Preaching is difficult in an empty sanctuary. It’s even more difficult to get used to speaking to a screen and looking into a camera instead of faces.
Seminary did not have a class on how to minister in a pandemic. Finding ways to connect to our faith communities while not meeting in person has been challenging to say the least. It’s like hugging a friend through a layer of plastic wrap.
Aside from the ministerial challenges, deciphering CDC guidelines for our houses of worship was a whole new skill I had to develop.
I am an imam, a Muslim faith leader, at a mosque in Oklahoma City. Muslim places of worship are very different from synagogues or churches.
We do not have pews. We have prayer rugs and feet washing stations. We take off our shoes and pray. We are very active during our services.
At times we stand, sometimes we sit, and we prostrate, all at the appropriate times during prayer while standing in straight rows with our shoulders touching the person next to us.
Despite the challenges, I kept the mosque open for the five daily prayers as long as I could. Doing this required moving services to the back of the building where we have marble floors and not carpet.
Congregants were told to perform the ritual pre-prayer wash at home and to bring their own prayer rugs. I bleached and disinfected everything between each service.
With more than 35 prayer services in a week, my hands have been cracked and bleached white for the past year. It is a running joke that my hands look like they have another ethnicity than the rest of me.
I think people of all faiths have become more appreciative of holiday gatherings in their absence.
The Muslim community has especially missed our Ramadan services and iftars, the communal feasting each night after a full day of fasting from both food and drink. We have now missed two years of Ramadan festivities together.
We did, however, open up the mosque again for nightly prayers in Ramadan this year.
I expected a great influx in attendance. We set up speakers outside to accommodate overflow as our building could only accommodate one fourth of our regular capacity.
However, we only needed to use the outdoor annex a few days during the month of Ramadan. Clearly, people are not ready yet; they do not feel safe enough to return to large gatherings.
Our community has been very committed to doing our part to subdue the virus – 90% of our members are vaccinated.
As we roll into this new phase of opening the world back up, we now stand three feet apart instead of the socially distanced six. In normal times, we stand foot to foot in straight rows with no gaps between us.
We are now debating mask requirements at the mosque. This extra caution is not surprising considering 12% of medical doctors in the United States are Muslim (despite the fact that Muslims are 1% of the America population).
Although we ceased meeting for a time, our charitable work did not stop.
Our food pantry continued to feed the hungry. Our free medical clinic continued to have volunteer doctors to serve the sick. We continued to visit those suffering in hospitals.
In order to slow the spread of COVID-19, we ran vaccination clinics offering shots at the mosque. We even offered vaccines on Friday, our most holy day.
In the Quran, as in Christianity, we have the story of Jesus healing the sick on the Sabbath. This was us doing our part to mirror his blessed example.
In Islam, we have a saying that to save one person you save a world entire. Each person is worth that much. And each person has an entire world within them.
Good things have come out of the challenges we have faced. Because services are now online, our audience has become wider. Not just to Muslims outside of the metro, but to non-Muslims as well. And members of my congregation have had opportunities to experience services of other faiths.
I had a member come to me asking why a rabbi he saw online was talking about Joseph, son of Jacob.
“Is that the same Joseph, son of Jacob, in the Quran?”
“Yes,” I told him.
“And do they have the story of Jesus raising the dead too?”
“Christians do. Yes. It is in the Bible.”
Important interfaith relationship building is happening as a result of the pandemic that would not have happened otherwise.
We are all realizing that our spirituality extends beyond our houses of worship. We are more appreciative of simple human connections, like a handshake or a hug.
In the Quran, there is a verse that says God made us from a single male and female and made us in many tribes and nations so that we may know each other. We have been physically distant, but through it, we have discovered our common humanity.
Editor’s note: From June through August, articles will be published from faith leaders reflecting on the pandemic ministry adjustments they enacted, looking ahead to the future or both. If you’d like to submit a column for consideration, email it to email@example.com.
Senior Imam at the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, and chair of Islamic Studies at Wimberly School of Religion at Oklahoma City University. He is the author of Cloud Miles: A Remarkable Journey of Mercy, Peace and Purpose, and appeared in the short documentary “Mercy” (2018) and the feature-length documentary, “Different Books, Common Word: Baptists and Muslims” (2010).