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

The Independent Investigations Office of B.C. is investigating the shooting of an Indigenous woman in the Ucluelet First Nation community of Hitacu. (Black Press Media file photo)
NTC president calls for ‘massive change’ after Indigenous woman shot by police in Hitacu

“We need to get to the root of what is actually happening with the RCMP and our communities”

Hotel Zed Tofino has won a Vancouver Island Real Estate Board Commercial Building Award. (Westerly file photo)
Hotel Zed Tofino wins commercial building award

Vancouver Island Real Estate Board holds virtual gala.

The District of Ucluelet is fast-tracking temporary use permits for RVs/campervans as seasonal housing. (Westerly file photo)
Ucluelet reviews 11 applications for RVs as seasonal housing

“Housing is so essential to everyone, and an issue that cases a lot of stress to business owners.”

A bullet hole is seen in the windshield of an RCMP vehicle approximately 4 km from Vancouver International Airport after a one person was killed during a shooting outside the international departures terminal at the airport, in Richmond, B.C., Sunday, May 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Homicide team IDs man in fatal YVR shooting as police grapple with spate of gang violence

Man, 20, charged in separate fatal shooting Burnaby over the weekend

RCMP are searching for Philip Toner, who is a ‘person of interest’ in the investigation of a suspicious death in Kootenay National Park last week. Photo courtesy BC RCMP.
RCMP identify ‘person of interest’ in Kootenay National Park suspicious death

Police are looking for Philip Toner, who was known to a woman found dead near Radium last week

Vancouver Canucks goaltender Thatcher Demko (35) makes a save on Winnipeg Jets’ Nate Thompson (11) during second period NHL action in Winnipeg, Monday, May 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Greenslade
Vancouver Canucks see NHL playoff hopes dashed despite 3-1 win over Winnipeg

Montreal Canadiens earn final North Division post-season spot

The B.C. legislature went from 85 seats to 87 before the 2017 election, causing a reorganization with curved rows and new desks squeezed in at the back. The next electoral boundary review could see another six seats added. (Black Press files)
B.C. election law could add six seats, remove rural protection

North, Kootenays could lose seats as cities gain more

Nurse Gurinder Rai, left, administers the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to Maria Yule at a Fraser Health drive-thru vaccination site, in Coquitlam, B.C., on Wednesday, May 5, 2021. The site is open for vaccinations 11 hours per day to those who have pre-booked an appointment. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
COVID vaccine bookings to open for adults 40+, or 18+ in hotspots, across B.C.

Only people who have registered will get their alert to book

Dr. Victoria Lee, CEO of Fraser Health, hosts an update on efforts to contain B.C.’s COVID-19 transmission in Surrey and the Fraser Valley and protect hospitals in the Lower Mainland, May 6, 2021. (B.C. government video)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infection rate slowing, 20 more people die

Deaths include two people in their 40s, two in their 50s

Oak Bay resident Hugh Thompson died Friday, May 7. (GoFundMe photo)
Oak Bay dad dies mountain biking near Shawnigan Lake

Community rallies around family with online fundraiser

Most Read