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How religious leaders are keeping the faith during COVID-19

Throughout the pandemic, restrictions on social gatherings have forced those who observe major religious holidays to find new ways to practice their faith. How is COVID-19 changing places of worship? Judy Woodruff talks to New York University’s Imam Khalid Latif, Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg of United Hebrew Congregation in St. Louis and Rev. Tim Cole of Christ Church Georgetown in Washington, D.C.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Throughout the pandemic, restrictions on social gatherings have forced those who celebrate Easter, Passover and Ramadan to find new ways to practice their faith.

    And we wanted to explore how the coronavirus is changing places of worship with three faith leaders.

    Reverend Tim Cole serves as rector for Christ Church Georgetown. He was the District of Columbia's first confirmed coronavirus case. Brigitte Rosenberg is the senior rabbi at United Hebrew Congregation in Saint Louis, Missouri. And Imam Khalid Latif is the executive director of the Islamic Center at New York University.

    And we welcome all three of you to the program.

    Reverend Tim Cole, let me begin with you.

    How has this time changed the way you worship? What is different? What's lost?

  • Reverend Tim Cole:

    Well, of course, a huge amount is lost in the physical proximity of being together.

    Worship, as we understand it, is two — has two main dimensions. It has a horizontal dimension, where people are gathered in the community, and, of course, there is the vertical dimension in terms of our relationship with God.

    But — so what we have had to do is adapt. And we have started to do as many — we have actually have done virtual services. We have a daily morning prayer, which is read by different members of the congregation around the city from their own living rooms. So, it's rather lovely. You can see families taking part in the daily prayer of the church.

    And on Sunday, of course, we have a similar offering, but with a sermon and with music. Our choir has been able to record some beautiful pieces of music to go with that.

    So, we're doing the very best we can, as I'm sure everyone else is.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Imam Latif, what about you?

    This is — of course, we're in the holy month of Ramadan. What's lost? What's different now?

  • Imam Khalid Latif:

    Yes, so much about Ramadan is communal.

    As much as the fast that we have from dawn to dusk is an individual practice. Much ritual in Islam blends communal aspects and draws itself toward social equity.

    And so where people traditionally would be breaking their fast at sunset with family and friends or going to community gatherings or interfaith settings, city officials hosting iftars, now many are at home. If they have family with them or roommates, they might break fast together.

    But many are doing it on their own.

    And so what we have done, similar to the reverend, is shifted a lot of our programming online. We are doing things from 5:00 in the morning until about 10:00 or 11:00 at night, scattered throughout the day, to really meet the diverse needs of our community at this time.

    And what we have also done is created a lot of online campaigns to crowdfund to help people who have been financially impacted by the pandemic and to assure that, especially within our month of fasting, where we can help individuals of whatever background.

    We will do our part to be a source of healing at this time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Rabbi Rosenberg, April has been the month of Passover for Jewish — for Jews in America.

    How has what you're doing and what you have done changed during this period?

  • Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg:

    You know, certainly, as we just heard from my two colleagues, that we have really had to, in the same way, take things online and do them virtually.

    Certainly, with regard to Passover, there is such a communal aspect to Passover, just as there is to Ramadan, especially the meals that are held together. And so many families could not do that and gather generationally.

    So, many places brought the seder meals online and brought the opportunity for people to be together. And I would say that the virtual world has really become such a lifeline for so many people, especially those who are home by themselves.

    And, you know, there isn't anybody else there, and being able to come online, not just for worship, but, you know, to offer study, to offer conversation, you know, just as we have heard. We're finding ways to just bring the congregation and bring community and connection to people in a variety of ways.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Reverend Cole, what is it that people are seeking right now in your congregation? Are you finding they're asking, they're reaching out to you more? Are they able to express their needs?

  • Reverend Tim Cole:

    Yes, I think so.

    And what's — it's been wonderful, actually. I mean, I have been sick, so my colleague Crystal Hardin has been holding the fort here, and done a fantastic job.

    But it's rather wonderful, what's happened. There's been a flowing, if you like, a blossoming of community, throughout this period, where people have reached out to their neighbors and their fellow parishioners, even more than they normally do.

    We have had networks of chain — phone chains across the parish.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I should have said at the outset we are so glad to see you looking so well, after what you went through.

    Imam Latif, what about you? Are you finding people who are part of — you know, who are part of Islam that — who you work with, who you know, are they reaching out more? Is it harder for them to reach out? What are you finding?

  • Imam Khalid Latif:

    Every day, we're getting contacted by Muslims, as well as people of other faiths, who are just really trying the figure out how to make sense of it all.

    I think the challenges, the experience tends to be quite diverse. And with difficulties like, this we see a lot of revelations of various kinds that can help us to be compelled to doing our part, because, even in our month of fasting, Ramadan, it's not a vacuum. There is a pandemic in the background.

    And the purpose of ritual in our tradition is to elevate consciousness and bring people to take on social ills, so where we see people on the front lines or essential workers who every day are meeting the virus and displaying real goodness and beauty.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Rabbi Rosenberg, what are you hearing from people who are part of your synagogue, of the group of people who you would normally be reaching out to right now or who would reach out to you?

  • Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg:

    You know, I'm definitely hearing that people are missing the physicality of being together.

    And the virtual works, but, sometimes, it doesn't work for everything. One of the things we're having to do is adapt and adjust. This is a time where there are rituals that we can't necessarily do. So, funerals look different right now. Weddings look different. Bar and bat mitzvah services look different, because we cannot quarter in gather in the ways that we once did.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, I want to ask each one of you, how do you offer hope to people at a time like this, when there is a lot of despair, we're mourning people who are lost?

    Reverend Cole, what is your message to people who say, I just — I don't see the good in this?

  • Reverend Tim Cole:

    Well, I think there is a lot of fear around, isn't there, fear of sickness, fear of loss of livelihood, fear of just an uncertain future.

    And I think there are three things that help us with fear. One is humor. And it's important to be able to keep a sense of humor about things, as much as we can.

    But, more importantly, there is comradeship, there is friendship and the close ties that we have.

    When I was in hospital, the fact that people were praying for me made it much harder to be afraid, when I knew there were so many people standing beside me, and so reaching out to those people who care for us and love us.

    And finally, of course, that trust in the faithfulness of God, who has promised to us all that he will see us through whatever it is we have to face. And so I think those are the things that certainly help me in my — my time in hospital.

    And thinking of Easter, you know, that is the pattern that repeats again and again. We are in a dark place. We're in a period of waiting. And then there is new beginnings and new life.

    And I pray this whole country and the world will get to that point with this crisis and this virus too.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Words to remember.

    Imam Latif, what about you? What do you offer in the — what can you offer in the way of hope?

  • Imam Khalid Latif:

    You know, I think, building off of everything that the reverend is saying, where individuals are looking for a sense of hope manifest, that first step of empathizing, being a mode of support, but then taking it to a level of helping to fulfill needs, where people are struggling in their day-to-day because they literally have no money.

    They have lost jobs. They have no benefits. And they don't know how the put food on the table. We have people who are spreading hope to people of all backgrounds in New York City, as Muslim volunteers are going out and providing meals to people, delivering it to their homes, making an opportunity for individuals to feel as if they are not forgotten or left behind by launching these campaigns that we have.

    We have already, in the last three weeks, as a university-based Islamic center, raised over $1 million to assist people in need.

    And going into our month of fasting, our most recent campaign that has raised $300,000 in the last week or so, has already sent checks to about 70 New Yorkers in 25 homes of various backgrounds, not just of our faith, to not simply seek hope, but to manifest hope, to manifest love, to manifest mercy, in actions that say, in an unprecedented time, stepping up means also stepping out, and just doing for others what you can, so that you are the reason they have hope in this world, and never the reason they high dread it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Rabbi Rosenberg, finally, I'm hearing more that the three of you have in common, that your faiths have in common than I think people might expect.

  • Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg:

    The one thing that I would say and that I often look to when we talk about hope is stopping and recognizing the little blessings, or what I call the little silver linings, that come out of this, because there are those days where, you know, we are so fearful, or we feel like this is never going to end.

    And yet there are these little moments of blessing, when somebody reaches out to us or when we reach out to somebody else, or we just stop and recognize, we can take a breath, some of us in this moment, in ways that we never were able to do before.

    So it's just stopping and finding those small blessings in life.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg, such a wonderful note to end on.

    Imam Khalid Latif and Reverend Tim Cole, we thank you so much, all three of you. Thank you.

  • Imam Khalid Latif:

    Thank you.

  • Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg:

    Thank you so much.

  • Reverend Tim Cole:

    You're welcome.

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