Spiritual Leaders Are Handling The Coronavirus Crisis By Leaning Into Rituals

By Jennifer Gerson
Ventura Carmona/Moment Unreleased/Getty Images

Rev. Dr. Charlene Han Powell, executive pastor at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, had been re-reading the Gospels for Lent when the coronavirus outbreak hit the United States. Under orders to stay at home, she’s been returning to Matthew 6:34, part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

“It feels like a really tall order in the midst of everything going on, but it is an important reminder to me to be present each day in a truly radical way,” Han Powell says. “We don’t even know what tomorrow is going to be.”

Faith is called on in times of calm and of crisis alike, but during the coronavirus pandemic, spiritual leaders are finding their work taking on new resonance.

“There are times our jobs are to challenge people, and times when our jobs are to comfort people,” says Rabbi Alexandria Shuval-Weiner, who leads a reform synagogue in an Atlanta, Georgia, suburb. “But mainly, our jobs are to be a non-anxious presence and help show people forward through the darkness.”

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The pandemic has hit at a particularly spiritual time of year. The beginning of the coronavirus outbreak coincided with the Lunar New Year; now, approaching Easter and Passover, there are estimates that widespread social distancing could continue through April, when Ramadan starts. With these policies in place, many religious communities have had to suspend in-person services ahead of some of the holiest days of the year.

Rev. Dr. Noelle York-Simmons, rector at the Episcopal Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia, says she is “still trying to wrap my mind around the loss of these deeply important holy days in our tradition.”

Han Powell’s church moved its weekly services to YouTube two Sundays ago. Virtual Holy Week and Easter services are still on for April 12, Han Powell says. “It won’t be the same level of pomp and circumstance, but it is becoming abundantly clear that’s not what people truly care about,” she says.

Shuval-Weiner says her congregants have lots of questions about how to best observe Passover, which begins the evening of April 8. Typically, the holiday is celebrated with a seder at home, with immediate and extended family coming together.

“For a week now, I have been telling people, ‘We are not going to gather as a family to celebrate the way we are used to. We can’t expose the generations in this way by coming together,’” Shuval-Weiner says. She recently spoke with other Jewish clergy members and a team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about best Passover practices, who affirmed the need to keep social distance. To compensate, she says Jewish leaders are working on downloadable haggadahs, the prayer books recited over the Passover meal, and resources to help older congregants stream their family’s seders.

Dr. Sylvia Chan-Malik, an associate professor at Rutgers University-New Brunswick whose research highlights Muslim women, says that explaining the changes to Ramadan (which begins April 23 and ends May 23) and Eid al-Fitr (which begins May 23 and ends May 24), has been challenging for her family. Her children, ages 12 and 14, look forward to it all year. “It’s their favorite holiday. And now they’re like, ‘Oh wait, are we not having Eid this year?’” They’re planning to host iftar, the post-sundown break fast each night of Ramadan, over Zoom.

“Being Muslim is really challenging sometimes for children,” she says, adding that holidays like Eid and Ramadan are a source of pride for children often made to feel othered — and that missing them is a major blow. “A lot of families are focused on how to talk their children through this and still make the holidays special.”

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“A lot of our members are losing their jobs, worried about the health of their family members and loved ones, and just asking for prayer in these times,” Han Powell says. Her community has responded with text groups and virtual hangouts of people “trying to connect with others, offer moral support and prayer, or just pool resources to help those in need.”

Shuval-Weiner has also seen a common urge to do good. While many Jews are familiar with the concept of tikkun olam, or “repairing the world” through good deeds, the rabbi says the idea also means supporting the scientists and doctors involved in the fight against the virus. Following the guidance of the CDC and World Health Organization is an important ritual for restoring order within the community, itself an act of tikkun olam, as well. Just this week, President Trump spoke out against the advice of scientists about when Americans can stop practicing social distancing in order to stimulate the economy.

“When we don’t use our minds, we’re casting aside that which God has endowed us,” Shuval-Weiner says. “Wisdom is divine.”

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“There is so much overwhelm, uncertainty, and grave fear right now, alongside the change of home, school, and work routines that are leaving people rocked to their core,” says Elizabeth Rowan, a yoga teacher and healer based in Atlanta. Rowan says existing students and strangers have turned to her for non-religious spiritual guidance during this time.

“Spirituality is a means for us to connect with something greater than just us, find hope, support, meaning in the madness,” she says. “We are all seeking support and reassurance right now.”

Families have told Shuval-Weiner they’re engaging in rituals they previously didn’t have time for, like baking challah, lighting Shabbat candles, or learning parental blessings. “After we’re on the other side of this, we’re all going to be evaluating, ‘What do I want to put back into my life and what do I want to keep on the front burner that’s sacred to me?’ And I think … that’s going to be family and faith.”

Han Powell is optimistic that the roles that faith and ritual are playing in people’s lives will stick, a departure from the trend before coronavirus. According to research from the Pew Research Center of more than 35,000 people, Americans are increasingly identifying as unaffiliated with any faith — almost 23% did so in 2014, compared to 16% in 2007 — even as a majority of that same group says they believe in God.

Chan-Malik says social distancing has unintentionally highlighted how many Muslim women already had to create their own spaces to practice their faith. In some mosques, women are kept to one side of the masjid or out of the main chamber, or even denied physical space to pray entirely.

“A lot of women say, ‘I don’t go to the mosque during Ramadan anyway because I feel that I don’t fit in there’,” Chan-Malik says. “But now, people are finding new ways to come together and celebrate their faith, even in the most difficult of circumstances. Just as Muslim women always have done.”

Shuval-Weiner says for people newly discovering their spirituality, the key to maintaining a practice is to ensure your rituals are “simple things,” so they don’t add stress.

“Choose just one prayer, one mantra, one moment, and then return to the breath whenever we feel anxiety coming up,” she says. “Let us focus upon it and give gratitude for it each and every day.”