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"Today we can take off our mask of false pride,�" said Father Alvin Villaruel during the service then jokingly added that he meant that metaphorically and asked parishioners to keep their masks on during Good Friday liturgy service at St. Francis Solano Catholic Church in Sonoma, Calif. on Friday, April 2, 2021.
(Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)
For Filiberto and Adela Cruz, showing up for church is an unbreakable weekly appointment, a way to affirm and hold on to their faith at a time when little else feels safe and certain.
“You have a moment to give God your problems,” Filiberto Cruz said of this hour of prayer and gratitude, as the faithful dispersed after Palm Sunday services at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church near downtown Santa Rosa.
Many who attended the traditional Mass held in Spanish — grandmas in Sunday-best dresses, young moms in fashionable torn jeans, toddlers in flouncy frocks with their hair in ribbons, young men in pressed shirts, all bearing small palm fronds — brought their own folding chairs to place along the walkway that rings an octagonal chapel just outside the sanctuary. Others set up in the flower garden below. The church was only partially filled, to keep worshippers at a safe social distance.
The Cruzes, who live in Santa Rosa with their two sons aged 12 and 10, are struggling financially after a year of lost work. She is a house cleaner; he works in construction. They are getting by, Filiberto said. A bigger concern however, on this Christian holy day and going in to Easter, is grief over the recent loss of a beloved aunt in Mexico to COVID-19. She was not a believer in God, doctors or in taking safety precautions. That troubles them.
They do not, however, feel despair. Just sadness, they said.
“You feel you can’t do anything to help somebody when you know they are sick. It’s frustrating for us,” Filiberto said. “We can’t help her or other people.”
But their faith in something greater has been the one thing that has sustained them during a year of extreme hardship that saw lengthening lines for food, struggle and collapse for family businesses and the deaths of more than 552,000 Americans from COVID-19.
Some parishioners have felt their faith tested as they coped with loneliness and depression through months of isolation and distance from friends and family, Sonoma County faith leaders said. The pandemic struck at a time when church attendance was already declining. Fewer than half of Americans — 47% — now say they belong to a church, synagogue or mosque, according to a new Gallup survey. That’s down from 70% in the mid-1990s and 73% in 1937, when Gallup began measuring church membership.
Even so, for many, faith and spiritual communities have been anchors, keeping them moored amid the dangerous turbulence of the past year, said the Rev. Lori Sawdon, pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Santa Rosa.
“It has given them hope and strength and courage to live while we are waiting for things to evolve and for the vaccine to arrive,” she said.
“It’s just a moment,” Filiberto Cruz said of the pandemic that was first declared a Global Emergency by the World Health Organization in January 2020. “Tomorrow we believe we will feel better. The country will keep going. It will be much better when everybody already has their shots for this COVID-19. We believe we’re going to keep going. That’s why we come every week to the church, because we want God to tell us, ‘Don’t give up. Keep going. I’m with you.’”
Walking with people in crisis
During this catastrophic year that also was marked by widespread protests over racial injustice and political convulsions that culminated in a violent storming of the U.S. Capitol in January, local faith leaders have been challenged to minister to people dealing with myriad burdens extending well beyond the health risks of COVID-19.
“I definitely have walked with a number of people, not just struggling with faith but struggling with staying in recovery, people falling off the wagon, people disappearing into themselves,” said the Rev. Lindsey Bell-Kerr, who serves two Methodist congregations in Santa Rosa — the First United Methodist and Christ Church United Methodist, which co-sponsors a food pantry.
Being unable to physically sit with people and look them in the eyes as she spiritually ministers to them has been particularly difficult, she said.
“It’s harder to tell people I’m there for them when I’m physically not with them. But I would also say that I have been shocked by the resiliency of the faith of people, especially people who live alone and what it takes just to get out of bed some days in the midst of this pandemic.”
Both Bell-Kerr and Sawdon said this past year also has brought a racial reckoning within their predominantly white congregations.
“People have been intentional about examining how our faith speaks to racial injustice. They have taken seriously the need for us as individuals and the churches as communities to repent of racial injustice,” Sawdon said. “They are doing a lot of self-examination. They’re searching for how we can right the wrongs and participate in creating a more just society.”
Father Michaelraj Philominsamy of St. Rose said he has seen many parishioners fighting depression, made more difficult by long months of being unable to worship with their community in person.
“A lot of them don’t have anything to hold on to, and when you don’t have anything to hold on to, that is when it gets really desperate,” he said. “People have lost their jobs and family members and everybody lives in anxiety. It was the most difficult time in my entire 30 years in the priesthood.”
Philominsamy leads a flock of several thousand, of which 60% are Latino, a community hammered by the coronavirus.
“People are living in big families. And in the beginning they didn’t take it seriously. Later they took it seriously, but by that time it was spreading a lot. A lot of death happened. I did so many Latino funerals because of COVID-19,” he said. “Younger people also died, in their 40s. One guy was serving homeless people all the time. He was very healthy and a hard worker.”
The pandemic, however, has drawn many people back to their faith, he observed, much as the 9/11 terrorist attacks did 20 years ago. More people, he said, are coming to confession, some feeling guilty they have not been attending church.
“It woke them up, and they see the many things they have taken for granted. They realize the important thing is love in their family and the importance of doing small things together,” he said. “Before, they had the illusion of being immortal. Death was for a 92-year-old man. To realize that 40-year-olds are dying, that woke them up to spirituality.”
Suffering is an integral part of the human story, and many who have continued to attend Mass regularly during the pandemic understand that accepting suffering is part of their faith, said Father Alvin Villaruel of St. Francis Solano Church in Sonoma.
“Within our church, our history and our story, we lead with stories of people who have endured pain and persevered through their own suffering and death and also experienced their own little resurrection,” he said. People feel prayer and the Mass reflect that. “I don’t want to say it’s all hunky-dory. Many have been hard-hit. The asks have increased, but I’ve never heard doubt from them about faith.”
Seeking answers in grief
Unlike natural disasters or terrorist violence, the pandemic affected virtually everyone on the planet in some measure, socially or economically. It changed how most people live their lives. But for some, like Sandra Greenley, COVID-19’s impact was especially devastating. It gutted her family. Her father, mother and sister were all stricken with the virus and died within three days of each other at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital in October.
Her father, Phillip Mink, 74, was part of the pastoral team at Stony Point Christian Fellowship in Santa Rosa. She was raised steeped in faith, with the family’s church and beliefs woven into every aspect of their lives.
Greenley, 46, who lives in Santa Rosa, said she is just emerging from a long numbness, and she has had dark moments of questioning. Because the virus prevented social contact, she couldn’t grieve and take comfort with her brother and sister-in-law and other family members.
“I just had this sense of being alone and being lost and crying out to God,” she said. “‘Are you really here? Are you really there for me? I don’t understand.’ But even though I was questioning, I often knew I was talking to God, so I wasn’t walking away from my faith.“
She likens her faith to a marriage. There are rough patches, but you remain committed and work through them.
“In the beginning I prayed that I wouldn’t let this situation make me bitter or angry and that it would make me into a better person,” Greenley said. “I’m still doing my devotionals and praying and talking to God. I’ve been doing a group counseling that is faith-based, and it’s helping with the harder questions, like where God is in all of this.”
Faith tested but not shaken
“People have been searching and trying to find some type of spiritual rest through all of this and to know they were not the only ones struggling with what to do and how to do it,” said the Rev. H. Lee Turner of the Community Baptist Church in Santa Rosa.
Most of his predominantly Black congregation has remained rooted in their beliefs.
“Those who weren’t, struggled. But their belief was strong enough to hold through it. We just trust God that whatever happened, he is in control of our world.”
Sameh Hussein is president of the Islamic Society of Santa Rosa, which has 25 to 30 members who regularly attend congregational prayers on Fridays at their mosque in Santa Rosa.
The pandemic may have tested but not shaken the faith of many Muslims, he said. Submission to God’s will is the very foundation of Islam, he explained. Do everything in your power to protect yourself, but then leave it to God. That offers peace of mind.
“”Everyone I’ve talked to is in good spirits and in a submission period. People think, ‘I’m doing everything I can to protect my family. I’m social distancing, putting a mask on, using sanitizer and washing my hands. But if God decides to take my soul at any time. I am at ease.’”
Muslims are preparing for Ramadan, a month of prayer, fasting and reflection that begins April 12 with the new moon. The rise in hunger and suffering because of the pandemic will be on many people’s minds, he said.
“This just reminds me of how weak we are and how easily things could change overnight,” Hussein said. “Security and health that we take for granted are not going to go on forever. Something like this is a reminder from God to pay attention. We should not take anything for granted.”
Brought closer to faith
Amanda Conceicao of Sonoma said if anything, the pandemic has brought her closer to her faith and given her time to reflect. She starts her day with prayer and she planned to make time to participate in many of the Holy Week rituals at St. Francis church in Sonoma. Today, she’ll attend sunrise services at Cline Cellars Winery, like many of the Christian faith, who will celebrate Easter as an affirmation of faith and an opportunity for spiritual rebirth and renewal.
“In the beginning, everybody just put everything on pause. We were all at home trying to figure out how to keep ourselves safe,” Conceicao said. “But the pandemic gave us the opportunity to get back to basics, starting with our faith. When you get busy, you drop things. We really have had the chance to say what our priorities are, as if the slate were wiped clean. We can get back to what is important. And for our family, that is faith.”
You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at [email protected] On Twitter @megmcconahey.
Features, The Press Democrat
Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.
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