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Worshipers found religious homes near and far thanks to virtual services

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Worship, like so much else, moved online during this pandemic, but some people didn't just Zoom with their usual congregations. They looked for a place that really felt like home even if it turned out to be halfway across the country. Deena Prichep looked into this far-flung worship.

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: Before the pandemic, Luca Guacci wasn't really part of a congregation.

LUCA GUACCI: I would go to temple once in a while. I would celebrate Shabbat once in a while. I would light the candles once in a while.

PRICHEP: But things shifted. Guacci's family started Zooming with their sister's congregation in Florida and streaming services with a local temple in Chicago, which they've never actually been inside.

GUACCI: Now we get challah. Every Friday, we light the candles. We're like, OK, it's time for temple. And it's amazing because we don't have to go anywhere.

PRICHEP: On Saturdays, they join Shabbat ShaMorning. It's a kids service from New York that Guacci says is particularly welcoming for them as a queer family and for where they are in their faith.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) Shalom to all the kids. Shalom, shalom, shalom. Hello, Hazel. Nice to see you. Shalom yeladim.

SHIRA KLINE: We had people from England and Amsterdam. We've got grandparents in Minneapolis who are online with their grandchildren in San Diego. And it's unbelievable.

PRICHEP: Shira Kline is worship director at Lab/Shul, which launched Shabbat ShaMorning with the Union for Reform Judaism. She says they aren't just bringing that temple experience to the home. They're doing things they couldn't do in a temple.

KLINE: There is this core piece of Jewish liturgy. It's referred to as the Shema.

PRICHEP: It's a central prayer that names God as the source of all connected life.

KLINE: And the last word is the word echad in Hebrew, and it means one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) Bring out your number one finger. Bring it close. Echad...

KLINE: Everybody comes close to the screen, like, bringing their finger right up to the camera. And we say, let's do our Shema math. You know, one plus one plus one plus one plus one plus one plus one plus one plus one equals one.

PRICHEP: These kids have spent the past year and a half growing up together. And as their fingers meet on screen, you can see the connection.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Welcome. This is Sunday morning worship. This is a ministry of three local Lutheran churches who want you to know that you are unconditionally loved by God.

PRICHEP: Western New York Church Unleashed has also built a remote congregation on TV and online - snowbirds who have fled the Buffalo winters, others who just found them by chance. But there are downsides. Jeremiah Smith, one of the pastors, says that when congregants don't really see and know each other, it's easier to walk away.

JEREMIAH SMITH: Once they hear a sermon that preached Black Lives Matter or proclaimed that LGBTQ folks are beautifully and wonderfully made by God, we get a letter that says, I'm not watching anymore. You lost me.

PRICHEP: And that's a real loss.

SMITH: I think we're all changed when we remain in a relationship. Church is one of the last places where we don't get to pick who shows up.

PRICHEP: Smith acknowledges church isn't a neutral place. It stands for something. People choose and make their congregations. Scott Thumma at Hartford Seminary has been studying congregational life for over 30 years.

SCOTT THUMMA: The country has always been a kind of competitive marketplace of religious ideas. And, you know, church shopping has always existed.

PRICHEP: But it's intensified with the internet and with the rise of Zoom worship.

THUMMA: Kind of the spiritual version of Amazon.

PRICHEP: And turning consumers into congregants is tricky.

THUMMA: Worship and engaging in the life of a congregation - it's all the bad coffee. It's the hard pews. It's communal prayers - all those things that don't immediately translate into the virtual.

PRICHEP: Even for those who can navigate that translation, like Shabbat ShaMorning leader Shira Kline, there's still the question of what happens next.

KLINE: If you had asked me at the beginning, I would say the hope is that people are absolutely able to go back in person and that Shabbat ShaMorning can, like, lovingly blow kisses goodbye because I'm all about community.

PRICHEP: But Kline says these virtual practices have also formed real communities, ones that have shared songs and stories and sustained each other through these strange times with love and hope. For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #3: (Singing) I said modeh ani. Yeah, everybody. Modeh ani. All right, Kelsey (ph). I love to see that side-to-side dance you're doing. Try that. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deena Prichep