*Editor’s note: Andrew Leal is a journalism student in SF State’s Journalism 575 Community Media this spring. Taught by professor Jon Funabiki, the class is a collaboration with El Tecolote.
With coronavirus closing down churches and places of worship, a Christian group called Celebration Church in Fresno has risen to the new challenge of finding new ways to pray as a community in more ways than one.
“To break that mold, especially on Sundays, I mean it’s been going on for 2,000 years,” said Danny Leal, a youth pastor at Celebration Church.
Leal had just joined Celebration Church and was going to have his first youth group meeting on a Wednesday when the news hit that in-person gatherings were canceled. He was not daunted.
“It’s not so much the gathering of the people but why you’re gathering,” said Leal, who was instructed through the Ministry School for Assemblies of God and had served at a sister church in Fowler. “And it is obviously the worship. Jesus and what he teaches is that he’s everywhere.”
The problem was how to get people from all sorts of backgrounds, especially members of the older generation, online.
Leal said the idea for Zoom came up during a meeting with church leadership.
“I can’t even remember–I know it was a woman, and she said, ‘Hey, the Zoom app, I’m using it for college,’” Leal said.
Celebration ran a small trial to see how it would work, and they agreed that Zoom calls would be the best direction to take.
Soon after, the church adopted Zoom for use for all their members to “at least build a community or keep the community that we have.”
Wednesday’s for the past two months have looked empty but full for Leal during his worship group consisting of college students from the Fresno area.
“We were expecting about 50 (students),” Leal said. “I’ve only heard from about 30. But on Zoom it seemed like it kinda dwindled.”
Sundays attract, naturally, the biggest followings because that is when the church as whole body gathers and the gatherings can go up to 2,000, according to Leal. Celebration uses YouTube Live, Facebook Live and Zoom to broadcast their worship.
That is where the biggest change and frustration has come in the church’s meetings. The older members of the church have the hardest time adapting to the new way of praying.
“Our parents regardless of what type of religion denomination, they believe you need God in the building. Like you need God at the church,” Leal said. “But I guess those that are younger than me, they have no problem.”
Precautions are taken as every Zoom meeting is password protected and viewers are muted automatically upon connecting to the call. If a person needs to speak they will use the “raise a hand” feature to signal the pastor.
There has been coronavirus fatigue that has leaked into the preaching at Celebration Church too.
“Like you’re pushing so much to this faith and this fear,” said Leal. “If the Coronavirus drags out another 12 weeks, are we still gonna preach the same thing?”
COVID-19 worries hit close to Leal’s family since his younger sister, Jessica Leal, was pregnant and gave birth to a daughter during the middle of April.
“She kind of forewarned us a couple months ago saying, ‘Hey we’re gonna have a baby. No one’s allowed except for the dad,” Leal said.
For others in the church, there are not many frustrations with the new switch to online worshiping.
“I’m someone that really thinks change kind of forces people to evolve,” said Christian Alvarado, a member of Celebration Church’s social media team. “So I was like, ‘This is gonna be a cool way to see how the church and how we evolve and go about this in new ways.’”
Alvarado and Leal attend the same university, which is where they met.
“I’ve been more paying attention to the aspect of like, the people with the team. Like how are we all staying connected,” Alvarado said. “I feel like in the community aspect, it’s definitely hard but like an actual practicing of my faith, that’s something that hasn’t really changed.”
Amid the government deeming places of worship non-essential gatherings, Alavarado stressed the need to not jump to conclusions that the government has it out for religion.
“I think there are bigger fights, this is not a fight that’s worth fighting right now,” Alvarado said.
Alvarado has seen the protesting that has called for spaces to open up again and thinks it hurts the image of the church more than anything. He thinks the people are just bored and looking to pick a fight.
“The Bible does talk about, you know, respect to people and leadership,” Alvarado said. “I don’t want to make their job harder by trying to fight it. I think being a good Christian is working together to help each other and find the common good.”