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Faith Leaders Discuss How The Coronavirus Is Impacting Work


Along with all the other disruptions to American life, the coronavirus outbreak has also disrupted religious practice. Many places of worship have closed their doors to public gatherings as part of the nationwide push to slow the spread of the coronavirus by minimizing social contact. But that's a very difficult decision for those who rely on their religious communities for comfort and inspiration during challenging times.

We're going to talk about that in the next few minutes with three different faith leaders. And we're also going to talk about how they are coping and how they are trying to help their congregants through this experience. Joining me now are Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld. He leads the Modern Orthodox congregation at Ohev Sholom - the National Synagogue. That's in Washington, D.C.

Rabbi, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

SHMUEL HERZFELD: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: The Reverend Thomas McKenzie serves at the Church of the Redeemer. That's an Anglican church in Nashville, Tenn.

Father McKenzie, thank you so much for joining us.

THOMAS MCKENZIE: Glad to be here.

MARTIN: And Imam Rizwan Ali is the religious director at the Islamic Center of Naperville. That's in Naperville, Ill.

Imam, welcome to you as well. Thank you so much for joining us.

RIZWAN ALI: Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: And you all represent three different faith traditions, so I'm just going to start by asking each of you about the importance of being together, of gathering in one place in normal times. So, Rabbi Shmuel, why don't I start with you? Why is being together important in your tradition?

HERZFELD: From the perspective of Jewish law, it's necessary - that we can't say all the prayers that we need to say if we're on our own. So we need to be together. It's a requirement. But separate from the actual technical requirement, there is obviously great spiritual value. We lean on each other. We are inspired by each other. The whole basis of our congregation is face-to-face interaction. That's how we are. That's how we roll.

MARTIN: And as an Orthodox congregation, you don't use electronic devices on the Sabbath. Is that correct? So a number of Christian churches, for example, are livestreaming their services. That's not an option for you.

HERZFELD: Correct. It's not an option. And it's more than that. Not only do we not use the technology for our services, but also, people - you know, the whole Shabbat, the Sabbath experience, is based around being around other people, going to other people's homes for meals and gathering together for study groups.

And now that we can't use technology, people are incredibly lonely and are unable to connect in any way. The rest of the week, we can connect by, you know, iPhones or smartphones. But on Shabbat, people who don't have families are literally by themselves.

MARTIN: So, Father McKenzie, let's go to you. As I mentioned, a lot of churches are livestreaming their services. You resisted that at first. You know, why is that?

MCKENZIE: Well, in our tradition, we believe that we are a community of both word and sacrament. And the word of God is something that can be proclaimed on the internet, I suppose. But the sacraments of Christ cannot be celebrated on the Internet. They have to be celebrated face-to-face.

MARTIN: Could you just describe what that is for those who don't know what that is and why that is so important in the Christian tradition?

MCKENZIE: Sure. In the Christian tradition, we believe that God incarnated himself - that he became a human being. And in that same way, he speaks to us now and ministers to us now by his grace through physical objects. And so we say a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.

So one of the most important Christian sacraments is communion, which we celebrate every Sunday. And that's a sacrament in which we believe that the body and blood of Jesus are mystically present in bread and wine that we share with one another. But that's not obviously something you can do online. I can't, you know, celebrate - have the prayers of celebration and then hand somebody the bread and the wine when they are in another house in another part of the city.

MARTIN: And when you first realized that you couldn't do that, what was that like for you?

MCKENZIE: It made me incredibly sad. It made me angry. It was frustrating. But it - and it made me scared just to think about how and - how are we going to minister to people if we can't be face to face with them? I think about people in hospitals that I won't be able to go see, and if people - when - and if people die, how are we going to celebrate the funeral? And there's just so many things that absolutely, essentially require us to be present to one another.

That - you know, the Internet is fine, but it can't provide physical presence. That isn't just emotional - and that - it is emotional, but it's also part of our faith. It's part of our spirituality that we are present to one another and therefore incarnations of Christ to each other.

MARTIN: And you did come up with an innovative solution for the - over the course of the week. You had drive-through communion, as I understand it. People were able to, you know, roll up. And that sounds very American. They were able to roll up, and you were able to offer them the consecrated host. But can that continue?

MCKENZIE: Doesn't look like it can. Yeah. What we do normally during the week is we celebrate communion. And then if somebody is sick or shut in, we'll take the communion to them. And then beginning last Sunday, we just distributed the communion to them not only by taking it to them, but also people would drive up. I would distribute as if they were in their hospital bed. But as of tonight at midnight, our mayor here in Nashville has told us that we are not to do such a thing. We're apparently not an essential service.

MARTIN: Yeah, that's hard. What about you, Imam Ali? Why is being together important in your tradition?

ALI: You know, as Muslims, we try to come together in the mosque five times a day for our prayers. And even in our prayers, we say, shoulder to shoulder, foot to foot. stand close to each other. You know, we shake hands with the people, the congregants, and it gives them a spiritual support. It's more rewarding to pray in the mosque. And the mosque serves as a social network for people. And for that to be taken away and that to change, it was very difficult.

And we tried as much as we could to try to, you know, accommodate people. But as the virus started to spread and more and more, then we had to make very tough decisions. And first we started to tell people not to shake hands, then discouraged people from coming, and then tried to practice social distancing of 6 feet apart, limiting the congregation. Then we had to suspend to communal Friday prayer. And then we also had to finally just close everything down.

And each one of those steps was very difficult and frustrating and unprecedented, really. And, you know, sometimes people are questioning us as a leadership, are you're doing the right thing? And we had to take a step back and look at the overall goals of our religion and our faith, which is to keep ourselves and the community safe. So it was difficult in the moment, but I'm happy that we made the right decision. And, you know, we worked with medical professionals at the state, local and federal government as well, and their guidelines, to make sure that we are trying to keep ourselves and others safe.

MARTIN: All of you are seeing both, obviously, moments of great pain and also moments of great inspiration, but are any of you worried that - now that people have - of necessity gotten out of the habit of coming to worship, that some people will decide that they don't need it, that it's not important to their lives? Is any of you worried about that?

HERZFELD: Michel, I think it's just the opposite, that now that we can't go to services and we can't be in the building, we realize just how much we need each other. And I think we're acutely aware of what we don't have now.

MARTIN: That's Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld. Anybody else? Any other final thoughts?

ALI: Yeah. This is Rizwan Ali. I think that, you know, during moments of adversity, it's an opportunity for us to come together. And this moment will pass. And we pray to God that it passes by quickly. But what we do during this time has long-term implications. And it gives us ability to take a step back and realize all of those things we've taken for granted, this coming together as a community, being able to visit each other, being - having that face-to-face interaction. I think many of us have taken that for granted. So I think that people are - during this period, we're trying to make the best out of the situation. But we all have a longing of trying to, you know, shake somebody's hand, give them a hug, a pat on the back, because that is important as well.

MARTIN: OK. Final thought for you, Father McKenzie?

MCKENZIE: Yeah. I would say that in the scriptures, solitude is something that some of the great saints go through - Jesus, Moses, Elijah. They all went through a period of solitude. And after the period of solitude is when they did some of their greatest work. And so I feel like that this solitude that's being forced on the church will, I hope, lead to us into a new era of great work. I believe, like the rabbi said, that people will not only come back to church, but will feel the need to be together in a way that we haven't been before.

MARTIN: That's the Reverend Thomas McKenzie from Church of the Redeemer in Nashville, Tenn. We also heard from Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom - the National Synagogue in Washington, D.C. - and Imam Rizwan Ali of the Islamic Center of Naperville in Naperville, Ill. Thank you all so much for joining us. I truly appreciate it.

MCKENZIE: Oh, you're very welcome.

HERZFELD: Thank you.

ALI: Thank you very much.

HERZFELD: Blessings to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.