Prayer, Public Health, and Purpose: Distance Worship during COVID-19

By Nathan Boucher and Abdullah Antepli

An important religious time of year for Muslims, Ramadan, has just ended. Muslims around the world tried to make the best of this unusual holy season in the face of limitations and restrictions this global coronavirus pandemic imposed on all other faith communities. How can one imagine Ramadan — or any religious celebration — without communal connection and observance?

There are many reasons to go pray in person right now, but those reasons are now hampered by COVID-19. You crave to go to your place of worship to be with your communities, to find comfort in your higher power, and to feel less alone. But sacrificing those comforts is necessary to preserve human life, and it is our responsibility to shoulder the burden of loneliness for the sake of our neighbors, neighbors from diverse spiritual and religious backgrounds.

Religious communities now face major tensions between a duty to protect their congregants and what those in leadership recommend — President Trump, on May 22nd, demanded governors reopen churches, synagogues, and mosques or face his overriding their decision to keep houses of worship closed. Our nation is torn.

Despite its strength, COVID-19 cannot make us truly socially isolate. We must simply physically isolate. Nothing is stopping us from connecting through other means, and now more than ever in human history we are well prepared to do so. One can still video chat with prayer groups, through Zoom or other digital means. One can still attend online services. Much smaller groups could be well-served by simple telephone communication. We can still be present with each other. It is, in fact, essential that we do so, to nourish the soul and be as strong as possible as we face this challenge together.

The Qur’an, for example, proclaims causing harm to one innocent life as destroying a universe and saving one innocent life as saving many worlds (5:32). The restrictions that are imposed over communal religious practices will do just that, save many lives. Islam and most other religious traditions have various and creative ways of adapting to extraordinary times. These are not typical times; it is critical to note the Qur’an’s allowance for adjustments in times of great crisis. Many religions recognize the need to accommodate religious practice to protect the health and safety of our neighbors.

The US Centers for Disease Control — in many ways, a world public health leader — recommends limiting gatherings to ten people (inside) or 25 (outside) for groups in contact with high-risk communities, such as older adults and those with complex illness. Yet, people question why healthy young people cannot gather, without considering that one of those relatively healthy young people may not have symptoms, but still have the virus and spread the illness to relations at home. Moreover, who gets to decide which ten people in the community get the chance to worship in person, and who must stay at home?

People also argue that if grocery stores are open, then houses of worship should be open if everyone is six feet apart and wearing a mask. But that argument does not consider that, unlike grocery shopping, worship is intrinsically a group activity. It is much more likely that people will fail to appropriately social distance during a group activity than during a solitary one.

People also believe that, if properly disinfected after every meeting, nothing is wrong with congregating in a clean space. Truly disinfecting an area is difficult, especially if that area is heavily furnished. In mosques, for example, where the floor is extensively carpeted, it can be impossible to truly clean the carpet between rounds of worshippers. Presently, there is no way to make going to the mosque safe or advisable. Similar challenges face other houses of worship.

Faith communities are considering their next moves regarding in-person worship. Some communities have already made recommendations to sustain worship through virtual means into 2021. For many of us, this is tough to stomach.

This time is not about our individual desires to feel safe, loved, or comfortable in our routines. It is about the elders in our community, and the children. It is about our immunocompromised brothers and sisters, who already struggle with their health. It is our duty to protect those who need protecting.

Religious communities must save their resources and their staff to administer to those who will die without help. We must consider others most in times of crisis. Now is a time where we must put others’ needs over our wants.

Nathan Boucher is an assistant professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and School of Medicine. Abdullah Antepli is Imam and associate professor at Duke University Divinity School and Sanford School of Public Policy.

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