Faith and religion in the face of a pandemic
As nations across the world implement “social distancing” measures, ban large gatherings and close all nonessential businesses to “flatten the curve” of the COVID-19 pandemic, faith communities have crafted their own responses. Like other sectors of society, religion has been impacted by this global health crisis as everyone is required to comply with government guidelines. With no services, Sunday offerings have become an issue for many churches, since many depend on them for their maintenance and support.
The responses to the pandemic have not been uniform. There are mosques in Indonesia that have ignored calls to suspend prayers. In Brazil, some Catholic and Evangelical churches have remained open. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Samuel Heilman from New York, who is unable to visit his synagogue, remarked, “What religion offers to the solitary individual is that he or she is part of something greater than themselves.” For many people I know, religion is their “refuge and strength” as they live with fear, worry, and anxiety in this time of global uncertainty.
In the United States, religious leaders are improvising various ways to reach their congregations, including using religious social networks like Pray.com, an online app that has seen an uptick in subscribers in recent weeks. Live streaming, social media, apps and other platforms like Zoom are being used to do church online. It appears that even though people are physically separated, they still long for some sort of spiritual connection.
Many will admit, however, that seeing their faith leader on screen doesn’t deliver the same feeling as praying together with friends and family in church. The challenge of the day for many is how to balance the need for connection with the need to shield others from contagion. As well, there are concerns regarding pastoral care. Like, how do you conduct a funeral in the midst of a global pandemic? What happens when the frequency of deaths exceeds our capacity to provide pastoral care?
Even burial rituals and practices need to be amended at this time, since some governments advise against gatherings of more than 10 people. Some, like Seattle, have banned funerals altogether. Funerals and weddings were the first public events to be banned in Italy.
The resilience of faith communities and people in general in finding ways to connect during this time of self-quarantine and social distancing has been enlivening.
Times like this invite us to ask once again “What does it mean to be a church?” We can continue to believe that “God is in charge,” but at the same time we also need to listen to what science and health experts are telling us. While it may be true that “God is everywhere” and we are met by God, there are still those who feel that the only way they are truly close to God is when they are in church.
There are therefore some who argue that church is an “essential service” and people should be free to go to their houses of worship as they are to go to the grocery, the gas station, and the pharmacy. Closing places of worship at this time, according to some, is surrendering to secular culture that puts “fear of death” over the sovereignty of God.
In the midst of all this debate, there are the poor who always end up suffering more than the rest of us, and the words of the Christian scriptures that call on us “to seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17).
In this time of pandemic, perhaps the greatest threat is not the virus itself and the loss of human lives, as important as they may be. It is the loss of what makes us human: our being in relation with the Divine and each other, and with all of creation.
By this time, many of us have stocked up on food and basic necessities. This may also be a time to stock up on compassion and loving kindness, and to reach out to the least protected and most vulnerable.
REV. DR. RAFAEL VALLEJO
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