Faith Communities Find Ways To Stay Connected For Religious Holidays Amid Pandemic
For the past few weeks, Rabbi Mark Melamut has been practicing the traditional four questions that are asked during the first night of Passover with his 10-year-old son.
Passover started on Wednesday this year, and in normal times, Melamut would invite friends and family to his home for a Seder, a big ceremonial meal.
He likes to have some fun with it. One year he used green silly string to symbolize the plague of frogs, and another year he decided to bring home about 100 pounds of sand, "and transform our living room into the desert where the story took place,” he said.
He had his guests take off their shoes so they could “walk through the desert.” The story, of course is about Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt to freedom.
But this year’s Passover has been different.
Melamut didn’t invite any friends or family to his Seder. It was just him, his wife and two children.
Across the country and in New Hampshire, COVID-19 has upended the rhythms of faith communities. People can no longer gather in groups to worship and pray or share meals, amid some of the most important holidays of the year: Easter, Passover and Ramadan.
“It’s really been a big existential cloud, to be honest with you," Melamut said. "Every day, literally are we going to make it, thinking about our own family, thinking about other people."
Melamut’s been writing a weekly letter, called "Torah for Turbulent Times," to his congregation to provide some encouragement. And he’s been using Zoom for services. Thursday night, he used it to celebrate a community Seder.
“It’s really powerful to see, whether they’re brand new, just logging in, or people you see every week,” he said. “It’s really powerful to look into the eyes of those people who are a part of the community through Zoom.”
Other houses of worship, including the Episcopal Church of New Hampshire, are also using the video conference platform.
Rev. Jamie Hamilton, who leads All Saints Episcopal Church in Peterborough, tuned in to watch the state’s bishop celebrate Maundy Thursday, remembering the Last Supper.
“I had someone send me a text, ‘This is the lentiest Lent we ever did Lent.’ This is a wild Lent,” she said. “We’ve really given everything up.”
But she says not everyone in her congregation can tune in to church on Zoom -- either because of poor internet service or lack of access to a computer.
“We started right off the bat with creating a telephone tree,” she said.
For the past few weeks, Hamilton and other parishioners have each been calling about 10 or 15 people on a weekly basis. Sometimes those are long conversations.
“Other times it might be just a five minute check-in,” she said. “‘Thanks for reaching out, I’m fine, my family’s fine. My prayers are with you.’ Something short and sweet and yet a connection.”
Many churches pull out all the stops for Easter: There are community breakfasts; flower-filled sanctuaries; choirs singing in harmony. It’s usually a joyous time.
Heather Oliver, who goes to Community Lutheran Church in Enfield, said one of her favorite songs to sing on Easter Sunday is “This Is The Day The Lord Has Made.”
“That one sort of has a call and response,” she said, “I’ve been trying to keep myself busy by playing some songs on the piano, but it doesn’t feel right to play call and response type songs when it’s just me, by myself playing.”
Oliver plans on watching Easter service online, with her husband and 2-year-old daughter. While she says she’s glad she can access church online, it falls short of the real thing.
“Really you’re just watching church happen,” she said.
Oliver said this past month has been hard: she misses sitting in the pews, singing with her family and talking about the sermon they just heard.
“I feel like this is a season when you’re supposed to be celebrating,” she said. “You’re supposed to be remembering this awesome story, and Jesus came back. But it’s hard right now to think about having a big celebration.”
These feelings are ones Reverend Hamilton hears frequently from people in her congregation and others. And for that, she has some advice.
“Hand over then your anguish, your pain, your fear, your grief as a gift. God receives those as gifts because you're being honest and vulnerable. Those are gifts. Let God hold those in God’s holy hands,” she said.
In the past few weeks Sheraz Rashid has found hope and comfort in one particular verse from the Qur’an.
“Indeed in the remembrance of Allah, in the remembrance of God, do hearts find rest,” he said.
Rashid, who’s on the board of the Islamic Society of New Hampshire, said that with the loss of community and no longer gathering together for traditional Friday prayers, he’s also noticed a feeling that’s growing in his conversations with friends and family: gratitude.
“I appreciate my mosque, I appreciate my community and I appreciate my faith more," he said.
Right now, Rashid and the rest of the Islamic Society board are planning for Ramadan, a month of fasting which starts on April 24. In normal times at the Manchester mosque, 200 people gather almost every night to pray together, and then break the fast.
“Everyone is handing out cups of water to each other, everyone breaks their fast, everyone has their thirst quenched, then they go for the evening prayer afterwards,” he said. “Those moments, those picturesque moments are something you cannot replace, anywhere.”
Rashid said for some in the community, breaking fast at the mosque is the daily meal they get during Ramadan, so he’s thinking of ways to meet their needs over the next several weeks.
“We’re looking to provide perhaps a fund to help needy families during the time of Ramadan because there are families that may not be well off that only look on Ramadan to break their fast every day because they get food,” he said.
Rashid says he’ll be celebrating Ramadan at home, with his family. But he’ll miss hearing the verses from the first chapter of the Qur’an being said at the mosque, while children play in the background, and men and women saying “Aameen” at the end of the prayer.
Like many people of faith, Rashid is looking forward to a time when he can pray in person with his community again.
“I think that will be something people will look forward, that feeling of being together. That will be great,” he said.
For now, he says he can be at home with his faith to steady him through these uncertain times.