bringing people together — is a major part of the Sikh Religious Society of Palatine's ministry.

The gurdwara has taken its langar (communal kitchen) meal service to another level since the pandemic. During the lockdown, volunteers distributed hundreds of to-go meals daily to members and people in need within the larger community.

“They make langar for a couple of hundred people every day,” said Rajinder Singh Mago, the society's external relations coordinator. Roughly 2,000 people partake of the langar on Sundays.

“Sikhism has always been community-oriented,” said son Satnaam Singh Mago, a youth outreach mentor. “Every gurdwara has an industrialized kitchen that can feed tens of thousands of people every day, if need be. We firmly believe that food is a human right.”

Technology and mental health

Technology has made scholars and preachers far more accessible to congregants like never before, said Imam Hassan Aly, who leads prayers at The Mecca Center in Willowbrook.

Observing Ramadan during that first year of the pandemic shutdown particularly was difficult, but Aly said the community got through it with online sermons and members performing congregational prayers with their families at home while connecting to the mosque virtually.

Aly said technology not only helped grow the mosque's audience, but also allowed leaders to provide virtual counseling services.

“The pandemic highlighted the importance of mental health, prompting faith communities to provide more resources for mental and emotional well-being,” Aly said. “(Previously) many mosques did not really touch this area because in many ways there is a stigma ... with regard to mental health.”

Return to rituals

At BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir of Chicago in Bartlett, in-person rituals, religious ceremonies and attendance have resumed to pre-pandemic levels, yet virtual services still are an option.

“We've gone back to a fairly normal schedule,” said Anand Soni, a volunteer on the temple community outreach team. “We started to open up darshan (viewing the image of a deity) during the early part of COVID so people could book time slots and offer their devotion.

“Rituals and performing of pujas (worship) and ceremonies, it's a very pivotal part of the Hindu practice so people enjoy when they are able to come to the mandir.”

Since 1892, Congregation Kneseth Israel has been the heart of the Jewish community in the Fox River Valley. The synagogue is celebrating its 130th anniversary this month. Courtesy Congregation Kneseth Israel
Members of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Libertyville celebrate Mass in the park. This year, the church has celebrated backyard Masses as a tool to reach out to the community to encourage a return to worship. Courtesy of St. Joseph Catholic Church
Rajinder Singh Mago
Satnaam Singh Mago
Hassan Aly, imam of The Mecca Center in Willowbrook, delivered virtual sermons during the COVID-19 pandemic. Courtesy of Hassan Aly
Imam Hassan Aly of The Mecca Center in Willowbrook leads an outdoor prayer during the COVID-19 pandemic amid restrictions. Courtesy of Hassan Aly
Anand Soni
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