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Published May 03, 2016
Religious leaders in snowbound New England are beginning to ask themselves how on Earth their houses of worship will make ends meet after all these acts of God.
Churches, synagogues and mosques report attendance is down at services, as poorly timed winter storms have hit on or close to days of worship. And getting the faithful to come out is challenging, with limited parking and treacherously icy sidewalks plaguing the region.
For many places of worship, that has meant donations are drying up just as costs for snow removal, heating and maintenances are soaring.
"You have this perfect storm of people not being able to go to worship and so not bringing in offerings, combined with much higher than usual costs," says Cindy Kohlmann, who works with Presbyterian churches in Greater Boston and northern New England.
She says the financial toll could force some of the roughly 60 Presbyterian congregations in the region to close. The churches have collectively requested at least $300,000 from the national church's disaster relief fund to help cover their bills.
At the Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in Boston, the Rev. Thomas Domurat says he will hold two collections at Sunday Masses in an effort to gather more donations for snow expenses.
Mazen Duwaji, executive director at the Islamic Council of New England, says the mosque he attends in Sharon, Massachusetts, is hoping to make up its shortfalls during its annual fundraiser in March.
A number of religious leaders say donations are not down as drastically as they could be, given that attendance has dipped anywhere from 15 to 50 percent. Online donations increasingly are a reliable revenue source, helping many weather the lean attendance months.
But as the winter weather wears on, expenses are piling up.
At Epworth United Methodist Church in Worcester, the Rev. Patricia Miller Fernandes is waiting to see what the final bill will be after rooftop ice loosened bricks and mortar, sending building materials crashing to the ground and leaving a gaping hole in the roof.
"We're trying not to think about that until the reality comes in," Miller Fernandes says of the repair costs. "You always go to the worst-case scenario and I'm not trying to go there. We'll have to see what comes back from the insurance company."
Religious leaders say attendance declines aren't just affecting the bottom line.
Many community programs and activities are suffering, from cultural events and lectures to addiction support groups, financial literacy classes and free medical clinics.
"People are hunkering down at night and they're not coming back out," says Alan Teperow, executive director of the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts and a member of Temple Emanuel in Newton, an affluent Boston suburb. "Once you're home, it's difficult to say you'll go back out and face the frigid temperatures."
One silver lining: The bad weather is prompting some religious leaders to search for creative ways to keep their congregations engaged, from hosting "prayer calls" by phone to emailing scripture studies and organizing free activities for families when school gets canceled.
The response, they say, has been positive.
Mark Huber, the pastor at Sanctuary, a Protestant church in Marshfield, says nearly 500 people from across New England watched an online worship service he did from his living room couch while a blizzard howled outside.
"It really has got us thinking about how we can be here in the church and still out where people are," he says. "There are a lot of people who are stuck in various places for different reasons but still want to connect to a community and be a part of services."
Religious leaders say many congregants are taking this winter of discontent to look beyond their own problems.
Some houses of worship have seen greater donations of winter clothes and canned goods, while congregants at others are finding different ways to help the homeless, elderly and other vulnerable populations struggling more in the snow.
"These storms can bring out the best in people or they can bring out the worst," says Yusufi Vali, executive director at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, a mosque in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood. "And for people of faith, that's really the challenge: How do we respond to this in the best way possible?"