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Faith Leaders Address Religious Life in Coronavirus World

Four Duke leaders share insights with media

Part of the The Briefing: The Impact of COVID-19 Series
Faith Leaders Address Religious Life in Coronavirus World

The global coronavirus pandemic has forced many faith leaders to alter their customs. Most are holding services virtually rather than in person, leaning heavily on technology to stay connected to their congregations while being creative in other ways as well in these unprecedented times.

A panel of religious leaders at Duke discussed these changes Thursday with media. Below are excerpts.

On churches meeting in defiance of public health guidelines

Greg Jones, dean, Duke Divinity School

“It gets framed in terms of First Amendment rights, so it’s a way of politicizing the issues. It falls into ways of positioning religious freedom in some problematic ways rather than continuing to press on what really is crucial and essential. It gives a kind of permission for what I consider really irresponsible behavior.

“Once you get to larger gatherings of 50 or 100 people, the likelihood of outbreak is going to be much higher. That’s going to run afoul of deeper wisdom in religious traditions about caring for the most vulnerable.

“It invites a way for religious leaders, particularly more evangelical leaders, to say we’re not going to let the government tell us we’re going to do, we’re going to go out and show we can do this, and the power of prayer is going to triumph over everything else. That puts a lot of vulnerable people at risk. The power of some of these clergy is that people are going to trust them and lead them into irresponsible behaviors.”


On counseling Jews approaching Passover

Rabbi Elana Friedman, chaplain, Jewish Life at Duke

“Saving a life is more important than any other Jewish law or custom. So we’re required to safeguard health and care for one of others, and therefore disregard laws if they conflict with preserving a life. With that in mind, we have to adhere to recommendations from health experts and local governments and stay home. That includes for the Passover Seder.

“This is incredibly difficult for many people. It’s against the spirit of Passover. The spirit of Passover is to welcome family and friends around the table to celebrate. It’s one of the most popular holidays for American Jews.

“This year, we have to adapt.

“(Normally, for Seder) we open our doors to everyone on campus, both Jewish and non-Jewish. We get to spend time with each other and share each other’s customs. This is a huge loss for our community and for our experience, and it’s a huge emotional loss, but it’s a necessary one.

 “Following the dietary laws for Passover, we refrain from eating leavened foods. We are required to eat matzah. Unfortunately, there are limitations on product availability this year. This is not the year to go to the grocery store to find the products you need. I’m encouraging people to do their best and understand this is not the year to be strict. This is the time to not have judgment and burden yourself. Understand this year is the exception, not the norm.”


On being flexible as a faith community

Chaplain Joshua Salaam, director of Duke’s Center for Muslim Life

“These are new times and circumstances. There are foundational rules in the faith that will trump other rules. But it’s hard the first time that happens. If a person has been used to fasting during Ramadan … if they ever have a medical condition that mandates they have to take medicine during the day, sometimes that is so hard for them. They feel like their fast isn’t going to be accepted because they had to drink water and take three pills.

“But the faith allows that you have to take care of yourself, you have to live. Therefore fasting can be flexible. This is creating a whole new world of religious thought, religious opinions on what is ritual, what is community. What are we going to do? This hasn’t happened before so scholars are going back to the drawing board.”

The Rev. Bruce Puckett, assistant dean, Duke University Chapel

“This has not been ideal for people whose faith is practiced through physical interaction with each other, whether it’s sharing the communion meal together or whether it’s greeting one another with the peace of Christ.

“At the heart of our life together is the calling to love one another with a self-sacrificial love, which in this moment surely means being willing to do the hard work of being physically distant but socially and spiritually connected with one another.”


On a perceived mandate to attend services in person

“For some Christian traditions, for someone to think they’re missing a service, not attending Mass, it might even lead to a thought of a mortal sin or some kind of deep, sinful practice. But in this season, this is not how you have to think about this. This is not a sinful act.

“For Christians, I think there’s an opportunity to lean into a sense and a reminder that God is with us wherever we are. A theology of the Spirit that allows us to think about the way the Spirit of God lives in each of us.

“If that is the case, that kind of connection to god as a whole, regardless of being able to attend a worship service or gather with others, is a deep reminder that life with God does not have to stop.”

On using technology to connect the congregation

“My first question to myself is: Why haven’t I been doing this all along?  There were more people able to gain access who had never been to a service before. It’s easier, it’s less intimidating, you’re in the comfort of your own home, you can be on video or not.

“We have normally somewhere between 50-70 people who come to our Friday prayer service. After the prayer service, which is only 30 minutes, we socialize, everyone talks and gathers while we’re having pizza. Online, it’s very cool because we try to recreate it over Zoom. The first Friday we had 30 people, the next Friday we had 40 people. Some people gave the code to their parents so their parents could tune in.

“We also said ‘bring your own pizza,’ so it became a creative thing to do something fun. It’s been an exercise in my own creative, spiritual development and also has me thinking about access in a way I hadn’t before.”

“We definitely have seen an increase, a pretty dramatic increase, in our participation online. For example, we’re having pretty regularly as many as 1,000 watching on YouTube live and another 1,000 watching the recorded YouTube service, and about 700 participating on Facebook Live. On a typical Sunday service during this season of the year we might have 500 (to) 550 people.  These numbers are way increased.

“On March 22 we had about 2,000 people participating live in the service.”

“We have mostly switched online as well. We have changed them a little bit to not keep them completely the same since there’s a bit more room for interaction. For Shabbat, we usually have 100 students come to our center.

“Now we’re meeting over Zoom from 5 to 6 each Friday as a chance for people to connect with each other with some Shabbat prayers. We have some Shabbat prayers …. knowing that students are not just looking for the same old service. They’re looking for a time to connect with each other, to share with one another how they’re doing. Our custom is to share a good thing for a week each week at the end of our service. That’s been a big highlight.

“Students are able to share not just how they’re feeling, but also their families and their pets as part of our services. So on a Zoom Shabbat, I see our students’ faces, but I see also their parents, and sometimes their grandparents and siblings. Their dogs and cats are involved in our Shabbat service. That’s been such a beautiful treat in this dark time when fear and uncertainty is present. We celebrate Shabbat with our whole community.”

On staying isolated, and what comes next?

“One of the big concerns I have is that the tendency, as we come out of this at whatever point we’re able to start gathering again, there’s going to be a temptation to just go back to normal very quickly and have an explosion of big gatherings that could be equally problematic.

“This time of lament, this time of experimentation, this time of finding other ways to connect may be crucial practices to make the kinds of transitions required of us so we don’t see a recurrence of the outbreak this fall or at other times.

“These practices we’re engaged in, including the practices of lament, and waiting and patience … may help us in the long term. I think this is a marathon, not a sprint and we’ve got to have very different patterns and practices and ways of caring for ourselves and one another.”


Rabbi Elana Friedman
Rabbi Elana Friedman is the campus rabbi and Jewish chaplain for Jewish Life at Duke. She was ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College where she earned her master’s degree in Hebrew letters. Rabbi Elana’s rabbinic experience includes serving as an intern at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York City, as a rabbinic intern at Hillel at Temple University, and as a mentor for a teen interfaith program in Philadelphia. She holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies from Washington University in St. Louis.

Dean Greg Jones
Professor Greg Jones is dean of Duke Divinity School and a theologian whose work centers on the nature of forgiveness, the significance of Christian ministry and pastoral leadership, and social innovation and entrepreneurship. He has served as Duke’s chief international strategist to advance and coordinate the university’s global engagement. He is the author or editor of 17 books and has published more than 200 articles and essays. He earned a master’s of divinity and a Ph.D. at Duke.

Rev. Bruce Puckett
The Rev. Bruce Puckett is assistant dean of Duke University Chapel and an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene. Prior to joining the chapel staff in 2012, he served as the interim pastor for the Congregation at Duke Chapel for two years. He has a master of divinity from Duke Divinity School, and a bachelor of arts in religion from Olivet Nazarene University. Rev. Puckett’s roles have included director of community ministry and director of worship.

Chaplain Joshua Salaam
Chaplain Joshua Salaam is director of Duke’s Center for Muslim Life. He has served in the U.S. Air Force and as a police officer. Chaplain Joshua helped establish Friday prayer services on base for Muslim military members and went on to serve as an Imam in Goldsboro, N.C. for several years. After the military, Salaam managed the civil rights department for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He holds a master’s degree in religious studies with a focus in Christian/Muslim relations from Hartford Seminary.

Duke experts on a variety of other topics related the coronavirus pandemic can be found here.