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Local religious groups adapt as the COVID-19 pandemic continues

October 28, 2020
Photo by Hope Ann Flores | The State News

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, East Lansing religious groups have been creative when it comes to activities and services, as well as providing a spiritual experience to community members during stressful times.

"As far as people's needs ... one is just for the spiritual connection," MSU Professor in Religious Studies David Stowe said.

Additionally, Stowe said people get peace and reassurance from connecting with a higher power.

"There's also the kind of need to be in a community, to be around other people," Stowe said.

The pandemic, however, has limited religious groups like the Islamic Center of East Lansing, MSU Chabad Student Center and the St. John Church and Student Center from providing a typical sense of community.

“What we have told the community is those especially who are at high risk to stay at home and pray there,” Imam Sohail Chaudhry said.

The Islamic Center has tried to limit as many people from coming to the center, such as those under the age of 13-years-old.

In Islam there are five daily prayers, which are mandatory for all Muslims above the age of 10-years-old, Chaudhry said.

“They are your daily food for your spiritual growth and remembrance of God,” Chaudhry said.

Currently, the center is open for the five daily prayers, but remains limited, he said. When COVID-19 first hit, the center was not open for several months.

"We are practicing social distancing in our prayer, which is very difficult for us," Chaudhry said. "In our prayer we are standing foot to foot and shoulder to shoulder when we're praying in rows behind the Imam."

In order to attend prayers, each member must remain six feet apart from others, wear a mask, register in advance, have their temperature taken and complete a health questionnaire.

"If it gets worse me might have to go into a complete lockdown again," Chaudhry said.

For those unable to attend prayer, members can participate via the Islamic Center's Facebook Live or Youtube.

In order to adhere to precautionary measures, the religious community looks much different than it would pre-pandemic.

"Students just want to be involved, (they) are looking for meaning, are looking for things to do with so many things shut," Rabbi Bentzion Shemtov said. "We knew right away that we are going to have to be there for them physically, spiritually, socially. In whatever capacity they would like, we're going to be there for them no matter the time or day."

Parents and students alike reach out to the Chabad Student Center. Shemtov said he has been delivering matzo ball soup to members exposed to COVID-19.

"I'll drop it off right outside their apartment. I'll text them it's there," Shemtov said. "For safety protocols, in most of the cases I didn't even see them."

MSU Chabad had to adapt to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, and offered to-go packages for students to celebrate at home. If students could not pick up the kits, they were delivered.

One of the key components of Rosh Hashanah is hearing the Shofar, a ram's horn.

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"We offered students to pick a time slot on the holiday and we walked around and blew the Shofar right outside their home," Shemtov said.

MSU Chabad also adapted to celebrate Sukkot, which takes place in a sukkah.

"We actually built a sukkah on a U-Haul truck ... and we drove it around offering students to hop on and do the holiday custom," Shemtov said.


Students were also able to pick up a jar for a honey cake bake, which was baked together via Zoom, Shemtov said.

St. John Catholic Church and Student Center has also had to adapt, Director of Campus Ministry Katie Gleason said.

"As Catholics part of our belief system is that the incarnate, and the word incarnate really means physical, the incarnate experience is really, really important," Gleason said.

The incarnate experience is important psychologically, physically and spiritually, Gleason said.

To adhere to COVID-19 regulations, the center has held small group Bible studies online and in person. Additionally, four Sunday masses are held in-person with socially-distant seating.

In order to attend the mass, parishioners are required to wear masks and stay home if they are ill.

"There's something within the Catholic church called the Sunday obligation, which is the expectation that someone goes to mass every Sunday basically no matter what," Gleason said. "Bishops have the power to lift the Sunday obligation."

According to Gleason, the Sunday obligation has been lifted since March and will last until November.

In order to adhere COVID-19 precautions, the church has stopped singing, which Gleason said has been hard.

The center has also held outdoor events like a festival, called a blesstival, which is in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi where pets are typically blessed. This year, however, members were invited to a festival to bless any item they would like.

"We've tried very hard to give, especially college students, as much of a regular experience as possible with social-distancing in mind," Gleason said. "Because we really know how important students' faith life is as a pillar and foundation of their social and academic success."


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