Churches throughout Aiken and Augusta are continuing their religious and social services as best as they can as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

Dozens of congregations from Aiken and beyond are using online platforms such as YouTube and Facebook to reach out to their members as social distancing becomes the norm.

Churches around Aiken had to eliminate several upcoming events and services due to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommendation to suspend gatherings with 50 people or more people for the next eight weeks to slow the spread of coronavirus.

The Aiken Unitarian Universalist Church has begun using video platforms such as Zoom – a video communication system that allows multiple people to access a single online conversation. 

Debra Guthrie, minister for the Unitarian Universalist Church, described the platform as "clunky" and said it does not compare to in-person contact.

"Even if we have so many ways of connecting, we lack a (connection of) vulnerability, which our fate allows us to have. When we have that snatched out from under us in times like this, it doubles down on the problem. We're not able to get together and comfort each other."

Guthrie said that the closing of local nursing homes was weighing heavily on the congregation and that an unfamiliarity with technology or physical ailments have prevented some members in the homes from engaging in the online platform.

"If I can't go to them and touch them, they're receiving no comfort from me," Guthrie said. "That feels very awful for me, since a lot of them are at the end of their lives."

Guthrie said she is still looking into alternative ways to deliver the church's messages to its members in a way that would best meet their needs.

Congregations such as the Islamic Society of Augusta are using YouTube Live to reach their members due to the platform being more commonly used and "easier to access" by their members.

Jawad Rasul, imam for the Islamic Society of Augusta, said that the first YouTube Live session drew about 100 views while the congregation averages about 300 members. 

The Islamic Society of Augusta also offers study sessions and interpersonal classes that have additionally been suspended.

"Anything that can be moved online has been," Rasul said.

Rasul said that members of the congregation are still reaching out to members of their community to assess their needs.

The Sweetwater Baptist Church is using Vimeo, a free video viewing service, to livestream sermons to their nearly 600 active church members. 

The church is also offering CDs with recorded services for members and has established "prayer partners" to call members when they need spiritual guidance.

Rev. Paul Noe, the pastor of Sweetwater Baptist, said that several of the church's members have already voiced concerns with being out in public, even during funerals. Using the online services will help ease their tensions while offering them spiritual comfort. 

"The coronavirus has taught us how to think outside the box and find innovative ways to reach out to our congregation," Noe said. "We don't have to be in a building to worship the Lord together as the family of Sweetwater."

St. Mary Help of Christians Catholic Church in Aiken has suspended all of its Masses, confessions, meetings and educational programs within its facilities through April 1.

Like dozens of others churches, St. Mary's has directed services online with Facebook livestreams.

Father Gregory Wilson said the congregation has an "army" of people who visit hospitalized or homebound members regularly but have had to check on them by phone instead.

"We're doing anything we can to keep spirits high and people connected," Wilson said. 

The viral connection, Wilson said, offers the church's members a "sense of normalcy" and a chance to focus prayer on those in need. 

Wilson conducted Mass on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning without parishioners. More than 100 people watched the Saturday afternoon Mass.

“Certainly, I’ve missed seeing all of you,” Wilson said Saturday afternoon. “It’s not the same without you.”

Accompanied by two deacons, Wilson talked about the spiritual side of the pandemic during his homily.

“Do not let this spiritual quarantine go to waste,” he said.

Before he gave the final blessing, Wilson injected some humor into the situation.

“Stay close to the Lord, and six feet from everyone else,” Wilson said.