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

Just Posted

Robin Sanford and her fiance Simon Park were married in an impromptu ceremony at Abbotsford Regional Hospital on June 16. (Submitted photo)
Mom dies day after witnessing daughter’s hospital wedding in Abbotsford

Nurses help arrange impromptu ceremony in 3 hours for bride and groom

(Pixabay Image)
Monday’s top temperature topples record in Agassiz

Temps reached into the low 30s to break records in Agassiz, Environment Canada says

Tourism Abbotsford has launched the ‘Let’s Go Do Something’ campaign to encourage visitors to check out all Abbotsford has to offer. (Tourism Abbotsford photo)
Tourism Abbotsford launches ‘Let’s Go Do Something’ campaign

Visitors encouraged to check out all Abbotsford has to offer this summer

Temperature records were broken for June 21, 2021. (Black Press Media file photo)
Record-breaking heat shimmered across Fraser Valley for second day

Tuesday should be a bit cooler says forecast from Environment Canada

Emil Anderson Maintenance is mowing the shoulder along Lougheed Highway in Agassiz, asking motorists to use extra caution around slow-moving vehicles on Tuesday and Wednesday. (Graphic/Emil Anderson Maintenance)
TRAFFIC: Slow-moving mowers working on Highway 7 shoulders in Agassiz on Tuesday, Wednesday

Mowing takes place Tues., Weds. between 8 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.

The border crossing into the United States is seen during the COVID-19 pandemic in Lacolle, Que. on February 12, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
VIDEO: Border quarantine to soon lift for fully vaccinated Canadians

Eligible travellers must still take multiple COVID-19 tests

Point Roberts is part of the mainland United States but not physically connected to it, to reach the community by land one must pass through Canada. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Closed Canadian border leaves Point Roberts’ only grocery store on verge of closure

‘We’re Americans but we’re not attached to America. It’s so easy to forget we’re here,’ says owner Ali Hayton of Point Roberts, Wash.

Health Minister Adrian Dix announced in December that Surrey’s new hospital will be located in Cloverdale, next to KPU. (File photo: Malin Jordan)
Health minister expects construction of Surrey’s new hospital in Cloverdale to begin in 2023, open in 2027

Adrian Dix spoke Tuesday in a Zoom meeting hosted by the Surrey Board of Trade concerning the new hospital

B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson with Premier John Horgan after the budget speech Tuesday, April 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. home owner grant won’t be altered, despite expert advice

Tax break for residences worth up to $1.6 million too popular

B.C. conservation officer Sgt. Todd Hunter said a black bear is believed to have killed local livestock. (THE NEWS/files)
Black bear believed to have killed miniature donkey in Maple Ridge

Trap set for predator that has been killing livestock

Penticton mayor John Vassilaki and Minister of Housing David Eby have been battling over the Victory Church shelter and BC Housing projects in the city. (File photos)
Penticton heads to court over homeless shelter as BC Housing audit begins

The city was not satisfied with the response from Minister David Eby regarding the ongoing situation

People enjoy the sun at Woodbine Beach on June 19, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Tijana Martin
BC Hydro assures customers it has ‘more than enough’ power to weather the heatwave

Despite an increase of pressure on the Western grid, blackouts are not expected like in some U.S. states

Air Canada planes sit on the tarmac at Pearson International Airport during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Wednesday, April 28, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Pilots say no reason to continue quarantines for vaccinated international travellers

Prime minister says Canada still trying to limit number of incoming tourists

When they last met, Giants fell 3-0 to the Prince George Cougars. Both will renew their rivalry in Maple Ridge on Sept. 24. (Allen Douglas/Special to Black Press Media)
Vancouver Giants to play preseason games in Maple Ridge, Delta

Exhibition schedule will start in September

Most Read