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Faith Communities Struggling to Worship While Isolated

Screenshot of a Zoom online meeting with 9 participating families in separate screens
A recent virtual service conducted by Temple Beth-El. (Photo: Screenshot from website.)

*VPM intern Alex Broening reported this story.

April would have been a month of celebration and worship for religious communities in Richmond, but the COVID-19 epidemic has upended their plans. With Gov. Ralph Northam’s limits on gatherings and non-essentials trips, religious congregations have had to search for ways to continue their fellowship while adhering to social distancing.

Richmond mosques have had to close, even as Ramadan approaches and Muslims prepare for a month of fasting and prayer. “It’s very devastating,” says Imam Ammar Amonette of the Islamic Center of Virginia. “The lack of ability to have interaction - a feeling of being isolated from the community, is really a spiritual test and trial for people.”

The Islamic Center of Virginia has moved its Friday services online to continue to share sermons with the community. However, Imam Amonette says that the act of gathering and praying together cannot be mimicked virtually: “Muslims especially feel the need for brotherhood, sisterhood, one body, and meeting together often on a daily basis, and they are really having a struggle.”

Fellowship, or gathering together, is a core tenet for the three Abrahamic faiths. Online worship is inherently challenging, but some communities have been able to move more of their work online.

The United Methodist campus ministry at Virginia Commonwealth University, the Pace Center, is offering a range of resources, including mindfulness practices, for students finishing the semester remotely.

Center director Rev. Katie Gooch says students’ schedules are still pretty hectic, and that tuning into scheduled sermons was challenging. To address this, she says, “We are pointing them in the direction of things they can do on their own.” The center is also directing students who want more structured worship to the livestreams of other churches.

Despite the challenges, Pace Center students have seen unexpected benefits from the separation. Gooch says the stay-at-home order has given students the chance to be more mindful and present in the moment, and taught them a greater appreciation of community.

Rabbi Michael Knopf of Temple Beth-El in Richmond has moved his services online, and says more people have been participating in the virtual gatherings than they did in person.

“That’s all really encouraging, and it either speaks to how people relate to that technology, or just how people are really yearning for community in this moment,” Knopf said.

Knopf has also created a video series to guide his congregation through each step of the Seder. He says he hopes that people find a way to celebrate Passover despite the uncertain circumstances.

VPM News is the staff byline for articles and podcasts written and produced by multiple reporters and editors.
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