Religious communities play an important role in people’s daily lives. According to the Pew Research Center63 percent of Canadians identify with a religion while at least 55 percent of Canadians say religion is at least somewhat important in their personal life.
Recent Press articles highlighted how religious leaders are connecting with members of their community through live-streamed services or even Sermons on Twitter. However, faith-based humanitarianism research suggests that faith communities play a much broader role in times of crisis.
My survey of faith communities shows how uniquely positioned they are to support people and foster resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of their moral authority and vast networks, they are sources of solidarity, knowledge, authority and meaning.
Sources of solidarity
Faith communities can easily engage in acts of solidarity that build community resilience. They can easily identify vulnerable members of the community and quickly mobilize to provide support.
Sikh temples regularly hold a languor, a community kitchen offering free meals to temple visitors. Now some temples in Surrey, BC offer a free take-out langar and arrange grocery deliveries for seniors and people with disabilities. The Sikh Awareness Foundation has launched a Initiative “No hungry belly” providing hot meals to vulnerable community members across British Columbia Khalsa Aid provides free essential groceries at various pick-up points in the Greater Toronto Area.
Similarly, the Ahmaddiya Muslim Youth Association has launched a nationwide campaign Neighborhood Help Campaign. Canadians can seek help by registering online or by calling a helpline; young members will support them by picking up supplies or medicine.
The United Jewish Appeal (UJA) Federation of Greater Toronto has expanded its annual world seder campaign to help at-risk families in the area during the pandemic.
To finish, yoga studios and meditation apps offer a more secular form of spiritual solidarity to people not affiliated with a formal religious institution. Many of them offer free online courses to help people through these difficult times.
Sources of knowledge
These same extended networks allow religious communities to have direct access to what is happening at the local level. This is particularly important in contexts closed to outside observers.
For my current research on Canadian Christian mission organizations, I attended Missions Fest Manitoba in February, a conference in Winnipeg that attracted representatives from over 100 Christian organizations. A document from an organization described how they maintain direct contact with members of underground house churches in China, which are illegal churches not sanctioned by the Chinese government. As a result, the organization was able to obtain detailed information on what was happening in Chinese communities at the start of the coronavirus crisis. They also provided funds for medical supplies to be distributed to community members, even as the Chinese state suppressed the information.
In such cases, faith communities act as first responders as well as channels of information.
Sources of authority
He sent a strong public health message when Pope Francis canceled his Sunday blessing at a window overlooking St. Peter’s Square. This weekly ritual has rarely been undone since 1954.
Similarly, the Dalai Lama published a public letter of support for Indian Prime Minister Modi’s strict measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in that country.
In Canada, the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto issued public health updates to Jewish organizations in an effort to facilitate a cohesive community-wide response.
These voices have strong moral authority within and beyond their communities, so they have the ability to influence the public to listen to public health recommendations.
Unfortunately, this is also the case when leaders choose to ignore public health recommendations, which can have significant negative consequences. For instance, many American churches continue to remain open for services and attract hundreds of followers. This despite state bans on public gatherings and many previous examples of coronavirus hotspots resulting from large religious gatherings.
Sources of meaning
According to a draft paper published by Jeanet Sinding Bentzen, professor of economics at the University of Copenhagen, Google searches for prayer skyrocketed in March as the coronavirus went global. Same people who do not consider themselves religious turn to prayer as a means of coping with the crisis.
Faith communities help people create meaning in times of great uncertainty or anxiety. Kenneth Pargament, a religious and health psychologist, argued that “the language of the sacred – patience, mystery, suffering, hope, finitude, surrender, divine purpose and redemption” – can help people deal with situations beyond their control.
For example, the Executive Director of the Muslim Association of Canada advised members of the organization that “we should see this as a time to embody the defining quality of a believer: to benefit God’s creation”.
Likewise, the Dalai Lama advised Buddhists to chant the “Tara mantra” in response to the pandemic. Chanting mantras is a practice that Buddhists use to cultivate compassion towards themselves and all sentient beings. The Canadian Tibetan Cultural Center in Toronto asked its members to recite as many of these mantras as possible and report their totals for a complete community tally.
Religious communities outside of formal religious institutions also help people create meaning. Jack Kornfield, a popular teacher of mindfulness meditation practices, created a pandemic resource page on its website. It includes guided meditations on how to cultivate a stable heart or react to difficult emotions during difficult times.
It is important to understand what increases the resilience of individuals and communities in times of challenge and uncertainty. These examples suggest that many Canadians will experience the COVID-19 pandemic within a framework shaped by a faith community. More importantly, they show how faith communities are at the forefront of community responses to the pandemic.
In this time of crisis, people can find strength, hope and purpose through their connections to faith communities.