As the COVID-19 pandemic forces people to social distance from one another, religious institutions are working creatively to adapt tradition to suit health needs.
For Imam Sohail Chaudhry, who serves at the Islamic Center of East Lansing, the adjustment to serving congregants primarily online has been jarring.
“We have so many activities that go on at the center, and for people like myself who are involved in most of them, it’s been a shock,” Chaudhry said. “At the same time, it’s a time of reflection to look at things from a different perspective. We feel we miss the center now, and we see its importance more so.”
Rabbi Yonaton Dahlen of the Shaarey Zedek Congregation in Southfield echoed the same point that religious institutions have had to quickly shift their programming online.
“We’re streaming services daily — morning and evening — and we have great attendance for Shabbat,” Dahlen said. “We’ve all become experts on Zoom in the last two weeks.”
While these changes have been met with a positive response so far, Dahlen is concerned about how that could change.
“The longer we’re all cooped up, the more complicated this is going to be,” he said. “What happens when this starts to get worse? I hope it doesn’t, but I think there are still some challenges before us.”
One of those challenges is how to adapt important religious services during this unique time where members of communities must be physically distant from one another.
Detroit Archdiocese prepares for Holy Week, Easter
This spring, Muslims celebrate the holy month of Ramadan, Jews celebrate the week of Passover, and Christians celebrate Holy Week and Easter Sunday. All three celebrations usually feature gatherings with fellow members of their faith, family members and friends.
The first religious celebration approaching is Holy Week, which begins on April 5 and ends with Easter on April 12.
Fr. Mario Amore, pastor at St. Aloysius in Detroit, said that while the individual priests of each parish are responsible for helping parishioners meet their needs, like getting groceries for the elderly, the archdiocese is working to meet the spiritual needs of Catholics.
“During Holy Week, we’ll be putting on a diocesan mission Sunday through Friday,” Amore said. “Every night there will be something streamed at 7 p.m. offering different ways people can enter into Holy Week.”
Examples include encouraging people to do rituals that occur at Mass in their own homes. This includes the washing of others’ feet that takes place on Holy Thursday and kissing the cross on Good Friday.
He says doing “tangible acts of faith” at home are reminiscent of early Christians, who celebrated Mass in their own homes regularly. He hopes this will be an opportunity for people to take more of an active role in their faith.
“It’s one thing to be at mass to watch the priest do these things. It’s another thing to have the mother or father, or friends do these things in the home,” Amore said. “It really could be a time of grace to open ourselves up to the message of Holy Week that we may have missed.”
Amore said that his advice to people who might be isolated from their friends and families for Holy Week and Easter is to think of it as a personal retreat to consider one’s relationship with God.
“This can encourage that perspective of retreat and unite that loneliness, that suffering and sadness, with that of Christ. That’s a real thing we can do this year that maybe in the past we weren’t able to do during Holy Week.”
Shaarey Zedek plans livestream Passover, sedars
Dahlen said Shaarey Zedek is trying to adapt its upcoming Passover services, for which they normally bring in a choir to sing traditional songs. Another challenge is how to adapt the seder meals, which usually feature extended family and friends for the last two days of Passover. Passover takes place this year from April 8 to April 16.
“It’s a bummer for a lot of people that we won’t be together to hear the music,” Dahlen said. “We will be streaming. We are still trying to figure out what the seders will look like, because while we don’t do community seders, we usually encourage congregants to invite each other into their homes, and that can’t happen this year, so we’ve been trying to see if we can stream some seders.”
Although times have been challenging for his congregants, and especially those confined to assisted living facilities, Dahlen said that their spirit has been inspiring.
“I think that a lot of the responses in the Jewish community have been incredibly powerful and positive,” he said. “We’re keeping our distance in our homes not out of fear of being together but out of love and making sure we aren’t hurting anyone.”
While some interpret Jewish law to prohibit the use of technology during Passover seders, Dahlen says this year, he’s encouraging it.
“Judaism is about bringing family and community together,” he said. “Jewish law has a little bit of flexibility. We’re more than likely going to have a Zoom seder for at least one night, if not both nights. We’re encouraging people to FaceTime or Skype each other as a way to remember that Pesach is about being together, about family and about connecting.”
Ramadan provides fasting exceptions for sick
Ramadan takes place April 23 to May 23, and it is a month of fasting from sunrise to sundown each day. The fast is important, and is part of the Five Pillars of Islam. These are the Muslims’ most important religious obligations. Chaudhry said there are exceptions for the sick.
“From the Islamic perspective, Muslims after the age of puberty are required to fast during the Ramadan period if they can physically sustain the fast,” Chaudhry said. “They should consult with medical providers to determine the risks, and if there are any risks involved, Islam does not allow a person to fast.”
Chaudhry said that while the staff Islamic Center will try to do some Ramadan services there’s no way they’ll be able to replicate the usual traditions.
“Ramadan will be a totally different situation,” Chaudhry said. “The Islamic Center becomes 10 times more active during Ramadan …We’ll try to replicate some through online platforms, but people will have to spiritually motivate themselves with their families, in small groups or in isolation to get some experience of Ramadan.”
Chaudhry said some wisdom can be found in this situation.
“In Islam, we believe everything is good, and everything happens for a good reason,” he said. “While we are all stuck in our houses and it’s a difficult time for the world at large … This pandemic tells us how we are together in this world. It’s not a particular race, culture or religion being targeted by this virus. It should bring humanity closer because we are fighting together and existing together in this situation.”
(Editor’s note: With classes moving online, some Michigan State journalism students are reporting about their home communities.)