In the weeks following the suspension of in-person classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, religious gatherings and services at the University have transitioned to online platforms, impacting the way Wesleyan students and chaplains engage in spiritual practice. Rather than attending regular weekly religious services or events, students can now participate in Zoom calls with their chaplains and peers to stay connected to the University’s religious life. Currently, there are four University chaplains: Protestant Chaplain Rev. Tracy Mehr-Muska, Roman Catholic Chaplain Father Bill Wallace, Muslim Chaplain Omar Bayramoglu, and Jewish Chaplain and Director of the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life (ORSL) Rabbi David Leipziger Teva
“Zoom meetings will never really replace the personal aspect of meeting with other students, whether to talk about academia or even about spirituality,” ORSL intern Melisa Olgun ’20 said. “And so this is definitely going to be a transition period.”
The transition to remote learning and religious practice has presented many challenges for students. Nonetheless, religious life at the University continues to function. Currently, there are a number of religious events and programs scheduled for the remainder of the spring semester. Whether it be through live stream or on-demand, chaplains have been virtually reaching out to students to support them during this time through services such as Shabbat or mass, mental health and well-being programs, or support groups such as biweekly meditation circles. Each meeting, service, and session is designed to connect students with each other and their chaplains regardless of their location or time zone.
Particularly during this time of the year, with holidays like Easter, Passover, and Ramadan taking place, students can use chaplains as a resource to connect with their faiths. For the Muslim community, there are weekly sermons every Friday at 12:30 p.m. Eastern Time and the reading of specific excerpts for the duration of Ramadan.
Chaplains have seen the toll that COVID-19 has taken on the University community at large, but also their individual places of worship as well.
“A lot of other universities, churches, synagogues and mosques have been unable to gather as communities of faith and to actually practice with one another,” Wallace said. “In terms of practicing their faith, most Catholic parishes have provided some kind of live-stream celebration of the mass. I know a lot of my Protestant and Jewish and Muslim chaplain colleagues are doing the same thing.”
The change to online services both inside and outside of the Wesleyan community has been met with mixed reactions from its students. On one hand, some believe that the transition to Zoom meetings can allow more people to get their voice heard.
“So [Zoom] was kind of effective in a way as everyone was able to practice, to be in, and say something,” Lauren Greenberg ’22, a member of the Catholic Student Organization, said. “Whereas if you were in a big gathering of some kind of holiday party, you might talk to some people but not others because there are too many people to get to. So I think there are some advantages to it.”
While these online events are important in allowing students and chaplains to communicate, some students find fault with how they bring a lack of connectivity within religious spaces.
“I can’t speak too specifically about other religions, but from my experience, religion is a completely communal thing, and it becomes very hard to practice and observe traditions when you’re disconnected from the community,” Wesleyan Jewish Community leader Sivan Piatigorsky-Roth ’20 said. “So I think that’s a loss that people everywhere are feeling.”
Teva explained that chaplains will continue to offer support to all students despite their religious affiliations or preferences.
“All of the chaplains at ORSL offer pastoral counseling for students who would like to connect with a confidential, nonjudgmental, listening presence,” Leipziger Teva wrote in an email to The Argus. “We have been trained to work with students of any, all, or no faith backgrounds. Students do not have to have a specific reason to seek us out and we welcome the opportunity to engage with whatever students want to talk about and process. This could be financial, emotional, physical, existential or spiritual challenges that students are facing during this pandemic.”
Despite the losses that many students face during this time, chaplains agree that it is crucial to maintain hope.
“In this scary and unprecedented time, I hope students know that they are not alone in their grief related to the many missed expectations, the disappointments, and the physical isolation,” Mehr-Muska said. “They are seen and heard and are supported by a vast net of people who are standing by to help and who care deeply about them and their physical, emotional, spiritual, and financial well being.”
Teva encouraged students to view this period as a time to promote self-growth.
“Some people describe this period as ‘lost time’ or time ‘stolen from them’” Teva wrote. “I disagree. From a spiritual point of view, this is a poignant and fecund moment for each of us to grow and evolve.”
Oliver Cope can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.