How campus ministries are coping with coronavirus

For many students at the University of Miami, belonging to a religious community provides a sense of support and stability. While these students may no longer be able to physically gather at houses of worship, chaplains of all faiths are working hard to ensure that services, and more, can still go on.

Over the past few weeks, many things have changed. And, for their part, religious leaders on campus have adapted. From having Easter meals delivered to students still on campus to providing personalized counseling services for Muslim students, local chaplains are stepping up to serve their communities from afar.

“Everyone is doing what they can at this point,” says Rabbi Lyle, who is currently chair of the UM Chaplains’ Association and the UM Hillel Campus Rabbi and Jewish Chaplain.

“Everyone is doing exactly what they should be; It is our hope as chaplains to help all students of faith stay connected.”

To that end, many groups have embraced tools such as Zoom meetings and social media to offer virtual versions of services and sermons once held face-to-face.

Making it digital

In order to explore how religious communities on campus have continued to meet their students needs, The Miami Hurricane reached out to all members of the UM Chaplain’s Association and spoke with representatives of Hillel, Muslim Students of the University of Miami (MSUM), Wesley Methodist Center, UCatholic, UM Chabad and St. Bede Episcopal Church Center.

Each organization has adapted in their own way to social distancing protocols, and most offered some type of virtual service to replace programs typically offered in person.

For some, this has actually netted a better turnout than traditional services. In fact, Father Tran of UCatholic said his daily 8 a.m. masses, now offered over Zoom, are more popular than ever. “A lot of people have responded very positively to what we’re doing,” he says.

In addition to daily masses at 8 a.m., UCatholic offers an 11:30 a.m. mass on Sundays, daily prayer services at 3 p.m., and small and large group meetings throughout the week on Zoom.

Hillel, the center for Jewish life on campus, has also used Zoom, as well as Instagram and Facebook live, to conduct their weekly Shabbat prayer service. “We call it Shabbat Shazoom” says Rabbi Lyle.

Dr. Abdul Hamid Samra, University of Miami’s Muslim Chaplian, said that MSUM plans to begin holding weekly spiritual and social meeting on Zoom very soon.

UM Chabad, the on-campus chapter of the international Jewish organization, has also been utilizing Zoom to reach students. According to Rabbi Yaochanon Klein, weekly “Vibe and Soul” classes are held over Zoom every Wednesday to give students and community members a place to learn about Judaism.

Chaplain Paige Holaday of the Wesley Methodist Center is another proponent of the multiple-platform approach. Each Sunday at 5 p.m. she offers a devotional sermon via Instagram live, which small groups meet to discuss over Zoom at 7 p.m on Monday evenings.

“Normally, our worship service is extremely interactive,” she says. “Trying to figure out how to honor that interactivity led to the current Sunday/Monday rhythm.”

Chaplain Holaday shared her hopes that the multi-day approach would lead to a greater turnout among busy students. “Having components on two different nights also increases the chances that folks who might have conflicts will still be able to be connected in some way” she says.

Father Frank of the St. Bede Episcopal Church Center felt a similar need to prepare special services for his parishioners, which led him to spend three full days filming services and sermons to be uploaded to YouTube. “When I realized we wouldn’t be able to meet for Holy Week and Easter,” he said, “I upped my game.”

Holy times in isolation

Indeed, for both the Jewish and Christian faiths, some of the holiest times of the year were spent in isolation. However, chaplains took extra care to ensure their students did not feel alone.

Both UM Chabad and Hillel were excited to support their students during Passover, which began Wednesday, April 8 and concluded Thursday, April 16 of this year. For members of the Jewish faith, Passover is a time to reflect on the journey from slavery to freedom and honor the miracles that made it possible.

To celebrate, UM Chabad sent Matzah (unleavened bread) to over 100 families in the Jewish community. “We’re bringing Passover to them,” said Rabbi Mendy Felig of Chabad.

For students who could not spend Passover with their community or families, Chabad also provided the know-how for students to conduct their own Passover.

In addition, Hillel encouraged students to reach out during Passover and beyond. “If (students) should need anything for Passover, we’re here for them” said Rabbi Lyle.

To ensure students could have a special week no matter where they were, Hillel offered a wide range of virtual programming from Zoom Seder meals to learning resources.

Last week was also special for Christians, who observed Holy Week beginning Thursday night and concluding on Easter Sunday (April 12.) Holy Week for Christians symbolizes Jesus’s suffering, crucifiction and resurrection of the dead.

While this holiday is often celebrated at overflowing churches, Easter 2020 was a quieter time. Still, Christian groups on campus used the time to connect with their students and encourage them to reflect.

Father Frank has spent the past few Sundays sending students at-home services, bible verses and questions for reflection; for Holy Week, he shared with them the links to his video sermons on YouTube. In addition, his wife had meals delivered Sunday night to each student who is still in the Miami area.

UCatholic also hosted their first-ever virtual retreat on Saturday, April 11 to help their students prepare for Easter. According to their Instagram, this was a time for students to “deepen (their) relationship with God and grow with others.”

While all Chaplains wished they could have spent these days in person with their communities, each voiced their support for the necessity of social-distancing.

Together from a distance

Every organization we spoke to has stressed the importance of safety at this time, and some are taking this a step further by providing special support to their students and communities.

Dr. Samra was happy to share that MSUM had recently partnered with the Student Counceling Center to offer mental health services catered to Muslim students.

Hillel has also sought to help their students relieve stress by offering yoga sessions over Zoom. In addition, Rabbi Lyle has made an effort to reach out personally to over 900 students and counting to offer his well wishes.

Though most of the organizations we connected with were focused on taking care of students, UM Chabad is making an effort to help healthcare professionals by supporting the Jewish advocacy program Helping Hearts. According to Rabbi Felig, the group was founded because “the healthcare community in Miami really needed a Jewish presence.”

Since its inception, Helping Hearts has focused on patient and professional advocacy and established Kosher rooms in hospitals where Jewish staff and patients could congregate and eat.

As he praised the healthcare community for responding to this crisis, Rabbi Felig doubled down on the need for social distancing to protect both them and us. “It’s the only chance we have to starve (coronavirus); we don’t know who has it, and we don’t know who’s vulnerable” he says.

For Dr. Samra, practicing distancing is an important part of practicing his faith at this time. “It is important in the Muslim faith to take care of one’s health and the health of others” he says. “We promote good hygiene and social distancing not only to follow public health officials guidelines but also as a part of being a good practicing Muslim.”

As much as they preached the value of focusing on safety, chaplains acknowledged the sense of loss felt by many community members and offered their understanding.

“I am saddest about the seniors,” says Father Frank, “they left for Spring Break and never came back; there was not even a chance to say good-bye.”

Chaplain Holaday echoed this sentiment and encouraged students to accept and experience the grief they may be feeling over missing out on community holidays such as Easter or being unable to have a traditional graduation. Ultimately, she concluded that “by refraining from or postponing these things, people’s lives will be saved.”