Religious Leaders Say Worshiping at Home Is Most Ethical: 'The Command Is to Love One Another'

Rabbi Aaron Schonbrun from Torat El in Oakhurst, New Jersey, agrees: “To me it was important to keep people safe, that was my number one concern. But number two was, ‘How long is this going to be going on?’ People need contact. Religion, synagogues, all are built around relationships. It’s at the center of what we do. So I had to think, ‘How am I going to maintain relationships if we can’t be together?’ That pushed me quickly to say, we are going to do this virtually on Shabbat, we are going to do this on Passover. At least we can see each other,” he tells PEOPLE.

“Every time I go on Zoom — Is it a little strange that we’re all sitting in front of our computer like The Brady Bunch? Sure. But we see each other. I have to say, my service attendance is actually up,” he laughs. “Because people are popping in just for a touchpoint.”

Brett Harris, co-pastor at University Baptist Church in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, also says attendance to virtual services has been solid and he’s seen “even an increase in participation.”

“The first reported case in Mississippi was on March 11th, and by the 15th we were doing virtual services. We were trying to be proactive. We have a Facebook Live every Sunday and we’re using Zoom for our small study groups,” he tells PEOPLE. He and co-pastor Kat Kimmel have created a guide to do “Holy Week at Home” and also collaborated with pastors from eight other churches to bring daily online reflections to the community throughout Holy Week.

“There’s been some really good things that have come out of this tough time,” Harris, 36, says. The church members “are still getting something out of the experience even if it’s wildly different than having their seat in a pew.” He says he doesn’t understand why some churches are still meeting in person. “Having seen the great response we’ve had from our people and their willingness to do what’s best for our community, I don’t know what is to be gained from meeting in person during this crisis. We’re still worshipping and praying alongside each other, just in a new way.”

“To me it was a pretty easy decision to live out the idea of loving our neighbors as ourselves, knowing that none of us want to get sick and we don’t want anybody else to get sick.”

Dr. Omid Safi, Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University, Director of Illuminated Courses and author of Radical Love: Teachings from The Islamic Mystical Tradition agrees that love is the way to find God in these difficult times.

“I don’t think we’re going to find God by coming up with some moral explanation about why people are being punished. I think that we can look for God in our response to the virus,” he tells PEOPLE.

“When you look at people clapping for the health workers, for people who are knowingly putting themselves in a position of risk, extending themselves in love and in service to others. When we’re overwhelmed, we stand up and we applaud — not bluster and not ego and greed — but we applaud love and service. I look also to the people keeping the grocery stores open, to the people who are checking in on the elderly, on little invisible acts of goodness and kindness; and I think that’s where God is.”

Additionally, Dr. Safi says using this time to turn inward can be beneficial. “In the Islamic tradition, there’s more than a thousand years of insight on the role of retreats. I think that’s a meaningful set of teachings to tap into right now, because it helps us think about our lives as having waves of activity — there’s a time for going out into the square and having social interaction — and then there’s time for repose and going inward. I think the difference is traditionally, one would choose to go on retreat, whereas now we’re being forced to go into a retreat so the dynamics are different, and of course people’s health and home situations are different.”

For those who miss in-person contact with their spiritual community, “that means you have something to be grateful for,” Dr. Safi says. “Rumi says, ‘Before you find the water you have to have thirst,’ and that your thirst is actually what guides you to the water. I think for people who miss in-person rituals it says to them that the rituals of their church, mosque or synagogue are meaningful to them. And that’s not the case for so many people. So the missing of it, at this stage of things, is something to be thankful for.”

  • With reporting by Stephanie Emma Pfeffer

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