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Faith Leaders Adapt To COVID-19 Pandemic

Nuns wearing protective masks and gloves pray during Easter Sunday Mass at Duomo di Napoli Cathedral, as Italy remains on lockdown to try and contain the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Naples, Italy, April 12, 2020. REUTERS/Ciro De Luca
Ciro De Luca/REUTERS
Nuns wearing protective masks and gloves pray during Easter Sunday Mass at Duomo di Napoli Cathedral, as Italy remains on lockdown to try and contain the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Naples, Italy, April 12, 2020. REUTERS/Ciro De Luca

Traditionally, in times of crisis, many people seek comfort at places of worship. But this crisis is different. 

On Sunday, Christians celebrated Easter, their most important day of the year. Many didn’t attend church. Certain Jewish denominations moved Passover seders online, but Orthodox Jews don’t use technology on Sabbath. And many Muslims have missed multiple Friday prayers. The social distancing among religious communities continues despite Governor Greg Abbott’s exemption for houses of worship, which can legally stay open.

Sayed Jawad is the imam at the Islamic Education Center in San Antonio.

“The way I think about this is the health of people is more important than anything in this world,” he said. 

The center — like most religious facilities — is closed over COVID-19 concerns. 

“To gather people — for me — is not moral, and is not a religious act,” he said. “Sometimes you have to close in order to fulfill your obligation.”

Fulfilling the civic and moral duty to public health means certain religious duties are impossible, for the time being. For most Islamic communities, Friday prayer is obligatory. Jawad said those prayers can’t happen online. 

And Ramadan, the most important month in the Islamic calendar, also begins in late April. Jawad hopes services can move from online to in-person by then, but any decision like that will be informed by public health. 

Nearly every widely-practiced religion in Texas has something that requires the community to meet in person. 

For Catholics, every Sunday is literally called a “holy day of obligation,” and, if possible, all practicing church members are required to attend mass. But this Easter, Catholics had to settle for a virtual experience. The San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio held spanish and english services led by archbishop Gustavo García-Siller

He said in-person masses have been suspended across the archdiocese, which includes more than 150 churches and more than 700,000 Catholics.

The sacraments are deeply important in the Catholic faith. 

“The sacraments were created by Jesus, and were given to us by Jesus,” García-Siller said. 

Some sacraments — like confessions, which take place with only two people in the room — continue by appointment only. Others, like confirmation, have been postponed. The Easter season is an especially popular time for baptisms, but García-Siller said most will have to be rescheduled.

And then there’s communion, also known as eucharist, when the priest presents bread and wine as the body and blood of Jesus to his congregation. It’s taken a new form for now.

“We have spiritual communion, and that is a beautiful prayer that people can say at that time, which places them in the same emotional and mental and spiritual experience like when they come to church,” he said. 

That’s something all faith communities are looking for — a way to replicate the emotional, mental and spiritual experiences usually reserved for in-person gatherings.  

People practicing Judaism celebrated Passover last week. Temple Beth El in San Antonio held community seders online. Usually, they’re big feasts at full tables. This year, the seder happened via Zoom and Facebook Live. 

Many Jewish traditions require a minion — a gathering of ten or more people. For certain Jewish denominations, those gatherings now happen via Zoom and other platforms. But Ronit Sherwin, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of San Antonio, said this approach doesn’t work for everyone.  

“Religious and Orthodox Jews don't utilize technology or electricity on holidays, particularly the Sabbath,” she said. 

This means Orthodox Jews who live alone were unable to participate in community seders on Passover. 

“So it's particularly isolating for them,” Sherwin said. 

A small number of religious communities are continuing to meet in person. Over Easter weekend, XTreme Harvest Church in San Antonio held a drive-in service with social distancing measures in place.

Each faith leader interviewed for this story said that despite — or perhaps even because of — the hurdles that come with this pandemic, people have been turning to their faith more often, and have become more generous. 

Imam Sayed Jawad said that should be a top priority.

“I think the most important thing that religious organizations can do now is to help people that lost their job, they lost their insurance, and they cannot afford food,” he said. “Even in terms of spirituality, we can help them through this difficult time.”

That sense of duty is one more way religious communities can stay strong — even at a distance. 

Dominic Anthony can be reached at Dominic@TPR.org and on Twitter at @_DominicAnthony.

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Dominic Anthony Walsh can be reached at Dominic@TPR.org and on Twitter at @_DominicAnthony