Faith leaders talk about guiding congregants through COVID-19 and uncertain times | Michigan Radio
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Faith leaders talk about guiding congregants through COVID-19 and uncertain times

Mar 13, 2020

Houses of worship across Michigan are suspending in person services for the next several weeks to help combat the spread of COVID-19. The Imams Council of Michigan announced that Friday prayers would be cancelled at all mosques across the state for the next two weeks. That is just one example of the difficult decisions faith leaders are making as the number of novel coronavirus cases in the state continues to climb. Stateside talked to a few faith leaders about how they are adapting, and what they are telling congregants at a time when so much is uncertain.

Kassem Ali is the executive administrator of the Dearborn-based Islamic Center of America, which is the largest mosque in North America. Ali said that the mosque will still be open for individuals to come and pray, but all events and congregational services will be cancelled.

“Part of a Muslim’s obligation is to pray in congregation and to be with other Muslims, especially during Friday prayer. But under circumstances where there is some great risk there, then we have advised people that their obligations continue as individual Muslims at home,” he said. 

While the COVID-19 pandemic is radically disrupting life for Americans, Ali said that it is also an opportunity to come together in a time of political polarization. 

“It’s a wake up call frankly. The great polarization that has been happening over the last few years, not just this administration, but it’s been building up,” Ali explained. “And we frankly are being tested. And the test will be that if you work together, you will prevail, you will succeed. And polarization will always lead to failure.”

One of the things that's so challenging is the evolving guidance on the health risks of COVID-19. Leaders can make a plan, but then circumstances change. Pastor Linda Stephan of Williamston United Methodist Church had originally proposed a hybrid service where healthy members could attend in person, and others could attend via a livestream.

Those plans recently changed. She is now planning to stream her sermon on Facebook Live. Stephan is adamant that “gathering matters,” but said she understands the importance of her role as a faith leader in this uncertain time.

“I am also grateful that I’m in the place that I’m at, and hopefully [will] be a calming presence to my people and also a bold leader, and to make some good decisions, not just for my church community, but for everyone,” Stephan said. 

Rabbi Josh Whinston of Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor said the changes in congregational services he's had to make is hard on everyone in their faith community. Shabbat will be livestreamed for the time being. Bar and bat mitzvahs will continue, but he's asking that only immediate family be present at the celebrations.

“It feels awful, and I feel saddened that I’m asking people not to show up tonight. I do this work because I want to connect with people, and help people ensure that they don’t feel alone,” Whinston said. “And I realize that the request we’re making could do the opposite for people.”

There are several Holocaust survivors who attend Temple Beth Emeth, and Whinston said that they offer him a model of empathy and compassion.

“If I were to be listening to them, they would tell me, I think, to take a breath, to do what is right for other people, to be kind, to be patient, to make sure that when I’m at the grocery store, that I’m not getting upset with the clerk, and to help each other out," he said. 

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Catherine Nouhan.