Faith, religion and the coronavirus

By Sandra Sadek | Times Editorial Intern
Posted 7/30/20

As the COVID-19 pandemic drags into the late summer months, many aspects of daily life have had to be modified for a new lifestyle that demands less interaction and more hygienic precautions. Places …

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Faith, religion and the coronavirus

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As the COVID-19 pandemic drags into the late summer months, many aspects of daily life have had to be modified for a new lifestyle that demands less interaction and more hygienic precautions. Places of worship are among the sites that have had to rethink years of tradition to ensure safety guidelines are met.

Fred Greco, senior pastor at Christ Church PCA congregation, a Presbyterian denomination, said his church, which offered a variety of programs alongside worship services, has had to cut back on many programs and rely on digital tools to reach his community. Among the offered programs and classes at Christ Church were ESL classes hosting between 80 and 100 students a week, Sunday school, and Bible studies.

“When COVID-19 hit, we had to scale back everything. We suspended our ESL classes because they were very crowded. We suspended Christian education classes and groups and Bible studies,” Greco said. “Basically, everything but worship.”

Sirisharani Gullapalli, chairman and founder at Sai Durga Shiva Vishnu Mandir, a Hindu temple in Katy, said devotees would average to 30 a day, up to 50 on busier days before the pandemic. The temple used to also host eight to nine major yearly events, bringing in around 500 people.

“From the time of this COVID-19, we have seen very much a decrease in devotees visiting the temple. Less than five members visit the temple on a daily basis,” Gullapalli said. “Keeping in mind the safety of devotees and our staff and others, we reach our devotees on Facebook, Zoom, and use WhatsApp and email to communicate. All events are displayed through Facebook. On Auspicious day, we give appointments.”

Many sites have implemented Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to remain open such as wearing masks, maintaining social distancing, and disinfecting surfaces. While the right to meet for worship is protected under the First Amendment, debate across the country over whether health guidelines can scale back religious gathering for safety has been sparked. On May 29, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order which limited religious gathering to a 25% capacity or a maximum of 100 people.

“When we got to reopen at 25%, the joy that I experienced in people who did come back was so amazing. I mean you could see tears in their eyes after being away for a while,” Father Dat Hoang from St. Faustina Catholic Church said.

In Texas, most places of worship have either reopened at a 25% capacity or have remained completely online for the time being. With the reduced ways in which communities can meet to practice their faith, many places have come up with remote activities and events to continue fostering a sense of community.

Hoang said his parish has been involved in weekly food drives with other churches as well as hosting “Bedtime stories with Father Dat” on Tuesday nights via Facebook. He said remote services have allowed for more people to become involved with God or rediscover their faith.

“People were sending in pictures of how their family on the weekend gather around the TV. The TV now (has) become a window through which God's light and grace shine through the homes,” Hoang said. “So they gather around the TV to worship every Sunday for those who are not able to come back yet. And a number of people who haven't gone to mass before now.”

The ever-changing orders and guidelines in place to limit the spread of the coronavirus has forced places of worship to quickly adapt as to not lose devotees and face economic hardship in some instances. Pat Sparks, lead pastor at St. Peter’s United Methodist Church said the church has seen a 20% drop in their income compared to the same time last year, relying on online donations and mail-ins.

“I don't know whether to say, COVID-19 is the 20% drop or indirectly COVID-19 and by that I mean people who (have) either been furloughed or, income has dropped or now don't have a job,” Sparks said. “All of those things that influence giving, I think is impacted.”

Despite the changes in what is a constant in many people’s lives, the feedback from attendees has been positive and understanding.

“We’ve gotten a really strong response. People understand that this is the best thing. Now to be clear, not everybody’s on the same page,” Sparks said. “John Wesley who founded the Dallas Methodist Church said, ‘Even though we don't all think alike, can we not all love alike’. And so, we've held on to that and the way we kind of express it is ‘diverse in thought, united in mission.’”

At the moment, there is no set timeline for when things will return to normal. In the meantime, devotees have to make do with the changes in how they practice their faith.

“This pandemic has brought a kind of fear in the public mind and the fear to gather for religious events. We think after vaccination, slowly this may vanish. Keeping (devotees’) health and safety in mind, most of the people may prefer virtual religious practice to keep their faith intact. However, this may change in the future because approaching god in person and practicing the religious act will give much more satisfaction than virtual practice,” Gullapali said.

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