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Where the faithful gather, new trials call for new innovations

By Tom Baxter

Since 1828, generations of Georgians have gathered every summer at the Salem Camp Ground in Newton County for a week-long immersion in their faith. Families stay in small cabins, called tents in homage to the old days, and fill summer days with sermons, Bible study and fellowship.

Until this summer, the only time the annual Salem Campmeeting wasn’t held was during the Civil War. It was “an incredibly difficult decision to make,” said Sam Ramsey, chair of the Salem board of directors. “But, in light of the overall need for the safety and well being of our multi-generational participants and the safety of our neighbors in the Salem community where we meet each year, we felt it was the right decision to make.”

There’s no reason to doubt how difficult that decision was. Back in the spring, there were a spate of stories about preachers who defied social distancing orders, followed by stories about preachers who got sick. That was only the shallow part of a larger story about the wrenching choices which the pandemic has forced on religious organizations across the board. All religious organizations have the common purpose of congregating, of gathering together the faithful to reinforce their common beliefs. The pandemic has made it hard to square that purpose with the safety of the community.

“The coronavirus quickly exposed just how little of Jewish life can actually operate without groups of people gathered in physical space,” Armin Rosen wrote recently in a piece for Tablet magazine.  Much the same could be said about Christian and Muslim life in the United States.

“Churches have been remarkable partners in the fight again the coronavirus, with the vast majority closing their gatherings all around the country. Yes, there have been a few outliers, but their paucity demonstrates the cooperation of churches with officials throughout this pandemic,” Ed Stetzer, director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, wrote in Christianity Today. His column was in response to a New York Times article about the links between churches and coronavirus outbreaks.

In reality, the response of religious organizations to the pandemic has been almost as varied as their doctrinal differences, from simple denial to pragmatic precaution, to innovative new thinking about how to practice their beliefs.

In the 20th Century, the radio and later television changed the practice of religion in this country. The technology employed to get through the current crisis may work similar changes, and even offer solutions to old problems, like members who have moved away from a church but still want to be a part of it.

For smaller groups wary of becoming targets, such as the hard-hit Hasidic Jewish communities around New York City, the pandemic has renewed problems of how open to be with the outside world.

“It slipped in on us,” Kelvin Page, lead pastor at Westmore Church of God in Cleveland, Tenn., said last week. An outbreak after a June 22 regional worship at the church has spread to other churches in the area and the world headquarters of the denomination, which is also located in Cleveland. ”It came in through the music ministry. It’s nobody’s fault. In fact that morning, as we did every week, temperatures were taken before choir members would go to the stage, and somehow it slipped in on us. I have to take responsibility for that.” But Page said in a radio interview he could no longer keep track of how many infections came from contacts at the church.

Across the country, there have been Facebook prayer meetings and telephone prayer lines for members unaccustomed to the online world. Although the Salem Campmeeting won’t be meeting on the grounds this year, it is offering Bible study video conferences and prerecorded sermons and music at www.salemcampmeeting.org.

“I wouldn’t call this a cancellation of campmeeting,” Ramsey said in the group’s press release. “We’re not meeting in person and it’s going to look a lot different, but we will still gather. Our ancestors who started this tradition could have never imagined what we can do today with technology, and thankfully that technology will help us gather for fellowship and worship in some form this year.”

Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.


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