NewsPublic Affairs / May 14, 2020

You Asked How Faith Communities Are Preparing To Reopen. We've Got Answers.

Article origination IPBS-RJC
You Asked How Faith Communities Are Preparing To Reopen. We've Got Answers.

Faith leaders across the state are trying to figure out how to naviagate COVID-19's "new normal."

Lauren Chapman/IPB News

Members of the Indiana 2020 Two-Way asked us how different places of worship and religious organizations are approaching reopening in-person services. To join, text “elections” to 73224.

So, Indiana Public Broadcasting and All IN went to work to answer some of those questions by gathering a panel of experts, including: Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis; Fatima Hussain, president of the Muslim Alliance of Indiana; Rabbi Mike Harvey, Temple Israel in West Lafayette; and Tim Shapiro, president of the Center for Congregations.

What are religious organizations telling faith leaders? 

The Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis is allowing people to return to buildings to live stream services at the end of the month. But Bishop Baskerville-Burrows says she’s encouraging people to stay home and continue to live stream services from home, as they’ve done for the past two months.

“I’m particularly aware – as bishop of an area that covers counties throughout central and southern Indiana – when we gather in close proximity, as we often do as religious bodies, that we are high intensity, high contact type people. And we can be super-spreaders without knowing it,” Baskerville-Burrows says. 

As long as the data shows a decrease, Episcopal churches in the diocese will be allowed to reopen – with 25 or fewer people – in mid-June.

READ MORE: Governor Holcomb Outlines How – And Why – The State Will Reopen

Join the conversation and sign up for the Indiana 2020 Two-Way. Text "elections" to 73224. Your comments and questions in response to our weekly text help us find the answers you need on COVID-19 and the 2020 election.

Rabbi Harvey says he’s relying on interfaith conversations to make decisions.

“Individual faith leaders – we shouldn’t have to make these decisions on our own, we should rely on the strength of the other people around us,” Harvey says.

He’s a member of Interfaith Leaders of Greater Lafayette. Harvey says he’s talking to other religious leaders to help navigate COVID-19’s “new normal.” 

Muslim Alliance of Indiana President Fatima Hussain says mosques across Indiana have also been adapting. Mosques operate independently. But her organization has gathered these faith leaders in a commitment to safety moving forward – relying especially on health professionals in individual congregations to help guide them moving forward. 

READ MORE: All IN: How Are Faith Groups Making It Work?

Hussain says mosques were already canceling services before the “Stay-At-Home” order was issued – which is particularly hard for the holiday it overlapped with: Ramadan. 

“In Ramadan, typically mosques hold nightly prayers that are completely voluntary, and yet, mosques are more full at that time of year than anything,” Hussain says. “So letting go of that reality was difficult.” 

She says local and national leaders encouraged Muslims to observe Ramadan – fasting, giving to charity and prayer – without potentially spreading the virus.

What do religious gatherings outside of service look like?

Baskerville-Burrows says congregations across the diocese are figuring out how to help their communities while maintaining social distancing – like contactless meal deliveries. 

Center for Congregation’s Tim Shapiro says his organization did an informal survey of more than 371 congregations of different faiths across Indiana – 75 percent were still doing community services similarly to how they were before the pandemic and 10 percent were doing something new. 

“Despite all of the challenges of this pandemic, congregations have really kept up their social engagement, once again showing how important congregations are to the whole social fabric that we’re in,” he says. 

How are faith leaders reacting to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s exemption for religious services in the state’s reopening plan?

Bishop Baskerville-Burrows says she’s glad for the flexibility the state’s guidance offers – but it’s too early for Episcopal churches. 

“I can’t imagine that it’s easy to be making these decisions on a statewide level, for such a complex number of circumstances,” she says. 

Rabbi Harvey agrees. He says he “wasn’t particularly thrilled” with the rhetoric the governor used – calling religious organizations “test or control groups” – but Harvey says the autonomy means religious leaders can make those decisions for their congregations.

“We’re encouraging people to just stay virtual for now, for the foreseeable future – it’s too soon,” Harvey says. “Health and safety of our congregants, our members – our flock who we care about so deeply – that is paramount above everything else.”

READ MORE: Holcomb Supports Local, County Governments Delaying Religious Services Exception

Hussain echoed those sentiments, but says the governor’s decision also set up faith leaders for backlash if they decided to hold off on reopening. 

“I felt that put religious communities in a very difficult position where we are now having to make decisions that we then have to answer to, to different congregations,” she says.

Across the state, Shapiro says the response is pretty similar. He says congregations are listening to public health officials for guidance, and taking a measured response. 

What might carry over as we move away from virtual gatherings to in-person?

Rabbi Harvey says some congregations across the country are using virtual gatherings to better celebrate an upcoming Jewish holiday. Shavuot is dedicated Jewish education and studying the Torah all night.

“Small congregations around the country have put together a Google Doc of Zoom adult education sessions, starting from 7 p.m. all the way to 6 a.m. the next morning, from one side of the U.S. to the other, that you can join in and be a part of,” he says. “That has never happened before.” 

What are some of the religious challenges to not gathering physically together?

Hussain explains Islam teaches the value of praying in congregation – the more people gathered together, the greater spiritual blessings. But she says in a global pandemic, other values have taken priority. 

“Islam commands us, above all, to strive to preserve and protect human life. Especially in this case, praying at home, in the privacy of your own four walls, is far greater at this time when there is such a risk to others,” she says. 

That’s a common theme with other Abrahamic religions, says Harvey. 

“There are prayers that are built within Judaism and Jewish law, where you cannot do it alone,” Harvey says. “If you’re praying for, or doing what we call the Mourner's Kaddish because you are remembering someone who has died, you’re not supposed to do that alone. You’re supposed to do that surrounded by people … It’s painful that we can’t stand next to them and show our community together.” 

Harvey says these are the decisions congregations are making to protect each other – which is why religious leaders haven’t seen pushback against deciding not to reopen.

What have faith leaders learned from this experience?

Shapiro says, if nothing else, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of faith communities. 

“A lot of the social science data shows a narrative of decline in religion, decline in participation in congregations across the United States,” Shapiro says. “I think that the response in the pandemic shows a counter-narrative – it shows how essential congregations are to individual lives.”

Bishop Baskerville-Burrows says the pandemic has given her a greater sense of mission: the inequalities highlighted by the crisis are things people of faith have to address. 

“I’ve been moved to a place of hope – I’ve learned again and again you can find hope in the midst of desolation because people are resilient. And people of faith are finding ways to be especially strong in these days,” she says. 

Hussain says, within the grief and longing to be together, her community has really shown its importance.

“What I’ve learned is that our communities have shown an immense amount of discipline and that comes from a place of care and compassion for each other,” Hussain says.

Contact Lauren at lchapman@wfyi.org or follow her on Twitter at @laurenechapman_.

This is a rapidly evolving story, and we are working hard to bring you the most up-to-date information. However, we recommend checking the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the Indiana State Department of Health for the most recent numbers of COVID-19 cases.

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