A VR quest for community, brotherhood

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Quarantined for exposure to COVID-19, Garret Bernal and his family missed a recent Sunday church service. So he strapped on a virtual reality headset and explored what it would be like to worship in the metaverse.

Without leaving his home in Richmond, Virginia, he was soon floating in a 3D outer space wonderland of pastures, rocky cliffs and rivers, as the avatar of a pastor guided him and others, through computer-generated illustrations of Bible passages that seemed to come to life as they prayed.

“I couldn’t have had such an immersive church experience sitting in my pew. I got to see the scriptures in a new way,” said Bernal, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, widely known as the Mormon Church.


He’s among many Americans — some traditionally religious, some non-religiously affiliated — who are increasingly communing spiritually through virtual reality, one of several evolving metaverse spaces that have grown in popularity during the coronavirus pandemic.

From spiritual meditations in fantasy worlds to traditional Christian worship services with virtual sacraments in hyper-realistic, religious environments, their worshipers say the experience offers a version of fellowship that’s every bit as authentic as it gets. find in a brick and mortar temple.

“The most important aspect for me, which was very real, was the closer connection with God that I felt during my short time here,” Bernal said.

The service he attended was hosted by VR Church, which was founded in 2016 by DJ Soto, a former high school teacher and pastor of a non-virtual church. VR Church presents itself as a spiritual community existing “entirely in the metaverse to celebrate God’s love for the world”.

Soto had previously felt called to plant churches or start new physical churches. But after discovering social VR platform AltSpaceVR, he was awakened to the possibilities of connecting in virtual reality. He set out to create an inclusive Christian church in the Metaverse, an immersive virtual world that has been buzzing since Facebook announced last October that it would invest billions in building it.

Attendance was sparse the first year, as Soto often found himself preaching to a handful of people at a time, most of them atheists and agnostics who were more interested in debating faith. His congregation has since grown to about 200 people, and he has ordained other ministers remotely from his home in Virginia and baptized believers who cannot leave their homes due to illnesses.

“The future of the church is the metaverse,” Soto said. “It’s not an anti-physical thing. I don’t think physical gatherings should go away. But in the Church of 2030, the primary focus will be your metaverse campus.”

Reverend Jeremy Nickel, an ordained Unitarian Universalist based in Colorado and calling himself a virtual reality evangelist, also saw the potential for building community and “stepping away from brick and mortar” when he founded SacredVR in 2017.

Inspired by his time in Nepal with Tibetan Buddhists and his studies of alternative practices in seminary, Nickel began with secular meditations with the goal of being inclusive for all comers. But some community members with no religious affiliation were put off by the name, he noted, so he changed it to EvolVR and more people joined.

It was only in the wake of the pandemic, however, that attendance grew from a few dozen to hundreds who now attend dharma lectures and meditation sessions through their chosen avatars, sometimes meeting in a virtual embodiment of a Tibetan Buddhist temple high in the mountains or floating weightlessly gazing at the Earth.

“One of the reasons we’ve become so popular is that you get the meditation you need, but you also get the community,” Nickel said. “We have deep connections, hundreds of people from all over the world who know each other and are like, ‘Is your dog okay? How is your wife doing?'”

The anonymity of virtual reality can help people feel more confident about sharing deeply personal issues, said Bill Willenbrock, who runs a Christian community on social platform VRChat with worship and counseling services for a group of mostly teenagers and young people in their twenties.

“I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard, ‘I’m considering killing myself. … It helps that we are in virtual reality,” said Willenbrock, a hospital chaplain and longtime Lutheran pastor who recently converted to Eastern Orthodoxy and calls himself a “digital missionary.”

On a recent Sunday, he preached in a cavernous virtual cathedral, its long halls lit by the light of stained glass windows. A colorful assembly of avatars listened to the sermon: a giant banana sitting on the first pew next to another representing a man in a shirt and tie, plus a mushroom, a fox, knights in armour.

At the end, they took turns sharing why they came to the virtual community. Some saw it as something to complement, not replace, in-person gatherings.

A person with the username Biff Tannen, said it was handy: “For example here in Scotland it’s cold, it’s humid, it’s not very nice outside, but here I’m sitting in this beautiful church with my heating on.”

Another, represented by a robot-like avatar and the username UncleTuskle, said that “as someone with social phobia, it’s easier for me to be here” than in a physical church.

Virtual reality can allow people to meet without judgement, regardless of physical ability or appearance, said Paul Raushenbush, who is a senior public affairs and innovation adviser at the nonprofit Interfaith Youth. Core and who last month hosted a virtual reality talk show with religious leaders who use the technology.

“What I love is that he takes…every technological opportunity that comes his way and they use it to bring people together for positive encounters,” Raushenbush said. “And they change lives.”

Alina Delp can attest to that.

A former flight attendant who traveled across the country for years and loved skydiving, since 2010 she has been mostly confined to her home in Olympia, Wash., due to a rare neurovascular condition called erythromelalgia.

She cried the first time she attended a VR church service, knowing immediately that she had found a home. Delp was fascinated by the non-judgmental ethics of the community and focused on “love of God rather than fear”. She began volunteering with small groups and eventually became a pastor.

“I was given a life. … It’s the difference between endless sleep time and television versus my ability to be productive,” she said.

Soto christened her during a Metaverse ceremony in 2018, submerging her purple robot avatar in a swimming pool as relatives and friends virtually cheered her on. While even many VR proponents think such sacraments should only be offered in a physical space, to Delp it felt like a real blessing.

“It was Jesus who baptized me. Jesus is the one who changes me,” she said. “Water, or the lack thereof…has no power to change me.”

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AP reporters Jessie Wardarski and Mae Anderson contributed to this report.

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Associated Press religious coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through The Conversation US. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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