The historic Oak Grove Church in west Salem at sunset. Some area churches and congregations are again shifting their worship services in response to the omicron surge. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

Brian Craker said he’s seen his congregation at Salem First Presbyterian Church have more anxiety about Covid in the past two weeks than they’ve shown throughout the pandemic.

As a pastor at the church, he said, that concerned him.

“I think, if I'm seeing that in my congregation and amongst my family and friends, that I've got to believe that something that community is struggling with,” Craker said. “We had a sense of optimism that we may be coming out of this, and omicron hit us so hard that it's really scared us and brought us to a place of high anxiety.”

Covid has loomed over local congregations since the pandemic first hit Oregon. Most places of worship in Salem were shut down temporarily by mid-March 2020 as Gov. Kate Brown set restrictions on social gatherings, and faith leaders had to get creative, some holding virtual or even outdoor services.

Many congregations have since settled into a “hybrid” model of offering both in-person and virtual services. Now, with the omicron surge spreading quickly across the state, some faith leaders are looking for ways to lift people’s spirits through worship.

Craker said he will focus his upcoming Sunday sermon on the end of Matthew Chapter 6, and what Jesus’s words of “Do not worry” mean during a pandemic as people feel they’re losing control of things.

He has also made it a point to reach out to congregants he knows are struggling with illness, isolation or being separated from family, and keep offering time to talk. He said he encourages them to recognize anxiety in themselves and help others through theirs.

“That is a huge piece of recognizing that if we are together and people don't feel alone, then they feel like they have a greater strength to be able to work through this pandemic,” he said.

Craker said there is concern among his congregants partly because for the first time during the pandemic, a significant number of them have recently contracted Covid despite wearing masks and avoiding contact with people. He said some members are anxious about what will happen if they contract it because they already have other health issues, and many are fatigued after nearly two years of being in and out of Covid waves.

“When we feel out of control, our anxiety goes through the roof. And this omicron variant has really brought people to a place of feeling out of control,” he said.

On Jan. 5, Craker emailed members of his church to say all worship services, meetings and adult discipleship classes would be online-only through the rest of the month due to the recent omicron surge.

“The majority of our congregation would much rather be in person, because we crave and yearn for that personal contact that we've really been missing especially during the times of isolation," he said. “But at the same time, we recognize that there are some in our congregation who have health issues, or our caretakers are involved in health care or essential services, and it's not fair to put them at risk.”

Virtual service is also offered at Salem First Church of the Nazarene on its website and Facebook page in addition to their in-person service, said church administrator Bertie Miller.

“We do have a lot of older people in our congregation, and for some of them, they're not quite comfortable to come out to a service,” she said. “The pastor always gives a greeting to those that are in the physical church and up in the balcony and to those that are home watching online.”

Jerry Miranda, a pastor at Tabernaculo de Salem, said the pandemic has been “a boom” for his church, with many new people attending and “looking for that comfort,” he said. “Regardless of your life, they all have problems. But they‘d rather have problems with God on my side than have problems without God on my side, and that's what I preach.”

Temple Beth Sholom, a synagogue in Salem, has both in-person and virtual services but has stopped serving food in light of the omicron surge. 

Rabbi Eli Herb said the vast majority of their members are vaccinated, and those who have tested positive for Covid recently have had mild symptoms.

Herb said most of his sermons currently are about lifting spirits, staying committed to spreading joy and kindness in the community, and maintaining relationships. 

“Everyone I think is feeling a little beat down at this point,” he said. “I've been making a point of telling a lot of jokes lately, just getting people laughing. And we still do the same work that we're always doing, trying to do our spiritual practices, but really doing them in the context of something that's so powerful and so immediate and present as Covid is right now.”

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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