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

People skate on a lake in a city park in Montreal, Sunday, January 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
The end of hugs: How COVID-19 has changed daily life a year after Canada’s 1st case

Today marks the one year anniversary of COVID-19 landing in Canada

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Employers might be able to require COVID-19 vaccination from employees: B.C. lawyer

‘An employer must make the case’ using expert science, explains lawyer David Mardiros

Heavy flows of water pooled on Davis Road after a lead to a fire hydrant burst on Thursday Jan. 21. (Jim Tredwell photo)
Fire hydrant connection burst at Davis Road and Battie Drive

Crews worked well into the night on Thursday Jan. 21 to staunch the flow of water

A pedestrian was transported to hospital after being struck while crossing Roberts Street. (Cole Schisler photo)
Pedestrian struck crossing Roberts Street

The driver remained on scene and is cooperating with police

Emergency crews were called to a semi-truck crash along the Trans-Canada Highway at Oyster Sto’Lo Road on Friday, Jan. 22. (Cole Schisler/Black Press)
Semi truck crashes off the side of the highway in Ladysmith

Driver taken to hospital as precaution after single-vehicle crash Friday

Crews with Discovery Channel film as an Aggressive Towing driver moves a Grumman S2F Tracker aircraft around a 90-degree turn from its compound and onto the road on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021. It was the “most difficult” part of the move for the airplane, one organizer said. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
VIDEO: Vintage military plane gets towed from Chilliwack to Greater Victoria

Grumman CP-121 Tracker’s eventual home the British Columbia Aviation Museum on Vancouver Island

Residents of the Cowichan Valley decorated more than 55 vehicles with anti-racist slogans for a car rally in support of Cowichan Tribes on Saturday, January 24. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)
Dozens join anti-racism car rally and virtual panel in Cowichan Valley

Provincial ministry and BC Green caucus issue joint statement detailing concerns

Jesse Savidant, 31, is wanted by the RCMP after failing to appear in provincial court in Nanaimo in December. Police warn Savidant should be considered violent. (Photo Submitted)
Warrant out for man accused of stolen property offences across Vancouver Island

Jesse Savidant did not appear for court date in Nanaimo last month, say RCMP

Rolling seven-day average of cases by B.C. health authority to Jan. 21. Fraser Health in purple, Vancouver Coastal red, Interior Health orange, Northern Health green and Vancouver Island blue. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
2nd COVID vaccine doses on hold as B.C. delivery delayed again

New COVID-19 cases slowing in Fraser Health region

The Pacific Rim National Park Reserve is urging visitors to stay on designated trails after a hiker became injured in an unsanctioned area last week. (Westerly file photo)
Injured hiker rescued in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve

“Safety is everyone’s responsibility.”

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry talk about the next steps in B.C.’s COVID-19 Immunization Plan during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, January 22, 2021. Two more cases of the COVID-19 strain first identified in South Africa have been diagnosed in British Columbia, bringing the total to three as of Jan. 16.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. now has three cases of South African COVID-19 variant, six of U.K. strain

Both variants are thought to spread faster than earlier strains

Rodney and Ekaterina Baker in an undated photo from social media. The couple has been ticketed and charged under the Yukon’s <em>Civil Emergency Measures Act</em> for breaking isolation requirements in order to sneak into a vaccine clinic and receive Moderna vaccine doses in Beaver Creek. (Facebook/Submitted)
Great Canadian Gaming CEO resigns after being accused of sneaking into Yukon for vaccine

Rod Baker and Ekaterina Baker were charged with two CEMA violations each

Police discovered a makeshift nightclub in a Vancouver apartment on Jan. 23, 2021, and say it wasn’t the first time this month officers have been called to the unit over social gathering concerns. (Phil McLachlan - Capital News)
Doorman of makeshift ‘booze-can’ in Vancouver apartment fined; police look to court order

This marks the fourth complaint about social gatherings inside the apartment in January

Local musician and artist Daisy Melville created a watercolour portrait of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders from the recent American inauguration, and with help from her mom, is now selling t-shirts and more with funds going to the Comox Valley Food Bank. Image submitted
Island artist turns Sanders inauguration meme into art for good

All proceeds from the sale of shirts, sweaters and more will go to the Comox Valley Food Bank

Most Read