Gainesville Congregations Move Religious Services Online

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Ashley Hemingway, 34, laughed at a joke she saw online: “I didn’t expect to give up this much for Lent.” 

Hemingway and her family attend St. Augustine Church and Catholic Student Center, which sits across from the University of Florida campus on University Avenue. They’re participating in Lent, a tradition of fasting and prayer before Easter Sunday.

Hemingway’s church has joined thousands of other places of worship around the country in streaming services online. St. Augustine started streaming masses just one week before Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a statewide stay-at-home order in response to the coronavirus outbreak, though going to church is listed as an essential activity.

“It’s really difficult, honestly,” Hemingway said.

She’s been attending mass at St. Augustine since she was a freshman at the University of Florida 16 years ago. 

Hemingway said she’s found it difficult to transition to online services, especially with her daughter Chiara, who turns 2 next week. She said Chiara doesn’t understand why she needs to sit still and be quiet when church seems like just another TV show.

Some places of worship have been more prepared than others to stream services online.  

Pastor Jason Lee of Anthem Community Church (Photo courtesy of Lee)

Jason Lee, 39, is the lead pastor at Anthem Community Church in Gainesville. Anthem is a non-denominational Christian church that started Facebook Live streaming as a safety precaution almost a month ago.

Lee said Anthem has invited churches with limited resources to use their stage and streaming technology, such as cameras and microphones.

“For a long time churches have been figuring out how to be helpful outside of the one day of the week,” Lee said. “It forced us to innovate.” 

Lee said he tries to interact with the online audience through the comments and has added live music, similar to their traditional services. Anthem Community Church also pushed the release of an app a month early to help people stay connected.

While Lee is new to streaming services, Rabbi David Kaiman has been doing so for months.

Rabbi David Kaiman of B’nai Israel (Photo courtesy of Kaiman)

Kaiman, 64, has been at Congregation B’nai Israel for 17 years. He said the synagogue has been streaming since the beginning of the year as a way to provide options for those who were homebound.

Kaiman said they started more advertising for their streaming service three weeks ago and encouraged people to stay home.

“It’s not like being together in a live audience,” he said, “but it’s the best we can do right now.”

Kaiman said he’s had people from all over the country join the live streams, including relatives of members and those who have moved away or relocated. 

While Kaiman said his synagogue would continue to stream services even after the pandemic, Pastor Lee of Anthem Church was not so sure.

Lee said he worries that people will think virtual conversation is good enough as we get more used to it. He said he doesn’t want to underestimate the value of face-to-face communication with “actual, real live people.”

Meanwhile, Ashley Hemingway and her family continue to miss gatherings at St. Augustine Catholic Church on weekends. 

“I don’t have as much time to myself,” Hemingway said, “which is the opposite of what you’d expect.”

She spends her days balancing working from home with entertaining her toddler, like so many other parents right now. 

Hemingway has tried to continue Catholic traditions at home, like covering up images of Jesus in the fifth week of Lent.

Although she has less time to herself she said it’s been easier to slow down and quiet herself in the spirit of Lent, which reflects on the 40 days Jesus spent alone in the desert. 

“There’s a lot of time to be introspective like Jesus was,” she said, “this isolation almost feels like a desert.”

About Emma Davis

Emma is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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