Religious leaders and faith-based organizations provide solace and a means to navigate the ups and downs of life while also fostering a strong sense of belonging and community. Regular religious practices and being a part of faith communities can improve one’s sense of well-being. Spirituality also can help individuals cope with illness and the suffering that accompanies it.
This is perhaps most evident during the COVID-19 pandemic when many turned to their spiritual leaders and faith communities for guidance to adjust to a new normal. The constant news cycle, rising COVID-19 deaths, and social isolation left many of us in upheaval and despair. But it is often in times of great distress where we turn to a higher being and find comfort in belief in something greater than ourselves.
COVID-19 has presented many challenges and disturbed weekly gatherings in places of worship. There were also conflicting guidelines given the emerging uncertainty around the virus, leaving many local places of worship uncertain on how to handle the need to maintain their spiritual communities while abiding by safe public health practices.
But these times also brought great opportunities. Our faith-based health and wellness program, FAITH! (Fostering African-American Improvement in Total Heath) at Mayo Clinic has been partnering with local African American churches in Rochester, MN and the Twin Cities area for several years. As the pandemic hit, many churches reached out to our program for guidance.
We worked with them to create actionable steps and easy-to-follow infographics as a guide for churches to use during the pandemic to protect their congregation members. This helped religious leaders including church pastors share important health information that was more acceptable and relevant to many in the congregations than other media sources.
National guidelines also emerged during this time. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends limiting the size of gatherings, use of masks, and proper social distancing in all houses of worship. In addition, it is recommended to limit the sharing of frequently touched objects such as prayer rugs, prayer books and hymnals.
Furthermore, physical contact such as hugging and shaking hands should be limited. This poses challenges for many faith communities, especially during religious rituals such as funerals.
The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) also released several documents geared toward specific faith communities giving guidance on safe reopening. MDH also dedicated staff to cultural, faith and disability communities during COVID-19 and has opened several testing sites at local places of worship.
One mosque in North Minneapolis, Masjid AnNur, with a predominantly African American congregation, decided to delay reopening until the fall in order to keep its congregants safe. Mosque leaders are reassessing the situation in light of updated COVID-19 health information and rising infection rates in underserved communities of color.
Despite the many challenges, the pandemic also brought new opportunities to attend spiritual gatherings in different formats. We saw livestream interactive gatherings and sermons through Zoom and Facebook Live for the Christian holiday of Easter and the Muslim gathering of Eid-Al-Adha. This helped to maintain traditions and community togetherness while preventing spread of the virus.
One thing remains certain: Faith is essential to the daily lives of many Americans and its importance cannot be overlooked. Dedicated health professionals, religious leaders and community members should continue to come together and create innovative ways to allow faith communities to stay connected while following recommended guidelines to stay safe from COVID-19.
Faith will continue to bring people together and aid in their ability to cope with illness and suffering. The belief in a higher being is what keeps hope alive for many during these unprecedented times.
How can you remain connected to your faith community and stay safe from COVID-19?
- Wear masks at all times during any gatherings.
- Maintain proper social distancing of six feet as much as possible at events such as funerals, weddings, religious education classes, youth events, support groups and any other programming; consider virtual services as an alternative.
- Take precautions to limit the size of social gatherings in accordance with local public health guidelines, and if possible, hold gatherings in well-ventilated and outdoor spaces.
- Avoid hugging, kissing or shaking hands during gatherings.
- Properly clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces in places of worship and minimize the sharing of worship aids, prayer rugs, prayer books, hymnals, religious texts. Bring your own to faith gatherings.
Maarya Pasha, MD is an internist who recently completed a general internal medicine fellowship at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. She is transitioning to a position at Hennepin County Medical Center where she will practice in the division of internal medicine and will hold a joint academic position with the University of Minnesota. She is interested in innovative ways to improve healthcare delivery and achieve health equity.
LaPrincess Brewer, MD, MPH, FACP, FACC, FASCP is a preventive cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine within the Department of Medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. She is passionate about community health and faith-based interventions to achieve healthy equity in disadvantaged racial/ethnic minority communities.