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How religious observances are adapting to social distancing

In April, millions of Christians, Jews and Muslims around the world mark Easter, Passover and Ramadan -- some of the holiest observances of the year. But how are followers of these religions expressing faith and community when the pandemic makes traditional gatherings impossible? John Yang reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    This month, millions of Christians, Jews and Muslims around the world mark Easter, Passover and Ramadan, some of the holiest observances of the year.

    John Yang looks at how the faithful are finding ways to express much-needed feelings of faith and community, when the pandemic makes traditional gatherings impossible.

  • John Yang:

    In normal times, houses of worship would be very busy this time of year, Christians celebrating Easter, Jews marking Passover, and, later this month, Muslims observing Ramadan, for all of them, a time of renewal.

    But this is the new normal, a virtual Palm Sunday service. With New York City at the center of the crisis, Most Precious Blood Roman Catholic Church in Astoria is livestreaming mass.

    Alicia Alvarez is a regular there.

  • Alicia Alvarez:

    And I really didn't realize it until it happened, that I would miss it that much, because that's where you turn to for comfort, for guidance, for community support in hard times.

  • John Yang:

    She says being able to participate from home allows her to stay connected to her faith.

  • Alicia Alvarez:

    That has been very calming, very soothing, reassuring.

  • John Yang:

    Debbie Wells worships online with her nondenominational church outside Tampa.

  • Debbie Wells:

    My faith, it keeps me going, it keeps me motivated, it keeps me excited about waking up every single day.

  • John Yang:

    These livestreamed services are reaching people beyond her church community.

  • Debbie Wells:

    I have lots of friends that are able to tune into our services, and they are so appreciative. They're like, oh, my gosh, thank you. And these are people that I could not get to come to church with me.

  • John Yang:

    Other examples of social distancing worship? Drive-in services in Ohio and Nebraska, a drive-through confessional in Maryland, and a trumpeted hymn from a vicar in England.

    Not all religious practices easily translate easily online.

    Tara Culp-Ressler is part of an unaffiliated congregation whose worship is based on Mennonite tradition.

  • Tara Culp-Ressler:

    Singing is a really big part of the Mennonite worship experience, and that's really hard over, you know, a video chat, where there's some kind of delay, and you can't hear each other.

    And I'm not sure we're going to be able to sing four-part harmony over Zoom. We have found a way to keep some of it going, even if it's not a perfect replication of our traditional Sunday services. But it's just a time when you don't want people to feel like they're going through this alone.

  • John Yang:

    Jihad Turk, an imam and the president of Bayan Claremont Islamic Graduate School in California, says that, for Muslims, not being able to pray together at a mosque poses a challenge.

  • Jihad Turk:

    People attend prayer not just because they're religiously and morally obligated to, but because there's a real sense of human connection.

    Where people are standing close together in prayer, you not only feel connected to the divine, but you feel connected to humanity.

  • John Yang:

    It presents an even bigger challenge for Ramadan, a month of fasting, prayer and community.

  • Jihad Turk:

    Every evening, the community gathers in large groups at the mosques and at people's homes to break bread together. And you invite those who are oftentimes less fortunate to share in the bounty.

    It's a highlight because you're connecting in such a beautiful way with so many people and meeting new people. And that is going to be absent. It's a recharge of your spiritual batteries for the whole year.

  • John Yang:

    At St. James's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, the Reverend John McCard held Palm Sunday service online.

  • John McCard:

    This has made us more and more conscious of how impactful the online ministry can be for folks, just having that connection, being able to know that they're loved and cared about, that the church is still here for them, even if we can't be together physically.

  • John Yang:

    For Naomi Gamoran and Josh Smolevitz, this year's Passover seder was truly different from others. Family gathered from across the country on Zoom.

  • Josh Smolevitz:

    We had some households and families who were able to sing together, and we could listen to them. Or people took turns singing their own parts. So it wasn't exactly the same.

  • Naomi Gamoran:

    But it was still a really meaningful experience, and it still felt like we were together.

  • John Yang:

    Gamoran says that although social distancing has disrupted some Jewish traditions, she has seen her community step up to support those in need.

  • Naomi Gamoran:

    It's been really wonderful to see how people are trying to enact our values of taking care of the world by going to local restaurants and carrying out, by donating money.

  • John Yang:

    And it's not just weekly religious services. Many weddings, bar mitzvahs and memorials are all on hold.

    For some, faith and spiritual practices haven't changed.

    Dr. Kiran Mangalam, who teaches at University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine, practices meditation and yoga.

  • Kiran Mangalam:

    My spirituality is not really dependent on a particular place, a particular group of people. Everything that I do is directed inward.

  • John Yang:

    Mangalam says his spiritual practice helps him during the global crisis.

  • Kiran Mangalam:

    I cannot control the spread of the virus. I can't control the availability of PPE for my colleagues. But I can control what happens with my mind and my heart.

  • John Yang:

    In Lubbock, Texas, Eric Rasmussen and his five siblings across the country have created a new version of church on video chat.

  • Eric Rasmussen:

    It's the home where we learn most about forgiveness and kindness and love and compassion and those things that we're taught in the church building. And now we're really able to put those into practice.

  • John Yang:

    Rasmussen, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, says it provides calm in a turbulent time.

  • Eric Rasmussen:

    The more that we focus on kind of those core beliefs and those core practices here at home, I'm learning that there is a way to feel peace, even when we're kind of in the midst of the storm.

  • John Yang:

    Even if the sanctuary isn't in a house of worship.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Such a comforting report. Thank you, John.

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