The holy month of Ramadan is typically one of the most prosperous times of the year for mosques and other Islamic institutions. It’s a time when Muslims come together for nightly prayers and offer zakat, or donations to support their houses of worship, community and the poor.
Part of what makes this season so special is celebrating together as a congregation during prayer and iftar, the meal shared after sundown, said Iman Jodeh, spokeswoman for the Colorado Muslim Society, the region’s largest mosque. That spirit of community is, in part, what inspires its roughly 3,000 parishioners to give.
But this year, Ramadan started on the evening of April 23 — during the thick of the coronavirus pandemic and two weeks before stay-at-home orders in the metro area expired. Since the Denver mosque closed on March 12, it’s seen a “significant” drop in community contributions, Jodeh said, even as it’s begun promoting PayPal and other online options.
“It’s incredibly difficult,” she said of fundraising. “That’s being conservative.”
Many of Colorado’s religious institutions have been suffering financially since the public health crisis forced them to discontinue in-person worship and educational programs. Churches, synagogues and mosques have been quick to move services and offering plates online, but faith leaders say the economic hardship imposed on their members is trickling down.
Representatives from several institutions told The Denver Post they are constantly reevaluating their budgets to adapt in this time of financial uncertainty. While they declined to reveal specific losses, some acknowledged they were forced to make cuts or furlough staff.
But all maintained their primary goal is doing whatever necessary to offer continued support to their communities during this difficult time and welcome them back once limits on in-person gatherings are lifted.
Though some churches have begun gradually welcoming parishioners back, those contacted by The Post said most are waiting for a directive from Gov. Jared Polis about the soonest — and safest — timeline to reinstate onsite services.
“If we do not have some kind of relief for houses of worship, you’re going to see a high increase of these places closing doors permanently,” Jodeh said. “While we are not there yet, thankfully, it is something that we are monitoring, and something we are taking step by step, day by day.”
Making painful decisions
Donations are down across the board at the 149 Catholic churches under the purview of the Archdiocese of Denver, said spokesman Mark Haas, though the extent to which they are varies from parish to parish. Decreases in revenue have triggered a 20% reduction in staff at Archdiocese, plus additional furloughs and pay reductions, reaching every department within the organization.
Although some Denver-area Catholic churches began welcoming worshippers back for Sunday Mass in limited capacities on May 9, offerings haven’t yet made up the deficit.
“By no means was it even close to making up for the last two months,” Haas said. “With so many people having either lost their jobs, lost hours/income at their jobs, or just facing an uncertain future, even when we return to full Masses, we are anticipating that donations will remain below average for months and even years to come.”
Long-term, that could spell more layoffs or force the Archdiocese to consolidate parish communities, he said.
At Trinity United Methodist Church in Capitol Hill, weekly revenue dipped as much as 30% in March, according to senior pastor Ken Brown. That rebounded in April, however, thanks to what he calls “the Easter surprise.”
“Weekly offerings were only down 2% in April compared to 30% in March. I’m incredibly encouraged,” Brown said.
The church was also approved for a federal Payment Protection Program loan, which will help retain staff during the pandemic. But there are still many unknown factors, Brown said, including when Trinity might reopen its doors for in-person services.
“We don’t know how deep this is reaching people economically,” he said, “but we are cautiously optimistic. And, of course, we believe in our faith.”
Temple Emanuel in Denver’s Hilltop neighborhood employs a dues-based model, which allows members to give what they can to support community outreach and educational programs, said Rabbi Joe Black.
The synagogue also hosts Shwayder Camp for Jewish youth on the slopes of Mount Evans, which attracts 500 to 600 attendees each summer and brings in revenue through registrations fees. For the first time in 72 years, the camp will not open this summer.
The synagogue also rents out the campsite to other organizations and hosts services for High Holy Days there, but those prospects are in limbo as well.
“It’s a significant hit that we’re going to have to take, but we had no choice,” Black said. “We made that decision, it was a painful one.”
Finding creative solutions
While the coronavirus pandemic has caused financial uncertainty for religious organizations, it’s also moved them to find innovative solutions.
Scott Bloyer, lead pastor of Elevation Christian Church in Aurora, is working to form a nonprofit organization called One Person Inc., which will be related to but separate from his church. That’s because, in his experience, many businesses hesitate to donate to religious organizations, Bloyer said.
The new entity will enable those parties to give and help Elevation expand ministry programs, such as its market that offers free groceries to those in need and an initiative that helps newly-released prisoners reacclimate to society.
Bloyer is also weighing the prospect of doing drive-in sermons for Elevation’s 250-plus members.
“The American community of faith has relied on their buildings too much,” he said. “This is forcing us to be way more creative.”
Since religious services have been adapted to digital platforms, many congregations said they’ll likely maintain virtual ways for members to stay involved. For example, Bloyer wants to start an online Bible study, so couples with young children can attend without having to worry about child care.
Trinity United Methodist recently began offering a virtual membership, which has inspired people across the country to join the congregation, said pastor Brown. Because of that, the church will continue to broadcast its sermons online.
Few, however, see these options as replacements for in-person communion — and not just because of the financial prospects.
Many members of the Colorado Muslim Society are immigrants and refugees who come to the mosque for a sense familiarity and community, Jodeh said. In times of strife, Catholics often gravitate toward their faith by literally going to church and praying as a community, Haas said.
And that’s perhaps the most important reason to stay fiscally responsible during this pandemic, said Rabbi Black — to ensure houses of worship can open their doors and welcome patrons back when it’s safe to do so.
“I am most looking forward to seeing people’s faces in person and being able to, God willing, someday give someone a big hug,” Black said.
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