Aamer Trambu had been praying at his mosque every Friday since the age of seven. Last week, his mosque was closed due to the new coronavirus outbreak.
Trambu, who lives in Brampton, Ont., immigrated to Canada two years ago with his wife and three daughters. Since then, the mosque has been his main source of community.
“[The Muslim] faith involves praying five times a day. I usually pray my five daily prayers at home, at my workplace or at the mosque,” Trambu said. “Friday is the most important day of worship for Muslims … [it’s the] weekly congregational prayer.
“For men, the Friday prayer is absolutely to be prayed only at the mosque.”
Spending every Friday at the mosque had given Trambu a sense of comfort and consistency. Without it, he feels “very strange.”
“I have prayed the Friday prayer in over 15 different Canadian mosques. No matter which mosque I pray the Friday prayer in, it’s the same prayer,” Trambu said.
“The feeling is the same: a jovial occasion, a celebration, smiles, handshakes, hugs. I miss the Friday prayer the most.”
Trambu is just one of the millions of Canadians who have had to change the way they practise their faith due to the new coronavirus outbreak.
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“In Islamic law, preservation of human life takes precedence over everything else, over every other religious obligation. If performing the Friday prayer harms anyone, then it becomes a religious duty to pray at home,” he said.
“Friday is psychologically most difficult for me and my friends. It’s how we keep track of the week.”
A crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic can affect people and their relationship to religion in very different ways, says Kate Johnson, interfaith chaplain at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.
“It often cuts [one of] two ways for people,” Johnson said.
“Either they have a sort of crisis of faith, [wondering] why God is doing this … or people see this as an opportunity to really live or expand their faith.”
Faith in a crisis
Regardless of religion, an emergency situation can often lead a person to lean on their faith for support and comfort.
Patricia Eddu, a Christian, typically goes to mass once per week, and she also attends a community group at her church.
“I think the big thing I miss is gathering with friends to worship together,” the Scarborough, Ont., resident said. “It’s one of the biggest highlights of my week and often gives me so many tools to deal with how crazy life can be.”
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For Eddu, this community has become even more important during the COVID-19 crisis.
“The amazing thing that my community group did is start a Zoom hangout once a week so we can still touch base and pray for each other,” she said.
“We also have a pretty bumping WhatsApp group, which has been amazing. Throughout the week, we encourage each other and … send lots of memes.”
Especially in emergency situations, religion can provide a “framework” for how to act, said Barbra Clayton, associate professor of eastern religions at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B.
“Religion gives [your life] meaning. It provides a worldview … It helps you make sense of these things,” she said.
In an effort to keep the community connected, places of worship across the country have moved online.
Lauren Hodgson, minister at St. Matthew’s United Church in Toronto, Ont., started livestreaming her services each Sunday using Facebook Live, and she’s had great feedback from her congregation.
“I think it’s more important than ever for us to be finding ways to be socially connected,” Hodgson told Global News. “In lack of the physical space … it feels like there’s a new space that’s opening up.”
Hodgson wants to ensure the members of her church have a space to intentionally connect with their faith and their faith-based community — especially during this pandemic, which has been a source of great fear and anxiety for many.
“We’ve had really great turnout. I’ve been surprised by the number of people who I had never met before or who might not be able to come on Sunday but have found us and worshiped with us,” she said.
“They have time on Sunday mornings now when they otherwise wouldn’t.”
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Hodgson has also started a “telephone coffee time” for anyone who isn’t online, like the more senior members of the community. Her first session was on Wednesday.
“We went around … asking people to share how they were doing,” she said.
“It turned into a lot of people asking about other members of the church community and how they are doing.”
Moving online has allowed Hodgson to offer members of her church a space to try and make sense of the pandemic and how it’s changing the world.
“I’ve had a number of people write me privately and say: ‘I just really need somewhere to share,’” Hodgson said.
“[They tell me] really profound stories of things they’re experiencing — struggles, joys, trying to figure out what it means to be finding community in new ways … amid a global pandemic and so much heartache.”
For practitioners, ministers and other faith leaders, one concern during the new coronavirus outbreak is accessibility.
In one way, virtual services might be more accessible for those with physical barriers to access — like a parishioner who uses a wheelchair and whose church meets on the second floor of a building without an elevator, for example.
Clayton has seen this first-hand in her community.
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“We have a small meditation group and we almost immediately [wondered], ‘Can we do this online?’” she said. “It’s interesting because … this is actually more accessible for some people because we happened to meet physically in one of the local churches upstairs.”
On the flip side, navigating websites like Facebook and Zoom can present a barrier to access for elderly members of the community.
This is why ministers like Hodgson have also started providing services over the phone.
READ MORE: Live updates — Coronavirus in Canada
Ultimately, regardless of faith, everyone is in agreement: the new coronavirus outbreak is an opportunity to strengthen community bonds.
“This is really an opportunity for us to show that it’s what we do and how we are with each other that matters,” Johnson said.
“Way more than where we gather, it’s how we gather.”
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.
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