By Southwester Staff

Throughout most of the nation, and across the District, much of the relied upon programming at places of spiritual refuge and worship was put on hold at the beginning of COVID-19. While the pandemic is ongoing, our spaces of spiritual refuge are having virtualize their services and programming. 

One of the most iconic features of Southwest’s cultural life is the programming at the Westminster Presbyterian Church on I Street. The church’s weekly jazz and blues shows are known throughout Washington. But according to a church leader at Westminster, like many places of worship in Southwest, the church had to make the difficult decision of putting its in-person programming on a “permanent hold” until they can assure the congregation’s safety.

The historic church, founded in 1853, has shifted entirely to online programming, both for worship services and its weekly programming. Co-pastor Ruth Hamilton told “The Southwester” she and the congregation prefer Zoom services to streaming, as they can see each others’ faces. While events like the jazz and blues shows cannot feasibly pivot to an online format, other programs, such as Resistance Bible Study and film night, have been able to continue virtually. 

The impact of temporarily halting the music programs extends beyond the walls of Westminster. Admission to the events – $5 at the door and extra if you want dinner – pays the musicians. However, with in-person capacity limited to 50 people, the church would not be able to cover those costs, according to Hamilton. Normally, between 200 and 250 attend the shows. Westminster has a link on its webpage where the community can donate to musicians in need. Hamilton said the church hopes to start partial in-person programming soon. 

Next month, Hamilton and her husband and co-pastor Brian hope to begin a small in-person Sunday worship service with a Zoom component. Hamilton says they are planning to adapt their labyrinth walk – an “ancient spiritual ritual” involving a “pathway” that “people use as a tool for meditation” – to current safety requirements. Instead of bringing in a live musician, she says, the church will “play some meditative music” from speakers as people walk the labyrinth. 

Westminster also hopes to coordinate with the Capital Area Food Bank to embark on a voter registration drive in James Creek Apartments in September. Narcotics Anonymous has also been on pause at Westminster but meetings may resume soon. 

A few blocks away, Kadampa Buddhist Meditation Center (KMC) has experienced similar disruptions in its regularly-scheduled programming and community outreach. The temple had to adapt its traditional approach to classes amid pandemic-related shutdowns, but resident teacher Gen Kelsang Demo told “The Southwester” that, in addition to the downsides of the pandemic, “there are some aspects of this that are good.” She says ease of access for people who join the temple in meditation has been a factor helping the transition to the new format.

KMC was founded in 1995 in Northwest D.C. The temple moved to its current building in Southwest in 2016, and in 2017 Demo came to the District from Washington state to help the new location get started. Before the pandemic, KMC hosted classes both in the temple and at so-called branches throughout the Washington area. For now, Demo says the temple has moved to an entirely virtual format and is focusing on reorganizing the entire space for when they eventually feel prepared to reopen.

KMC has not seen a decrease in interest in any of its classes. In fact, many of the temple’s public meditation classes “have been just as well attended,” if not better. Demo explained that many community members have been looking for new ways to cope with “additional and unusual stresses” as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and other tensions. 

While stress and coping have been prominent emotions in Demo’s classes, she says there is a new energy and enthusiasm from both new and returning attendees. Since attendees don’t need to “be Buddhist to practice any element of Buddhist teaching,” many have sought out KMC to hear more about the Buddhist understanding of “more philosophical” topics such as death. In addition to learning Buddha’s “extensive teachings on the death process, and how to use an awareness of our death to live a more full and meaningful life,” attendees “will also learn a special Buddhist prayer and meditation practice called Powa,” according to KMC’s website. Normally, Demo says, “those topics aren’t as popular.”

Demo says this is an “impactful, thought-provoking time on many levels,” and “outlets” people used to have “aren’t options for them right now.” More people are “retrospective” or “introspective” about their lives, and are looking for “peace” in a time when so much feels “out of control.” In coping with the stressors and tensions of 2020, she says it is important to learn to “use the mind to our advantage rather than our disadvantage.”

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