A woman prays on the steps outside St. Casimir Church in Toronto on Friday, May 1, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

A woman prays on the steps outside St. Casimir Church in Toronto on Friday, May 1, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Where is God? The COVID-19 pandemic has been a test of faith for believers

The landscape may change in the aftermath

Where is God?

It is a question Rev. Harrison Ayre finds himself asking and being asked often as the COVID-19 pandemic has left nearly two million dead worldwide; 80 million sickened; families torn apart by death, disease and border closures; economies devastated; and an uncertain year looming ahead.

As a Catholic priest in Nanaimo, B.C.,he’s among thousands of religious leaders who have worked this year to help their congregations make sense of the pandemic in spiritual terms.

Religions have historically seen disease as divine judgment or punishment: the Old Testament contains a story of plagues against Egyptians for refusing to free the Jews, while one Islamic response to the “Black Death” of the 14th century was to call those who lost their lives martyrs for God.

Judgment is not always a bad thing, Ayre said.

“It is a challenge to return to the heart of things,” he said.

“It’s not a judgment unto condemnation. It’s a judgment to bring us back to fall in love with (God).”

How to do that during a pandemic is both existential and practical.

Physical distancing restrictions have forced faith groups to entirely close their doors or dramatically restrict access to their sanctuaries.

READ MORE: ‘We have to act now’: Salvation Army still $11M short of Christmas fundraising goal

This fall, a coalition of Christian research organizations surveyed 1,269 churches and ministries and found 80 per cent were offering online services.

But that doesn’t work for all faiths, said Prof. Sabina Magliocco, who leads the religion program at the University of British Columbia.

For Indigenous faith practice, gathering extended kin for singing, dancing and acts of hospitality has been sharply curtailed by COVID-19 restrictions, she said, and just can’t be replicated online.

Also, some don’t have access to the technology — often, the same people whose kids have trouble getting online for school: those who live in rural communities with poor internet connectivity and people who can’t afford the devices.

The spiritual uplift that comes from attending services in person isn’t just about participating in rites and rituals, but also the intangibles, Magliocco said.

The energy of attending Friday sermon at mosque, chanting and dancing with extended family, or just the sights and smells triggered by walking in the door of a house of worship are all elements of connection in their own right.

“There aren’t those outside clues, hints that put your mind in that religious place that connect you to community, that connects you to your ancestors — all of that is gone,” said Magliocco.

Then there are theological issues.

For observant Jews, using electronics is forbidden on religious days.

Some found workarounds; during the Jewish high holy days in September, congregations began livestreaming from their synagogues before the holidays began and just left the cameras running.

For Catholics, the fundamental rites known as the sacraments must be done in person.For a time, Ayre heard confession in a parking lot, where parishioners would drive in and roll their windows down a crack to unburden their souls.

For Muslims, the pandemic has meant a renewed emphasis on certain requirements, like ritual purification before prayer, five times a day, said Imam Mohamed Refaat, the president of the Canadian Council of Imams.

Within the Qur’an, there are also teachings from the Prophet Muhammad that directly relate to staying away from places known to be infected with the plague.

While Muslims can and do pray at home, Refaat said the loss of community gatherings and the end of annual trips to the holiest site of Islam, at Mecca in Saudi Arabia, are painful.

For him, the lesson is to value what has been given by God: the ability to talk and travel and do good in the world.

When those blessings are taken away, it is a reminder of their worth, he said.

“When we get ourselves back to normal, then we will recognize that those blessings should be maintained,” he said.

“And we should be thankful to our Lord for giving us all these blessings.”

What it will take to get back to normal at minimum is a vaccine against the virus that causes COVID-19, most faith groups say.

Convincing their followers to take it will be the next challenge.

Mainstream religious leaders have issued proclamations in support of the vaccine; the first people to get it in Montreal were residents and staff at a Jewish nursing home where dozens have died.

Opposition by religious leaders to vaccines in the past has been based on a number of factors, including what kind of human cells are used in testing and where they are from, and a belief that the divine, and not science, will protect the faithful.

Those voices are already challenging this vaccine, and earlier this month, the role religious leaders can play to quiet them was part of a call between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and faith leaders.

But the real source of tension on the call wasn’t the coming shot in the arm.

It was the shot to the heart religious groups received by being told they didn’t qualify as “essential services” during the pandemic, and in turn were subject to tighter restrictions than gyms or bars.

Refaat said while religious groups, health officials and politicians have been talking for months about the balance between protecting people’s right to worship and public health, what’s missing is an acknowledgment of the central role communal religious life plays.

“The weekly sermon people attend, that gathering of people together, you’re charging your battery for the rest of the week. And that charging is big for people of faith,” he said,

“It is so essential for them.”

Various religious groups in the U.S. have taken governments to court for restricting access to faith gatherings.

The process is only just beginning to play out in Canada; arguments in one case involving a Toronto church claiming COVID-19 restrictions violate charter rights are expected sometime in 2021.

The pandemic has exposed two challenges for the faithful, said Andrew Bennett, the director of the Cardus religious freedom institute and an ordained deacon: What do they need to actually live a religious life? And how much of that requires physically going to church or mosque or synagogue?

The answers may determine what Canada’s post-pandemic religious landscape looks like, he said.

“These are challenges that faith communities are going to need to address.”

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

CoronavirusReligion

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A 75-year-old aircraft has been languishing in a parking lot on the campus of the University of the Fraser Valley, but will soon be moved to the B.C. Aviation Museum. (Paul Henderson/ Chilliwack Progress)
Vintage military aircraft moving from Chilliwack to new home at B.C. Aviation Museum

The challenging move will be documented by Discovery Channel film crews

sd
VIDEO: Mission drag racer scores 1st career win, sets world record, makes history in 2020

Justin Bond, founder and owner of JBS Equipment, hits milestones in break-out year

Cory Silbernagel makes his acceptance speech after receiving the Community Advocate award during the Chilliwack Chamber of Commerce 2020 Chilliwack Champion awards on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. (YouTube/Chilliwack Chamber of Commerce)
Chilliwack Chamber of Commerce awards recognize businesses, individuals after unprecedented year

‘Positive acts’ honoured during Business Excellence Awards - Chilliwack Champions Edition

A video posted to social media by Chilliwack resident Rob Iezzi shows a teenager getting kicked in the face after being approached by three suspects on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. (YouTube/Rob i)
VIDEO: Security cameras capture ‘just one more assault’ near Chilliwack secondary

Third high-school related assault Rob Iezzi’s cameras have captured since beginning of 2021

Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021 is International Lego Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of Jan. 24 to 30

Lego Day, Talk Like a Grizzled Prospector Day and Puzzle Day are all coming up this week

Surrey Fire Service responded to a fire in the industrial area of 192nd street and 54th Avenue early Saturday morning (Jan. 23, 2021). (Photo: Shane MacKichan)
Surrey crews respond to fire in industrial area

Fire happened early Saturday morning

FILE - In this Feb. 14, 2017, file photo, Oklahoma State Rep. Justin Humphrey prepares to speak at the State Capitol in Oklahoma City. A mythical, ape-like creature that has captured the imagination of adventurers for decades has now become the target of Rep. Justin Humphrey. Humphrey, a Republican House member has introduced a bill that would create a Bigfoot hunting season, He says issuing a state hunting license and tag could help boost tourism. (Steve Gooch/The Oklahoman via AP, File)
Oklahoma lawmaker proposes ‘Bigfoot’ hunting season

A Republican House member has introduced a bill that would create a Bigfoot hunting season

Economic Development and Official Languages Minister Melanie Joly responds to a question in the House of Commons Monday November 23, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Federal minister touts need for new B.C. economic development agency

Last December’s federal economic update promised a stimulus package of about $100 billion this year

FILE - In this Nov. 20, 2017, file photo, Larry King attends the 45th International Emmy Awards at the New York Hilton, in New York. Former CNN talk show host King has been hospitalized with COVID-19 for more than a week, the news channel reported Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021. CNN reported the 87-year-old King contracted the coronavirus and was undergoing treatment at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP, File)
Larry King, broadcasting giant for half-century, dies at 87

King conducted an estimated 50,000 on-air interviews

BC Coroners Service is currently investigating a death at Canoe Cove Marina and Boatyard in North Saanich. (Black Press Media File)
Drowning death in North Saanich likely B.C.’s first in for 2021

Investigation into suspected drowning Monday night continues

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Kimberly Proctor, 18, was murdered in 2010. Her family has spent many of the years since pushing for a law in her honour, that they say would help to prevent similar tragedies. (Courtesy of Jo-Anne Landolt)
Proposed law honouring murdered B.C. teen at a standstill, lacks government support

Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions has concerns with involuntary detainment portion of act

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam speaks during a daily briefing in Ottawa. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)
31 cases of COVID-19 variants detected in Canada: Health officials

Dr. Theresa Tam made announces 13 more variant COVID-19 cases in Canada

Most Read