Normally before worship, Pastor Tim McConnell would be working his way through the crowded halls of First Presbyterian Church in downtown Colorado Springs, munching on doughnut holes, shaking hands and sharing hugs.
On this overcast Sunday, though, McConnell found himself almost alone. No doughnuts. No handshakes. No hugs. The unlit halls were mostly empty, except for a couple of security guards, who whispered of a world gone mad.
The pastor took his usual position at the sanctuary stage. Cameras rolled for the devoted who watched on screens at home.
Here where he’d otherwise be looking out to a sea of 700-plus faces, McConnell’s voice echoed in a soaring chamber with vacant pews.
“You know, I’ve had dreams like this,” he started, “and they weren’t my favorite dreams.”
Over the past week in America, the spread of coronavirus has come with the spread of discomforting images — empty sports stadiums, empty concert venues, empty grocery store shelves, empty highways.
And now, empty houses of prayer.
For millions knowing faith as solace, as reassurance that times will get better, an invisible invader has taken away the places where they gather, their ultimate refuges. It was a harsh reality Sunday across the nation, but especially in this city known for its concentration of evangelical Christian ministries and churches.
Many services have been canceled until further notice, while others continue to be held solely for broadcast.
“It’s a tough day,” the Rev. Kent Ingram said to his live-stream audience at another historic Springs church, First United Methodist. “We need to be together, but we can’t. We need to touch, but we can’t.”
Marjorie Gross, the church’s director of children’s ministries, explained it on the steps of the altar where she usually meets shy or giggling kids. They were nowhere to be seen this morning. But Gross sat there still, speaking to them in their homes.
“We are doing something that is very important and very responsible,” she said. “We are taking care of ourselves and our community by staying home.”
She continued: “Until we see each other again, I want you to know that you are brave, and I am proud of you.”
Leaders of all creeds in the city shared messages of hope as they, too, made unprecedented changes this weekend.
“Allah is the best protector and He is the Most Merciful of those who show mercy,” read the webpage for the Islamic Society of Colorado Springs, where fellow Muslims were urged to pray from home.
Services would not be held for three weeks at Temple Beit Torah, Rabbi Iah Pillsbury wrote to her congregation. “Please remember, just because we may not physically see each other for a while, you are not alone,” her letter read. “We are here for you.”
Sunday on the Springs’ west side, Pastor Eric Andras opened the doors of The Sanctuary. The elderly and COVID-19’s most vulnerable were encouraged to stay away, but Andras said closing would mean “abandoning the margins.”
As usual on Sunday, the needy converged at the Ragamuffin Cafe, where volunteers have always handed out food donated and bought by the church. People living homeless lined up to wash hands before taking prepackaged meals of sausage, eggs and fruit — supplies that lead organizer Yolanda Maravilla feared wouldn’t be around long here or at other shelters as tensions rise.
“We think this might be the only thing they’ll get today,” she said.
Caring for the less-fortunate — that’s how the virus should be combated, church leaders told their virtual listeners.
“It’s a moment where the entire world has been forced to stop,” McConnell said, “and I believe God’s doing something profound in the middle of this to help us all remember how important life is, and how important we are to one another, and what a gift it is to be alive and healthy.”
It’s a moment of disaster, Ingram said down the street at First United Methodist.
“We live in a world of tornadoes and fires and floods and viruses,” he said at the alter. “In those moments, we join all of human history in looking to the heavens and demanding answers, and the heavens are silent.”
He didn’t have answers. He only had a prayer. And in this new silence, he spoke.
“Let us find your hope and your peace, which surpasses all understanding. Fill us with that assurance and peace ...”