Community finds faith amid global pandemic


Yesh Nikam, Staff Writer

Recently, Daanyal Agboatwalla (11), a practicing Muslim, has been praying five times a day and listening to renowned Islamic scholar Dr. Mufti Menk’s daily podcast, “Muslim Central”, to help him get through the quarantine.
“[Dr. Menk] has been calling on us to be grateful for what we have and take every chance we can to help others,” Agboatwalla said. “He says that we should take this opportunity to reconnect with and become close to God.” These words have strongly resonated with him as he has found that the period of self-isolation has brought him closer to his Islamic faith.
Agboatwalla is not the only American moving closer towards faith during these times. A recent study conducted by the conservative youth organization Young America’s Foundation (YAF) found that during the COVID-19 crisis, 39 percent of students are praying more often (38 percent of high-school students and 39 percent of post-secondary students) and 28 percent of students are thinking about spiritual issues more often (24 percent of high school students and 31 percent of post-secondary students).
“I think crises such as the pandemic challenge us all to confront existential questions: ‘How do I find meaning in life?’ ‘How do I form authentic connections with others and even with all parts of myself?’ and ‘Can I embrace the freedom to make choices and accept responsibility?’” Upper Division (UD) psychology teacher Kristen Zatarski said. “In our quest for answers to these questions, some of us turn to religion or spirituality.”
UD history teacher Dr. Elisa Milkes believes that faith provides foundations and anchoring points, and during crises—rather than creating a sudden shift‚—they emit a stronger pull on what one already does and what one aspires to do, she said. “In a crisis, isn’t it fair to say that people want familiarity?”
Agboatwalla has turned towards Islamic doctrines as a way to cope with the pandemic. “I have been taught that every big hardship like this is a big test from God,” he said. “You can complain and ask why is God doing this to us, or you can think that God is testing your faith, seeing how much you really believe in him and his teachings.”
Agboatwalla feels this way because the Quran emphasizes that challenges from God are inevitable, he said. One of his favorite lines from the Quran states: “And we will surely test you with something of fear and hunger and a loss of wealth and lives and fruits, but give good tidings to the patient who, when disaster strikes them, say, ‘Indeed we belong to Allah, and indeed to Him we will return.’”
The extra leisure time ushered in by the quarantine has allowed Daniel Lee (12), a Christian, to further immerse himself in the Bible and doctrines of his faith, he said. “Before [the pandemic] I would make excuses and not actually make the time to read the Bible or pray, but now that I have so much time, there is no excuse not to.” This immersion has reinforced Lee’s faith and cemented the fundamentals he has known all his life, he said.
Agboatwalla has also found himself adhering to religious code more strictly since he is not attending school. Previously, he would usually miss a daily prayer during classes and have to make it up later in the day, but now he can simply pray from his home, he said.
However, Agboatwalla said that once the quarantine was over, he will have to rearrange his praying routine as his daily schedule becomes more hectic. “I will need to find whatever time I can to make sure I stay connected to God,” he said.
Similarly, practicing his faith at home has allowed Lee to stay engaged with his religion even while his local church remains closed—the weekly services that would typically be given in person have moved online. However, Lee does not feel that this remote format has disrupted his religious routine too drastically, as the service still occurs in a similar fashion, even if the fellowship is missing.
“We start off singing a worship song that three parishioners have pre-recorded using the collaborative app Acapella, which allows them to sing together,” Lee said. After the hymn, the church’s pastor gives a sermon in real-time, and the service then concludes with another song and closing prayers.
“[Online services] are a nice way to maintain the community and faith even if we cannot physically be in church,” Lee said.
Garo Amerkanian (11), who is also Christian, has had a similar experience to Lee. He would usually attend church at least once a month with his family, but that is no longer possible due to the stay-at-home orders. Instead, his church broadcasts a service on YouTube every Sunday, and Amerkanian watches sections of it with his family at home.
“It is definitely a different experience,” he said. “You do not have to get dressed up, which is a major change. We are also sitting at the kitchen table instead of inside the church, which makes it easier to get distracted from the sermon.” Nonetheless, Amerkanian still believes that there is value in attending the sermons remotely and listening to the services. “You still feel connected to the church, even if it is virtually,” he said.
Despite this new format, Amerkanian does not feel that his ties to God have changed significantly, as his relationship to religion extends beyond the church. “In Christianity, your faith does not entirely depend on actually being in church,” he said. “It is largely based on individual connections and practices, so it is not that much of a change because you can still maintain that.”
Similarly, while Sadie Hill’s (11) church events have also moved online, she has not found this remote format too disruptive. “The most important thing about my religion is the community aspect of it, and though that has shifted, it has not completely changed,” she said.
Hill describes her church’s services as similar to the way HM Online operates. “Being in Zoom online is different from physically being in a building with other people,” she said.“It’s not ideal, but given the situation, it’s nice to still be able to talk and communicate with people you know well and miss.”
Since Aaron Shuchman’s (11) local synagogue is closed, his rabbi has been sending videos of the sermons, and Shuchman occasionally watches them with his family when he finds the topics interesting, he said.
Shuchman particularly enjoyed a sermon where his rabbi discussed what it was like being a faith leader in the midst of the pandemic and how he comforts those who are worried.“It was generally about how the pandemic is difficult for him, and it was quite touching,” Shuchman said.
Zatarski, who considers herself to be a religious and spiritual person, has also had her centers of spiritual learning and practice shifted into her home. Whereas she used to enjoy meeting with a tutor or attending services or special lectures, Zatarski now relies on connecting with people in her religious community online—a new and unusual experience.
Despite these changes, Zatarski remains strongly connected to her faith. “The pandemic has had less of a palpable impact on my sense of spirituality, perhaps because it is more personal in essence and less community based,” she said.
While Shuchman’s family continues to have weekly religious dinners where they light candles and say prayers, they now hold Shabbat dinners with their extended family over Zoom. These get-togethers have been a great way to maintain a community and a sense of routine amidst all the changes, he said.
From April 23rd to May 23rd, Muslims around the world observed the holy month of Ramadan, in which they fasted from sunrise to sunset and followed Islamic code with greater enthusiasm, Agboatwalla said. While fasting was easier since he was not as physically active as he would have been at school, Agboatwalla could no longer celebrate the festival with his local Muslim community, which was tough to digest, he said.
“It’s normally one of the best times of the year,” Agboatwalla said. He loves conversing, enjoying iftar (the evening meal that breaks the daily fast), and talking with other Muslims in his mosque every day. “At the end of the month, there is usually a huge festival and party, but we cannot have that this year. Missing out on all these traditions has been really disappointing, ” Agboatwalla said.
Although many religious followers have sought solace in their faith, the pandemic has not generated stronger religious sentiments amongst everyone. Elijah Shaham (11), who does not consider himself to be religious, said that the entire situation has moved him farther away from God.
“To me, religion is really abstract and meta, and right now, there are major problems that people are facing such as unemployment, fiscal issues, and loneliness,” Shaham said. “Personally, I do not see how something as abstract as religion can help me, and others, cope with this.”
Maxwell Resnick (11) has experienced similar feelings. The pandemic has caused him to focus more on other, more tangible issues, and he said that the existential nature of religion does not help his own experience during this time period.
Moreover, Resnick has found himself questioning the very existence of a supreme being. “If there really is a God, then why are so many people going through horrific situations? Why are people out of work, unable to feed their families? It just doesn’t make sense to me,” he said.
From a young age, Shuchman has been taught that God is an omnipotent redeeming force, but seeing the death tolls rise and the virus affecting others has challenged that notion, he said.
Praying has caused Agboatwalla to feel a stronger connection with his faith and has helped him cope with the difficult times. “I have been praying a lot recently. Praying for my family’s health and safety, the health and safety of my friends and everyone else,” he said. “Praying more often has definitely helped me get through quarantine as it really calms your mind and just makes you feel better, more content, and more satisfied with the things you have going around you.”
“From a religious sense, you just have to have faith that eventually we’ll get back to some semblance of normalcy,” Shuchman said. While he believes that this strong conviction is hard to maintain amid all the negativity, his connection with his faith and a higher power ultimately comfort him, he said.
While these times may be confusing and unfamiliar, Lee’s faith ultimately gives him comfort, he said. “Even though we might not understand what is exactly going on right now, it is always part of some bigger plan that He has for us.”