How Covid Changed the Clergy in New York

During the deadliest months of the coronavirus pandemic, when many New Yorkers needed their faith communities most, places of worship were closed or operating with attendance limits. The comfort of grieving with family and friends, the comfort of communal prayer rituals, and the joy of birth and wedding ceremonies were missing.

The absence took a profound physical, spiritual and emotional toll, not only for the faithful, but also for members of the clergy who were struggling to serve the faithful from afar. The needs of the parishioners were endless. The responsiveness of the clergy was sometimes limited by illness, distance, and the number of hours in the day.

Priests, rabbis, imams, and ministers relied on the teachings of their religions to comfort their flocks and themselves. They also employed modern technology, including Facebook Live and Zoom, to safely pray with parishioners.

This month, Ramadan, Holy Week and Passover overlap, and New Yorkers are gathering at their places of worship, many for the first time in two years, now that many COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted. And while some places of worship appear to be returning to a semblance of normalcy, conversations with clergy members revealed the profound ways the pandemic has upended their lives and work.

The interviews below have been condensed and edited for clarity.

My grandmother used to say that “problems will bring you to your knees”. It will change your position. Covid certainly brought us to our knees.

Even while the churches were closed, the churches began to grow. More people tuned in online, including the spiritual but not religious. They were looking for answers and felt that those answers were not necessarily found in traditional places of worship. There was certainly a homecoming: a call to invest in our own spiritual growth and to really ask the hard questions. What am I doing? Because I am here? And why was I saved?

While there has been so much death and so much pain and so much sickness and so much grief, Covid has also given us some gifts. The gifts of reinventing worship, of recognizing that the spirit of God is within and that we are connected by our humanity, by our breath, and not just by a bank, a temple, a synagogue, a mosque or a church.

It has helped us reimagine what it is like to be in ministry and reimagine a future that can be even more inclusive.

It is wonderful to be able to meet in person again in community worship, but there are people who have not returned to church due to this ongoing evolution of Covid. It has not finished.

I will always remember the last Mass on Sunday, March 15, 2020, because it was like a funeral. Parishioners wept and wept. Churches closed the next day because of Covid, and people knocked on doors out of fear. I remember being very disturbed by the feeling of not knowing what to do.

That Easter of 2020 was the first in history without an audience. It was terrible to celebrate all the rites with the church empty.

But it meant a new opportunity to rediscover my faith because of all the limitations and problems that forced believers to understand that faith was something even deeper. And we had much more time for prayer and a very, very deep need. There were so many deaths here in Corona, often multiple people from the same family.

I think now, after two years, people’s faith is stronger. I see a revival. People understand the value of the Eucharist and of a very personal relationship with God. And we realize that everything we do affects our fellow man and can even mean death or life in certain cases. We belong to a family, to a community, which is a single body, always connected.

I realized how lucky I am to be part of a community that is very supportive and generous. At the start of the pandemic, New York City’s systems were overwhelmed. My students and our wider community recognized that our role was not to just stay home and do nothing.

Over the course of the pandemic, we have probably raised, as a center, more than $7 million in COVID relief funds. We run fundraising campaigns to support people from all backgrounds with micro-cash grants. We collect masks and gloves to distribute in hospitals and run crowdfunding campaigns to help with funeral costs. We support abuse survivors who were stuck at home with their abusers.

This created an opportunity, albeit a virtual one, for us to step up as a community in ways that build cohesion internally, as well as provide support to those in need.

It was very clear from the beginning that Covid would be with us for a long time. Islam teaches me that my physical well-being is linked to my emotional, mental and spiritual well-being. I’m not going to be able to take care of other people’s hearts if I’m not taking care of my own heart.

Many people were unable to be with their loved ones. They couldn’t hold his hand. They couldn’t even say goodbye to them. They couldn’t bury them.

They were isolated and cut off from the human ties that would normally surround them while they mourn. And that was devastating for them, and it was devastating for me. And I think even though a lot of those conditions have already changed, we haven’t had a chance to fully heal or even fully account for what that did to all of us.

We need each other. Judaism teaches us that the Shekhinah, the presence of God, is most clearly present when a group gathers. So our ability to communicate with the divine, to communicate with God, is related to our ability to communicate with each other.

There is no substitute for holding hands, for hugging, for dancing together, for singing together, and we feel it keenly when it’s gone.

Covid has made me even more dedicated to the social justice imperative at the heart of Torah. The Passover Seder story of our enslavement and our liberation is the formative story for the Jewish people and reminds us that wherever we are there is oppression, and wherever we are liberation is possible.

The gulf in our society between the haves and the have-nots has been very painful in the last two years, in terms of who would live and who would die.

As Hindus, we gather to worship at the temple and feed off each other’s energy. We were used to having 150 people before Covid, and having just 10 took a serious toll. You couldn’t feel the positive vibes that you would normally feel.

When people started getting sick and dying, that took a different toll. I know quite a few people who have lost faith in God, lost faith in themselves, lost faith in the system. I began to question my own faith.

As a spiritual leader in our community. I tried to keep our people together and improve their faith. We had to find ways to pray and create this positive energy that can help others, instead of doing things that will have a negative effect on Mother Earth and the society we live in. We started doing Zoom, phone videos, and Facebook shows to keep their faith and let them know we were still here to help.

I became more involved in meditating on my own inner self. If I’m going to help people, I have to heal myself. I began to focus more on myself not only as a spiritual leader, but also as a husband and father.

In the Christian tradition, we talk about the body of Christ, and that has a lot to do with physical presence, not just online presence. I am such a physical person. What Christianity offers the world is the incarnation in the flesh and the importance of presence. You can’t throw water on a screen and baptize a baby. And I don’t feel like you can have communion, which is, in part, the coming together of the parts of the body.

I think what Christianity is saying is that whatever happens, there is something essential about touch, physicality, and intimacy.

What sustained me during Covid were my morning prayers. As a matter of faith. I usually try to express my complete trust in God. And in a sense, prayer is acknowledging that I am not in control. I appreciate not being in control. Covid showed the world that we are not in control

My morning prayer is a time of solitary prayer, and that’s okay because that’s what it should be. But there is no substitute for meeting people, in person.

In my Easter sermons this month, I want to remind people that if someone is still in a scary place, if the world is feeling a little chaotic right now, it’s okay if they wake up on Easter and don’t feel the sense of joy that many people expect. It takes time.

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