How Does Faith Survive A Pandemic?

It is not news to any of us that COVID-19 in the last four months has defined a new era: specifically, an era of isolation and loneliness. Elderly residents of nursing homes who once enjoyed the company of their children and grandchildren must now find comfort from waving through a window.

Those whose daily social interaction were met through the often trivial chatter of the office are now left to themselves in their homes. The children, teenagers and young adults who found solace in being known and loved by their schoolmates have now been left to their digital devices, a platform that is already widely blamed for spreading loneliness.

Some make efforts to make this period less isolating, such as those who refer to social distancing as merely “physical” distancing. While their optimism is admirable and necessary, the lack of an “in-person” community has a very serious effect on the mental health and wellness of those around the world. 

Nearly every group of people feels the impact of isolation due to COVID-19 resoundingly. Community is an inherent part of the human experience, and its sudden withdrawal will also leave us in a state of withdrawal. One group that relies heavily on community is people of faith. With the sudden suspension of religious ceremonies, pilgrimages, and celebrations globally, the lives of people of faith around the world have been shaken.

Being a group of people that generally approach change apprehensively, the total upheaval of tradition and routine has wreaked havoc for members of the religious community. The responses to this devastating reality have certainly had variance. This variance does not necessarily exist along specific religious lines, as groups within the same religion have approached these restrictions with drastic difference. Some have exhibited recklessness, while others assent to the changes, understanding that the lives of hundreds of thousands are at stake; and therefore, that putting those lives in danger would be antithetical to their theological ideology. 

Beginning with the unfortunately common response: recklessness. Many religious groups were not cautious as the outbreak began, and many of those did not become more cautious as it continued to grow. Many hosted large events that were responsible for the massive spread of the illness.

Reuters reports that in France, the largest cluster of cases arose during a mass Evangelical Christian gathering. 2,500 cases were confirmed to have been borne from this event. Not only did this affect France, however, as many of these attendees did not realize they had the virus until bringing it back to their home countries.

Similarly, many report that the outbreak in South Korea was due to a religious conference that triggered 5,000 cases to spread. While some of this disobedience can be boiled down to carelessness, some religious figures have claimed it as an imposition on their religious freedoms. CNN reports that some clergy members claim that their services are in fact essential, akin to grocery shopping. And others have expressed their right to  “hold our religious rights dear” and that the virus is “politically motivated.”

Reuters reports that upon breaking up a religious ceremony that violated the restrictions imposed by the Health Ministry, the Israeli police were met with great dissent from the members of an ultra-orthodox community who proceeded to shout “Nazis!” at them. This has increased the preexisting division among the secular and religious spheres, both feeling an infringement and disrespect on account of the other.

Other religious groups, however, have taken quite a different approach that both adhere and encourage the rules of quarantine while embodying and reflecting their most important teachings. With the suspension of the mass, Catholics around the world have given up the joy of receiving the Eucharist and greeting their brothers and sisters with the sign of peace.

Muslims across the world face devastation in the wake of the cancellation of the Umrah, one of the most practiced rites in Islam: the pilgrimage to Mecca and the Kaaba, the building at the center of the Great Mosque.

Many Hindus in India observed from inside their homes the lively, outdoor celebration of Holi, the rejoicing of the triumph of good over evil and the season of new life; “but the energy which is synonymous with Holi is missing,” one reported to the BBC.

The suspension of important traditions, such as the touch or kiss the mezuzah (the scrolls with religious verses which are placed on doorposts of homes, and which people touch or kiss when entering a building or a room), leave the Jewish people wondering when all will be well. For all those who are spiritual, involved in organized religion or not, the appreciation for the crucial aspects of the community, celebration, and religious practices will certainly have risen as this crisis reaches its eventual resolution. 

The urgency to implement these aforementioned safety precautions as these religious bodies have done is inextricably linked to each group’s fundamental teaching in their various augmentations: to value life, and therefore, to preserve it. The Guardian reports one religious figure saying, “the decision to temporarily suspend activities was based on one of the fundamental principles in Islam to preserve human life.”

Another reporter from CNN adds from the Christian perspective, “parables like that of the ‘lost sheep’ emphasize that the whole group must compromise when the life of a single person is at stake.” And finally, one Rabbi reports to the BBC, “certainly the most important thing is to make sure that we have support for each other, and maybe [we should be] emphasizing that as a way of connecting to God.”

Thus, following restrictions imposed by various national health centers actually allow the faithful to practice their fundamental teachings in a very tangible way. Social distancing, quarantines, and lockdowns are the specific ways that this era demands we preserve life. Albeit a devastating time for people of faith, with major religious seasons such as Easter, Passover, and Ramadan approaching, it is all the more imperative to sacrifice our joys and routines for the possibility of life for our neighbors all across the globe. 

Danielle Bodette

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