On Thursday, days before Easter, Passover, and the beginning of Ramadan, faith scholars at Duke University used Zoom to deliver a message to believers: Stay patient and, in lieu of religious gatherings large and small, use social media to stay connected to one another.

“For Christians, I think there’s an opportunity to lean into a sense and reminder that God is with us wherever we,” said Reverend Bruce Puckett, assistant dean of the Duke University Chapel said. “The spirit of God lives in each of us” as we all “find ways to get their faith to deepen wherever they are, not just a particular place.”

Duke Divinity dean Greg Jones pointed to data warning against large gatherings during the pandemic. From the onset of the discussion, Jones addressed clergy leaders who insist on holding in-person worship services and governors like Greg Abbott of Texas who have exempted churches from a shutdown order. Jones said the faith community needs to not think about the coronavirus in political terms or as a power struggle.

Instead, coronavirus for the religious community should be considered in the context “of what it means to care for those who are most vulnerable.”

“There’s plenty of evidence that when there have been gatherings, there are significant increases in outbreaks and have affected people who are greatest at-risk,” Jones said. “I think the faith community should be focused on, what does it mean to care for the most vulnerable in our community? And how do we provide outreach, connection, worship, and spiritual formation in creative and new ways that are also attentive to that? The longer we get it focused on what the governors are asking and what our First Amendment rights are, we’ll continue to miss the central issues that are most fruitful for guidance during this time.”

Puckett and Jones were joined by Rabbi Elana Friedman, the chaplin of Jewish Life at Duke, and Joshua Salaam, who directs the Duke Center for Islamic Life. The theologians sat for a nearly hour-long panel discussion about the pandemic’s impact on Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

Easter is on April 12. Passover begins at sundown on April 8 and ends on April 16. The 30-day Ramadan fast begins with the lunar calendar’s ninth month and with the traditional sighting of a crescent moon on April 23 or 24.

Central to the scholars’ discussion on Thursday morning was how clergy members and congregations alike can pursue their faith traditions in the face of a deadly epidemic by being flexible and using technology to connect with one another.

Puckett said that from the onset, Duke University was on the “leading edge” of American post-secondary institutions that immediately closed down and recommended social-distancing practices that included faith congregations.

“For some Christian traditions, for someone to think they’re missing a service, not attending mass, it might even lead to a thought of a mortal sin or some kind of deep, sinful practice. But in this season, this is not how you have to think about this. This is not a sinful act,” said Puckett.

The internet has been a game-changer during the epidemic, allowing religious communities to use Zoom, FaceTime and Facebook Live for worship services.

Puckett said participation in the Jewish faith’s online services has dramatically increased since Duke shutdown, with as many as 1,000 followers on Youtube, another 1,000 who watch the recorded services, and 700 more who view the services on Facebook Live.

Friedman noted that an in-person Shabbat draws between 75 to 100 students. By comparison, the online service reveals people’s need to be connected. In addition to more students showing up online for Shabbat prayer, their parents, grandparents, siblings, and even their pets are participating.

“It’s such a beautiful thing in such a dark time,” Friedman said.

The rabbi says the online services affords students a way to mark time—when the week starts and when the weekend begins.

“Shabbat marks a break,” she said. “It’s a spiritual moment, a switching of the gears, a rhythm, a sacred time.”

Salaam said the outstanding turnout for online services and Friday prayers prompted him to ask, “Why haven’t I been doing this all along?”

The Muslim clergyman said online tools like Zoom and Facebook Live have given people more access, including to people who may feel intimidated about attending in-person services and are more comfortable staying in their homes to worship.

Salaam said between 50 and 75 people usually show up for the Friday prayers, but online services allow a greater number of students to participate from all over the country, including Minnesota, California, and New York. And like Friedman’s congregation, Salaam said the university’s Muslim students give their parents the code so that they can also participate in the Friday prayers, as well. 

Salaam said that normally, the Friday prayers are over in about 30 minutes and then the students socialize over pizza. The students and their parents try to recreate a semblance of that social aspect by bringing their own pizzas and using Zoom to break out into small groups of three or four people to re-create the sense of community lost with the coronavirus. 

“It’s been an exercise in my own creative, spiritual development and also has me thinking about access in a way I hadn’t before,” Salaam said.

Puckett said typically between 1,000 and 1,200 people attend the university’s Easter sunrise service at Duke Garden, with 3,000 people attending the three Easter services at Duke Chapel.

He’s wondering about the number of people who will participate this year in the online Easter services.

“I’m interested in seeing if the numbers dramatically go up or remain the same,” he said.

Friedman said gathering for Seder is essential during Passover. But “in these extraordinary times,” she’s encouraging people to remember that saving a life is more important than any other Jewish law or custom.

“This is incredibly difficult for many people,” the rabbi said of families not gathering together to celebrate the Seder. “It’s against the spirit of Passover. It’s one of the most celebrated holidays for American Jews.”

Friedman said that most years, more than 700 people attended the Seder at different locations on the Duke campus.

“At the Seder, we say to each other, let all who are hungry come and eat.”  

Friedman said the threat of coronavirus is forcing the community to adapt. They’ll use Zoom and FaceTime to create virtual Seders. Friedman added that the pandemic has placed limitations on the availability of kosher foods and said this is not the year to go from grocery store to grocery store searching for foods that adhere to Jewish law.

“It’s so against Seder,” she said. “But so be it.”

Salaam said these are new circumstances that are sending Muslim scholars back to the drawing boards. He said the challenge for the entire Muslim community this year is analogous to a believer who worries their fast will not be accepted by Allah because of a medical prescription that mandates ingesting three pills each day with water in order to live.

For Muslims who cannot attend Friday prayers, the pandemic “creates a whole new world of religious thought. It creates a whole new world of religious opinion,” Salaam added. “What is ritual? What is community? It opens up a new door of conversation.”

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at tmcdonald@indyweek.com.

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