How religious leaders are adapting to keep the faith as coronavirus cancels mass gatherings

Three leaders of different religions discuss this test of faith.

March 20, 2020, 2:13 PM

As people around the world adjust their daily routines in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the new limits on social gatherings have impacted a societal norm that might've once seemed unwavering and untouchable: religious services.

Faith leaders across the United States are now tasked with keeping their congregations connected and involved amid what can feel like a trying test of faith.

Archbishop Gregory Aymond of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Rabbi Rachel Ain of Sutton Place Synagogue and Imam Dawud Walid, executive director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Michigan, joined ABC News' daily afternoon program, "Pandemic: What You Need to Know," to discuss how they are moving their faith communities forward in the midst of the global crisis.

PHOTO: Archbishop Gregory Aymond, Rabbi Rachel Ain and Imam Dawud Walid speak to ABC News about how they are moving their faith communities forward in the midst of the country's crisis.
Archbishop Gregory Aymond, Rabbi Rachel Ain and Imam Dawud Walid speak to ABC News about how they are moving their faith communities forward in the midst of the country's crisis.
ABC News

"It's a time of uncertainty and fear and people feel that it's an opportunity to realize that God does not abandon us in these times, he walks with us," Archbishop Aymond said.

Walid said in addition to staying away from large gatherings, he recommends people do their best to quell their anxiety by reflecting with family and take breaks from consuming news.

"People should take proper precautions, but don't fall into despair," Walid said. "We look at these times as a test that comes from God, and with proper precautions and patience, we can get out of this."

"Here's what I recommend: Don't fall into anxiety over watching too much news, rather do things with family and try to relax," he continued. "Do things to take your mind off the crisis and get you back into life. You can get overwhelmed by too much information and fear."

Although Ain's role has changed as she faces this new challenge, she said that overcoming strife is not new to the Jewish community.

"Now, more than ever, I'm trying to keep people physically safe and spiritually connected. In Jewish history, there have been times of strife and trouble, so this isn't new," she said. "We adapt, as we have for thousands of years."

The key difference now, she said, is the availability of technology. With live streaming, she said she now holds twice daily services, and that people have been logging in not just from inside the U.S. but from countries like Canada, Israel and Uganda as well.

"I now livestream Shabbat every Friday evening and Saturday morning," Ain said. "My membership also started a phone tree and outreach program to make sure we are checking in on the elderly and the needy."

When it comes to the Catholic community, Aymond said he also uses live streams to circumvent the restrictions on mass gatherings during this Lenten season.

"We are live streaming masses online and on television. I'm writing spiritual pieces on social media," Aymond said. "I want to remind people to not only get what they can from the TV and the Internet, but also the Bible. We can seek out those traditional resources, too."

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All three religions have major holidays rapidly approaching -- Easter, Passover and Ramadan all begin in the coming weeks -- and each leader offered advice to their followers who might feel lost while observing this year.

Walid said that Ramadan, which begins April 23 and ends May 23, is a particular "concern."

"Because we have nightly prayers together and daily classes on the Quran at mosque. It's the one time of the year that Muslims who never come to mosque during the year, show up," he explained.

"Folks need to remember that you can stay connected as a community even if you can't do it in person. I've seen families organizing Zoom calls for kids and other communities," Walid reiterated.

Ain said she has seen changes when it comes to other major Jewish events, such as Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.

"Some are holding very small gatherings, while other families are choosing to change their dates," she said. "And I've seen caterers still offering kosher meals for takeout for those who need them."

Aymond said there may not be an immediate lesson that folks can leearn from this challenging moment, but he said that ultimately, it's time to "trust in your faith."

"I think what we do know is that in times like these, it doesn't make a difference if you're rich or poor, what your ideology is or even your political party," he said, "it affects everyone."

"But it also brings us together and it can certainly increase our trust. Real faith is when you walk by trust and not by sight. If we saw everything, it wouldn't be faith," he added. "So trust in your faith."

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