Religion in the Time of COVID.
And on the eighth day God created Zoom.
You might be tempted to believe that, talking to faith leaders in 2020. From Quakers to Muslims, Unitarians to Jews, the faithful across the world have had to adapt to these challenging times, and many of them are using zoom and other technology to gather for worship and keep their faith communities strong.
“Zoom is working really well for us, better than I would have predicted,” Susan Gore, president of the board of trustees for the Clearwater Unitarian Universalists, says. “I’m not techno-savvy, but I have learned enough to host multiple meetings every week. An unexpected bonus is that our Sunday attendance has been significantly higher than usual in the summer. It’s easier simply to turn on your computer, not having to fight traffic and/or the heat. We also are providing training on how to do Zoom to committee leaders, members and anyone who wants to learn.”
Rabbi Michael Porop says that Temple Beth-el in South Pasadena has always used some technology, live streaming their regular services and high holy day events, but the virus made them “up their game.”
“We used to just have a single, fixed-angle camera streaming in a lower-res, but since the pandemic we have added cameras and gotten a much higher res,” Porop says. “We’re also doing things like pre-recording musical numbers that we can drop into a live broadcast.”
Porop said that the temple now provides a variety of options, like live streaming on their website, on Zoom or through Facebook and YouTube.
“We like to be able to give people the option of using whatever platform works best for them,” he said.
Unfortunately, these technologies do have drawbacks.
Porop says his synagogue experienced two instances of “zoom bombing,” where unwelcome guests tried to disrupt the worship experience.
“It was disturbing, yes, but it forced us to put better protections in place for our Zoom events,” he said. “Now we require passwords or ‘waiting rooms’ before people are allowed to participate. So far those precautions seem to be working.”
What’s it like to worship virtually?
“Meeting by Zoom was strange at first for many of us,” Linda Morganstein, clerk of the Meeting of the St. Petersburg Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), says. “We tend to be an older group of folks, some of whom are tech-challenged. But the younger among us helped a lot and got us set up and now it feels as if we are actually more respectful of each other; perhaps even kinder and more thoughtful while we navigate being together via phone and computer. I think it’s made us kinder; more compassionate.”
Imam Abdul Karim Ali is the chairman of the Tampa Bay Muslim Association. While he said a few mosques have begun meeting in person, most have elected to have traditional Friday evening prayer via Zoom. Muslims pray five times a day, so many are used to following that ritual at home with their families.
“Thank Allah that we live when we do,” Ali said. “If this pandemic had hit 1400 years ago when Islam was just beginning, we would not have had the options that today’s technology affords us.”
Ali likes to use a traditional Muslim story to illustrate how the community perceives and reacts to the pandemic. The story goes that a man entered a village on his camel and stopped at a local establishment for some refreshment. But he neglected to adequately tie up his camel and when he came out the camel was gone. The lesson is that, metaphorically, you should always keep track of your camel – and Ali compares the virus to the camel.
“It’s important for us to know where the camel is and what he is doing so we can react accordingly,” Ali says.
Ali explains that Muslims believe in science and will be looking to the scientists, doctors and other health professionals to give them guidance on when it’s appropriate for the community to begin meeting in person. He notes there is nothing in the Muslim faith to preclude members from being vaccinated. If proven safe and effective, he says he and his family will be in line to take it.
Following the direction of science is also a top priority in Porop’s community. He notes that the temple put together a task force of people in health care, education, business and science to guide them on when it will be safe to start in-person worship again.
The Quakers are also taking a communal approach to the challenge of in-person gathering.
“There is a Quaker committee formed of people from all over the state addressing that issue,” said Morganstein. “We will have the knowledge and thought from those folks to guide us. In addition, our Meeting will talk about what may need to happen with our particular Meeting and Meetinghouse in order for us to feel OK about worshipping in person again. We want to honor the vulnerabilities of our community and not push for any particular date. God is within us and around us; so everywhere is sacred, we don’t necessarily need a building for that.”
Gore says that while UUs take all precautions when it comes to the virus, there is some impatience in the community.
“UUs tend to be very ‘heady’ people,” Gore says. “We mask up, wash our hands and stay home – mostly. Mostly, I say, because we also pride ourselves in our diversity. Some UU Clearwater members feel it is time to ‘get back together.’ As much as I would like to see my friends face to face, I believe it is way too early to predict when we will be meeting in person again. Next spring, perhaps…if there isn’t a resurgence coupled with the flu.”
Morganstein believes that the challenges of 2020 may actually serve to strengthen community bonds.
“I am hoping that other organizations are having the same type of ‘cracking-open’ experiences we’ve talked about in our Meeting – seeing each other and ourselves in new ways, and realizing how deep and alive our bonds are,” she says. “Occasionally, a catastrophe brings solace and gifts with it that we couldn’t have foreseen. I think this was one of those times.”
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