The COVID-19 pandemic is both a crisis and an opportunity for communities of faith. While in-person worship remains risky, some congregations are reimagining their communities online. Religious and community organizations are also addressing the many social issues exacerbated by the pandemic, from hunger to racial justice. USC experts address the intersections of religion and the coronavirus pandemic.
Spirituality in a pandemic: a test of faith for believers and organizations
September 23, 2020
The essential problem with state-faith relations
“Many people shape their lives around what they believe. They are more likely to turn to religious organizations for guidance and resources during times of crisis than their local councilperson’s office.
“Two recent national surveys report 52% to 70% of churches around the country have begun to meet in-person again, with the vast majority taking health and safety precautions. Those measures vary greatly, however. Congregations that meet without precautions defy their own religious values of protecting life.
“What is needed now is leadership from the public sector to communicate clearly under what conditions houses of worship can open safely.”
Brie Loskota is the executive director of the USC Dornsife Center for Religion and Civic Culture. She co-authored FEMA’s curriculum on faith community engagement. This quote is excerpted from an op-ed on reopening congregations that she co-authored with Najuma Smith-Pollard, program manager of the USC Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement and co-chair of the City of Los Angeles’ working group on reopening congregations.
A moral imperative: health inequities in Black communities
“COVID-19 has revealed long-standing health disparities that negatively impact Black communities at a greater scale than others. For decades, people have attempted to debate the impact of systematic racism within the health care system, but the numbers do not lie.
“Here is a snapshot of COVID’s impact on Black communities: 22% of U.S. counties are disproportionately Black, and those counties account for 52% of COVID-19 cases and 58% of COVID-19 deaths. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shared a report in April that found 33% of hospitalized patients with COVID-19 were Black, although they made up just 18% of the community being evaluated.
“The underlying health conditions affecting many African Americans — heart disease, high blood pressure, cancers and obesity, to name a few — coupled with a merciless virus like COVID-19 create the perfect public health crisis.
“In my recent interview with Cozette Lyons-Jones, she discussed the issues in this country as far as resources being directed to black communities for health. Additionally, systemic racism in this country has had an enormous weathering effect on Black and brown bodies, increasing our risk factors and contributing to the devastation. We saw a similar impact when the HIV/AIDS epidemic hit.
“What is needed as we come through this pandemic is concentrated civic engagement around health inequities. This is an area the faith community can engage in. For instance, Pastor Sam Casey and his collaborators got Riverside County to declare racism as a public health crisis. It is also why I joined the executive board of the faith advocacy council for the L.A. County Department of Mental Health: to normalize engagement around physical and mental health in Black and brown communities. It’s a moral imperative that faith institutions be concerned not only with the spiritual health of their members but also with the physical health of their communities.”
“There are many challenges facing faith institutions of all sorts. To name just two, the number of “religious nones” — what some might call the “unchurched” — has increased from 16% in 2007 to about 25% of the current U.S. population. Young people show an even higher number, with over one-third claiming no religion and with most of these having left the faith of their youth. Further, service attendance shows similar declines, with only 36% of Americans saying that they attend services once each week and another 33% saying that they attend services once a month or ‘a few times a year’ — your typical Easter and Christmas attenders.
“The other challenge is the current COVID-19 pandemic. While this has imposed itself on churches and other religious institutions, it has required quick responses to a new reality and to create new ways of ‘being church.’ To put this in somewhat Darwinian terms: only the smart, adaptive, resourced or opportunistic will survive.
“Most churches have figured out how to deliver their Sunday services via digital means. The most creative are listening to their communities — both their members and the larger communities they serve — and adapting their ministries and programming to meet emerging needs within the new limitations the COVID-19 pandemic has placed on them. Of this group, many are viewing the limitations as an opportunity to rethink and reimagine what is really necessary as they seek to fulfill their respective missions.”
Richard Flory is the senior director of research and evaluation at the USC Dornsife Center for Religion and Civic Culture.
For more, read Flory’s remarks at the first round in CRCC’s series first round in CRCC’s series “Conversations on Thriving Communities.”
Will our sense of solidarity fall victim to the pandemic?
“Both in the United States and many other parts of the world, religious organizations play a central role in responding to the needs of vulnerable people. The United Nations has warned that the COVID-19 pandemic could push half a billion more people into poverty globally, which is especially alarming given the reductions in poverty that have been occurring for the last decade in many developing countries.
“In confidential conversations with leaders of faith-based humanitarian organizations, it is clear that fundraising is taking a hit. One Christian organization with a global reach is reducing staff by 10%, which will greatly impact their ability to serve people affected by war, poverty and hunger. In addition, congregations are becoming more insular, focused on their own survival rather than global concerns.
“While there are many negative consequences of the current pandemic, it could also lead to a period of ‘creative destruction’ as religious institutions and nonprofits make positive, long-term structural adjustments related to programming and staff. Indeed, the deeper the disruption, the greater the possibility for change.
“Recent surveys of religion have signaled a decline in interest and in attendance at worship services. In the dual crisis of the pandemic and religious decline, this is a time for highly imaginative thinking about the role of religion in society.”
Donald E. Miller is co-founder and director of strategic initiatives at the USC Dornsife Center for Religion and Civic Culture.
Religion hit hard
“COVID-19 hit religion hard. Faith groups that continue to meet in person risk outbreaks in their congregations. But meeting online is not the answer. Attendance for online services is less than when people met in person. Weddings and bar mitzvahs have been postponed, and funerals held in private. Donations are down, and ‘nones’ remain disinterested in organized religion’s offerings.
“But two types of religiosity are thriving in today’s climate. Over the last few months, people are praying and meditating. People pray all the time — for love, money and parking spots. But now many are praying for an end to the epidemic, the health of family and friends, and the money to pay their bills. Downloads of mediation apps like Headspace are booming. There also is an increase in mindfulness classes and sessions. Whether on Zoom or apps, growing numbers seek to calm their anxieties during this unprecedented time.
“The second area of growth is memorializing the dead. Most families eschew in-person funerals, wakes, shivas and other religious traditions. Zoom — while bringing together far-flung relatives and friends — lacks the high-touch immediacy that mourners crave. Some news outlets write obituaries for all who die in their area. But the bereaved have found creative alternatives, including a 24-hour vigil on Facebook, video memorials projected on public spaces, website memorials and individual acts of recollections such as outdoor shrines and indoor altars.”
Diane Winston is Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and a University Fellow with the USC Dornsife Center for Religion and Civic Culture.
Black Lives Matter takes on COVID-19 as healing justice work
“Black Lives Matter is most known for their political actions and protest movements, but a significant aspect of the organization’s work involves direct service to communities directly impacted by state violence. The movement’s deep embeddedness often goes unnoticed.
“In the age of COVID-19, that has often involved pandemic response and support. For example, Dignity and Power Now (DPN) in Los Angeles successfully agitated on behalf of prison populations facing COVID-19 while ensuring health access and testing sites for communities directly impacted by state violence. DPN also hosted events such as Calm-Unity, a virtual event which allowed people to sign up for the delivery of free wellness kits and introduced healers focused on health, self-care, suicide prevention, COVID-19 education and storytelling.
“Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of BLM, has spent a portion of her time in COVID-19 lockdown working on Black health access, creating a ‘Care not Cages’ platform and suing the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s department on behalf of inmates being denied testing and treatment. As a person ordained in Ifá, she also led meditations that allowed participants to better imagine the future while advocating for self-care, mental health awareness, healing justice and art activism during the pandemic.
“Black Lives Matter chapters and affiliated groups have become critical social infrastructure for communities battling the dual pandemics of racism and COVID-19.”
Hebah Farrag is the assistant director of research at the USC Dornsife Center for Religion and Civic Culture.