At virtual Family Chapel, the ‘spiritual but not religious’ find community during pandemic

Traditional houses of worship have moved worship for their members online. For seekers and those unaffiliated with any faith, there is Family Chapel.

(RNS) — They lit candles, shared silence and a meditative blessing together. They read the words of an essay from “The Book of Delights,” by Ross Gay, and listened to “One Voice” by The Wailin’ Jennys. They dispersed into groups to reflect on anything the song and the poem may have evoked in them.

Then the 19 people at Family Chapel went back to work, in New York and Chicago and several time zones in between, resuming their Thursday afternoons or mornings.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic came ashore in the United States, traditional houses of worship have moved their worship services online. For seekers and those unaffiliated with any faith, there is Family Chapel.

The reflective space is the invention of the Rev. Sue Phillips, an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, and her wife, the Rev. Tandi Rogers, who started Family Chapel as a sacred gathering in their Tacoma, Washington home after the 2016 election.

Family Chapel was first between Phillips and Rogers. It then transitioned into a space for Phillips’ colleagues at the Sacred Design Lab, a research and design consultancy that develops rituals and spiritual programs for businesses and organizations. It was a way to center themselves spiritually before starting their day.

The Rev. Sue Phillips. Photo courtesy of Sacred Design Lab

But social distancing turned the practice into a public, online mini retreat for anyone seeking spiritual fulfillment and community. The half-hour, three-times-a-week service attracts community leaders, clergy, grandparents, students and others from New York, Chicago and Connecticut and as far away as the Netherlands. 

“It’s helped me stay calm and positive,” said Anne Taylor, 32, a PhD student at Yale who began as a participant and now helps facilitate the chapel. “The social distancing aspect of this pandemic can be very anxiety-provoking and scary. Being a part of this community makes me feel not so alone.”

Taylor learned of Family Chapel from the Sacred Design Lab’s newsletter.

Sacred Design Lab is a creation of Casper ter Kuile, Angie Thurston and Phillips, who are ministry innovation fellows at Harvard Divinity School. It aims to “translate ancient wisdom and practices to help organizations develop products, programs and experiences that uplift social and spiritual lives,” according to its mission statement.

Among other projects, the lab has drawn on Buddhist and Western monastic practices to create an app “to help users withstand emotional turbulence.” Its clients include Pinterest and a global design firm that it helped to improve its creative communications by “reimagining the biblical tradition of covenant.”

Family Chapel draws inspiration from many traditions.

It begins every week with a candle-lighting, followed by a moment of silence. After a song, a poem or essay is recited twice, with a different person reading the second time. Then the participants reflect in small groups. They end the session with the same song, a blessing and the extinguishing of the candle. They center Family Chapel on different themes. Recently, the theme was “One Voice.”

Jonathan Maresca, clockwise from top left, Alison Byrnes and Anne Taylor reflect during a breakout session of Family Chapel on Thursday, April 23, 2020. Video screengrab

“We’re here for people. We’re consistent. That ritual is there for them if they need it. They can trust that it’s there,” Taylor said.

Jonathan Maresca, 25, was seeking for this kind of shared ritual.

Maresca grew up Catholic and later began engaging in contemplative practices. In 2019, Maresca spent nearly two months at a monastery where he engaged in meditation and silent prayer. He yearned for a space where he could practice and cultivate such rituals.

“Without there being a physical presence of church, I was really longing for that,” Maresca said. “I think a lot of people are.”

A recent survey by Springtide Research Institute, which focuses on spiritual attitudes among the young, found that young people have begun new religious practices during the coronavirus crisis.

Anne Taylor’s ritual space for Family Chapel. Photo courtesy of Anne Taylor

The survey, which sampled 508 people aged 18-25 nationwide, found that 35% experienced an increase in their faith and nearly half of the respondents (46%) reported starting new religious practices. Also, 43% participated in at least one service online.

The report found that while most felt more connected watching an online service and interacting with people, nearly half of those who participated said they still felt isolated because no one was reaching out to them individually.

“Despite some young adults finding value in churches and religious or faith communities providing online rituals and virtual spaces during this time of social isolation, the survey found that what mitigates their experience of loneliness is the act of caring adults checking in and connecting with them,” according to the survey report.

Alison Byrnes, 27, said she felt “at sea” when the pandemic began to arrive in the U.S.

“The intense uncertainty about the future, having truly no idea what the world would look like tomorrow or what it would look like a year from now, was deeply unsettling, and at times scary,” Byrnes said.

“I also live alone and enjoy solitude, but was very worried about what such an extended period of isolation would do to my mental and emotional health. I felt very lost,” she added.

Byrnes, who has been attending a Presbyterian church in Chicago for three years, finds ritual and space for stillness and silence meaningful.

“I knew that what Family Chapel was offering would be helpful, and it was,” she said.

Now, Byrnes, Taylor and Maresca have facilitated Family Chapel since early April. They’ve had guidance from Sacred Design Lab.

Long before the pandemic, Sacred Design Lab identified what Thurston referred to as the “twin crisis of social isolation and spiritual longing” that can pull people apart.

Angie Thurston. Photo courtesy of Sacred Design Lab

The lab’s partners recognized the increasing religious disaffiliation among millennials and Gen Z, but at the same time noticed young people finding sacred experiences in secular communities. From fitness and gaming spaces to justice movements, Thurston said, “people were bringing their whole lives to these communities because often they didn’t have anywhere else to go for that.”

A lot of that is being accelerated by the pandemic, said Thurston, 35.

In mid-March, Thurston said, they opened Family Chapel to the public on Zoom. Sacred Design Lab led it for three weeks, but Thurston said part of the goal of “expanding spiritual imagination” was to make way for others to take leadership roles. Sacred Design Lab backed away to allow others to facilitate Family Chapel.

As Thursday’s Family Chapel finished, Maresca ended with a blessing. “May you lift up any sorrow or grief, large or small, for the collective embrace we’re all experiencing in this moment,” he said.

Maresca and the others expect Family Chapel to continue after the social distancing measures are no longer in place.

“I see Family Chapel continue to be a safe space for people to share reflection,” Maresca said. “Often, the secular world is hard to be able to express your spirituality.”