Faith leaders find ways to stay connected with their spiritual community during COVID-19 pandemic

Posted at 5:48 PM, Mar 27, 2020

Spaces usually filled with tens, hundreds, thousands of people -- are now empty.

"We're trying to navigate how to survive through this," Imam Muhammad Kolila said.

"You forget how much you value like giving someone a hug or shaking someone's hand," Christ-follower Claire Fundingsland said.

"Time right now is so bizarre. A day seems like a year," Senior Rabbi Joseph Black said.

For many Americans, spiritual practice can offer a sense of peace. However, with shelter-in-place mandates across the country, the routine of gathering in person with a faith community is disrupted. Rabbis, Imams, and Pastors have all made changes to the way they usually worship.

"In one of our campuses, we'll put 4,000 people in one room, and that just didn't seem like the wisest idea," Lead Pastor Jim Burgen sad.

Jim Burgen is the lead pastor of Flatirons Community Church. It's one of the largest churches in the U.S., fitting 16 to 18 thousand people into its five campuses each week. The church already had an online presence, so moving to virtual services was a relatively smooth transition. However, the pastor says preaching to an empty building seemed a bit inauthentic.

"Now we're using this opportunity to do something different," Burgen said. "I just recorded my sermon for this weekend in an empty coffee shop. The world has changed. This place should be full of people, but it can't be at the moment."

He says the church's online presence has nearly doubled. Still, other religious institutions have had to navigate through online streaming for the first time.

"No one in Rabbinical school taught me how to MacGyver a TV station out of my computer, but that's kind of what we're doing," Temple Emmanuel Senior Rabbi Joseph Black said.

He says the Jewish community is finding that it's still possible to touch people's lives with online classes and services.

"In Judaism, the idea of being a part of a community is essential. There are certain prayers that we can only say when we have ten people, and it's called a minion. We're able to do that virtually, and I think people are truly understanding and appreciating the importance of reaching out, being a part of something bigger than themselves even in this time of uncertainty and fear."

While Temple Emmanuel can continue most of its rituals online, Muhammad Kolila -- the Imam of the Denver Islamic Center -- says the physical connection is necessary for the Islamic faith.

"It's fine to pray by yourself at home, a park, or work, but it's not encouraged as praying in the mosque," Imam Kolila said. "It has more rewards in Islam."

Usually, there would be more than a hundred people moving in and out of the Mosque for the five daily prayers. But for everyone's safety, the Mosque is now vacant. Imam Kolila says what they can offer online are lectures and reflections to continue spiritual education. Like teaching the importance of choosing generosity over greed and how we can use this time to grow.

"It's mentioned in the Quran multiple times that when people felt challenged, they would start to become self-aware of how they live their lives."

While nobody is sure when this will all be over, religious leaders, as well as followers like Claire Fundingsland, are choosing to focus on the positive.

"I truly believe that God can do a miracle, and this can turn a big corner tomorrow," Fundingsland said.

"In times like this, I think sacred space and sacred community is very, very important," Rabbi Black said.

"Look at your privileges now, and think of people without these privileges," Imam Kolila said.

"We're not defeated. We're going to be OK. It's going to be tough, we have to take care of each other, but remember we're not alone and God's with us," Pastor Burgen said.