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‘It’s Like a Lifeline.’ How Religious Leaders Are Helping People Stay Connected in a Time of Isolation

5 minute read

The coronavirus didn’t scare the senior group at Fremont Presbyterian Church in Sacramento, Calif. For World War II veterans and survivors of the Great Depression, the outbreak seemed like a comparatively meek threat. But Bobbi Trask, minister of member care, explained that to help defeat the virus, they need to show “a different kind of strength.”

“You have to now pull up from inside of you the same kind of bravery that you have experienced through the Great Depression and through wars … along with the same sense of sacrifice. Because if you get sick, you are going to cause others to get sick,” Trask says she told her congregants. “And with that, they knew how to rally. It was like, ‘ok, we can do this for the greater good.’” In her view, the trust she’s built with her congregation — both as a church leader and friend who leads them in bible study — helped her to bring home the importance of caution.

“They know how much how I love them,” says Trask. “I do think that not only myself but our church has built up a credibility of care with them, and so they trust us.”

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While taking part in religious gatherings and rituals in churches, synagogues, mosques and around kitchen tables has long helped build connections between people, the coronavirus pandemic has transformed these traditions into potential threats for entire communities. Because mass gatherings can accelerate the spread of COVID-19, religious communities across the country have been forced to cancel in-person services, and to put everything from baptisms to bar and bat mitzvahs to weddings on hold. (Some religious leaders have, controversially, continued in-person services, a move that health experts say puts people at unnecessary risk.)

But instead of going into hibernation for the duration of the outbreak, many religious communities have instead expanded their role in the lives of their members and the wider community, getting together online, on the phone, and in other physically distant yet emotionally connected ways. As many Americans are largely isolated at home due to the pandemic, both formal and informal religious groups are finding new ways to meet the spiritual, psychological and even day-to-day physical needs of their congregants.

Dennis Sasso, the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis, Indiana, believes he has two main roles during the COVID-19 crisis: making sure his congregants are cared for emotionally and spiritually, and reminding them to follow health experts’ directives. His congregation has streamed religious services and even a talk with a public health expert.

“As a faith leader, what I can say to the community is, listen to the medical and scientific advice,” says Sasso. “Follow all the protocols. Follow the directives that will keep us healthy. Science and medicine will help us uncover the cure. The purpose of religion and faith is to provide the healing that community and wisdom and tradition can bring.”

For many congregations, expanding their digital reach has been a crucial part of helping their congregants to remain connected. Denise Fredrickson, a member of the vestry at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Yardley, Penn., says that her church has been releasing all of its religious services online, as well as many secular activities, including yoga and poetry readings. The church is even planning to conduct a digital performance of Shakespeare’s King Lear. According to Fredrickson, some of the sermons and events have attracted hundreds of people on Facebook — far more than typically attend the church’s activities in person, suggesting some who don’t typically attend services are turning to religion in a time of crisis.

“It’s like a lifeline,” said Fredrickson. “Because you don’t realize, sometimes, how closed-off this has become. But this has been a way for all of us to engage, to see faces, to post how we’re feeling and really communicate.”

Others have found ways to take their personal religious or cultural practices online in smaller-scale ways. Cathy Costin and her friends have gathered together to celebrate Shabbat for roughly 25 years, but this March was the first time the group decided to hold the dinner online. Costin says that, while she doesn’t believe in God, she found the experience to be particularly powerful — especially because many of the group’s adult children participated in the dinner despite living in far-away states.

“There’s something about those traditions,” says Costin. “There’s something about lighting those candles, and drinking that wine, and blessing the bread, that is incredibly comforting at a time like this”.

Places of worship are also finding ways to organize support for the elderly, who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Religious leaders at Trask’s Fremont Presbyterian Church have enlisted many of their younger congregants to support the church’s elders, for instance. A group of college students delivers groceries and drives people to doctor’s appointments. drives people to urgent doctor’s appointments. Middle-aged congregants call the seniors once a week to check in and offer a chance to chat. And the congregation’s very youngest members have been sending the seniors drawings and cards, which slightly older children put in envelopes and deliver to the mailbox.

The congregants’ faith, Trask says, means that they’re “supposed to step up and help.” “We’re supposed to do that all the time,” he adds, “but especially in these situations — and especially when fear is a huge factor. Because we’re demonstrating faith.”

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