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'Not God’s first pandemic': Religious life groups persist on and off campus

<p>Duke's grapple with the question of fostering meaningful community, connection and spiritual faith during a moment marked by isolation and instability.</p>

Duke's grapple with the question of fostering meaningful community, connection and spiritual faith during a moment marked by isolation and instability.

The Science Drive parking garage, like most every other parking garage, is unremarkable: shades of grey and brown permeated by a single large glass window wall, trees and shrubs planted in the entry plaza in an attempt to breathe some life into the structure.

On six days of the week, it’s silent. But this semester, on Sunday mornings, you can hear the music before you can see it. Violins, drums and flutes swell onto the walking path at the garage’s entrance with sweet, muffled voices. On the fourth level, a plastic tent sign featuring a large QR code for the Duke Catholic Center’s Mass program and a reminder to stay six feet apart greets you. Beyond the sign is a sprawl of picnic blankets and folding chairs, radiating from the makeshift altar.

During a time when most groups have had to redefine normal in unconventional and often virtual ways, religious life leaders are continuing to grapple with the question of fostering meaningful community, connection and spiritual faith during a moment marked by isolation and instability. The answer has changed over the course of the pandemic. 

When Duke first moved classes online in March, the priority of Duke’s religious groups was getting leaders access to resources, such as Zoom Pro,  Director of Religious Life Kathryn Lester-Bacon said. Over the summer, the focus became meeting the needs of the religious community virtually. There were Buddhist meditation groups, Presbyterian Bible studies and Catholic small groups. Jewish Life at Duke continued Shabbat over Zoom, inviting students’ families to join them. 

“There was a lot of wondering and worry, but also gratitude that we all had technology in order to connect,” Lester-Bacon said. “In the summer, it’s usually a season when people will be so busy that you can’t keep going. There were a number of students who wanted to keep going. They kept figuring out how to keep going because the hunger was there.”

But now that only a fraction of students are on campus, religious life leaders are still figuring out how to nurture all their members’ lives when there are still many limitations and anxieties. 

“How do we live in a hybrid world and live in the midst of unfolding unknowns?” Lester-Bacon asked. “How do we build sustainable connections not knowing what next week will hold?” 

Reaching out

Prior to Orientation Week, some religious life leaders were skeptical that new students would connect with their groups. O-Week plays a critical role in recruitment, said Minister Matt Mahla of Duke’s Reformed University Fellowship chapter. Usually, religious groups would table or host welcome events, like the Center for Muslim Life’s annual welcome-back barbecue. 

This year, groups relied more heavily on social media outreach, posting about their group and virtual events in the Official Duke University Class of 2024 Facebook group and promoting their own Instagram pages. 

CML continued to reach out to students who identified themselves as Muslim with monthly emails highlighting their services and resources. But they are still missing students that they could have reached if they were tabling, Office Coordinator Samaiyah Faison said.

Jewish Life at Duke has also pushed out information regarding worship and cultural opportunities on their student newsletter and social media, but they’ve found that students are reaching out to them too. 

“The average Jewish student at Duke knows we exist and knows that we are a resource for them,” Director for Jewish Life Joyce Gordon said. “I wouldn’t say that our marketing and publicity has changed very much. I think it’s a two-way dialogue.” 

Other groups took digital platforms built to reach people en masse and made them intimate. The Muslim Students Association reached out to first-years, inviting them to lunch and virtual events. Still, Publicity Chair Huzyfa Fazili has noticed that “fewer freshmen have come into anything.” 

Members of Cru, a Christian campus ministry, messaged first-years individually on GroupMe, asking them to reach out if they had any questions about Cru, academics, student life or Duke. 

“I hope you’ve been having a great summer and are excited to be starting at Duke very soon despite this crazy weirdness!! I know all the different GroupMe and Facebook groups can be overwhelming, so I just wanted to reach out as an upperclassmen,” read an outreach message junior Chloe White sent me Aug. 5. 

Although this isn’t a new outreach strategy, due to the pandemic, members increased the number of messages sent out this year. 

“The goal isn’t really to get people to join Cru. The goal is to give someone a welcoming face to recognize when they get on campus and to kind of love on the incoming first-year students,” White said, adding that the organization simply wanted first-years to know that “people do care about you.” 

Moving online

Transitioning religious services and communities onto virtual platforms has offered its own set of both drawbacks and surprising triumphs. People are increasingly suffering from Zoom fatigue, with frequent video calls resulting in exhaustion. Religious group leaders, then, are working within the volatile confines of two conflicting priorities—fostering necessary connection and community, which is core to religious groups and now primarily available through virtual means, while also being mindful of people’s mental and emotional well-being.

“How do you be wise in terms of giving people the space to say at times, ‘I can’t do another screen right now’?” Mahla asked. “And also, where do you push to say, ‘Hey, this is worth it. It’s worth pushing through.’”

Some groups have tried to be more intentional with their programming. MSA has scheduled activities, such as watching a movie or taking an art class, at their weekly Friday meetings. It used to be just a time to “come hang out and chill, but people don’t want to just hang out on a call for an hour after class,” Fazili said. 

Cru, which has not changed its programming or messaging, has discussed certain aspects of Jesus that are more pertinent to the pandemic. 

“He’s called the man of sorrows, where he can relate to our pain, our sorrow, our grief, but he’s also the good shepherd, where he is with us in the valleys and protects and guides us. I think in talking about who Jesus is, we can hit a lot of topics that are relevant now,” said Lauren Bass, campus minister for Cru and Bridges International.“This is not God’s first pandemic.”

Although some students have voiced that online events can be much easier to access, they’re too “Zoomed out” to attend them, according to Faison. “Fewer people want to come to anything, honestly. It’s very hard to get creative after a while,” Fazili said. “Eventually it’s like, ‘We’re doing another game night!’”

Others groups are turning to smaller in-person gatherings to offset the onslaught of Zoom calls. RUF has turned to a hybrid approach: students who are in the same area, would like to meet safely and abide by the Duke Compact, which caps student-hosted gatherings at 10 people, are welcome to coordinate among themselves and gather around a Zoom call together. A few weeks ago, they were discussing holding a 5K—members anywhere could send in their times, but if they were outside together in the same spot, they could run the same course. 

Home to Durham’s only kosher kitchen, the Freeman Center for Jewish Life and JLD staff have been serving off-campus students and offering free takeout Shabbat dinner for hundreds of students. In their first venture into in-person gatherings Sept. 23, JLD invited ten first-years to the Freeman Center’s patio to share dinner. In the coming weeks, they hope to open the dinner to registration and begin indoor programming, such as tie-dyeing challah covers or making cards for Meals on Wheels clients. 

In online services, however, JLD has not seen a major decrease in attendance. An average of 60 students a week pick up Shabbat dinner, on par with dinner attendance last year. About 42 students attend virtual Shabbat service, whereas in-person typically draws 50. The first Shabbat of each month, after the summer’s success, now welcomes family, grandparents and friends with more than 100 in attendance. 

JLD’s staff engagement team and Rabbi Elana Friedman, who typically hold one-on-one hourly coffee conversations with students, also have not seen a considerable decline in those meetings. “Students are still seeking conversations with a real person that cares about them,” Gordon said. As of Sept. 11, they had held 82 Zoom conversations; by the same date last year, they had had 86 meetings. 

Like JLD, CML now broadcasts Jumuah prayer, the Friday worship service, over Zoom, but also offers an in-person one capped at eight people, including the speaker. During typical years, they would welcome 60 to 70 people; online, there are about 35. 

Jumuah prayer’s logistics in virtual settings may be deterring people from attending online service, Faison said. Some people, she explained, may just be doing their regular prayers at home because they don’t feel like it counts online. Those who do choose to participate virtually may be turning to other imams live-streaming Jumuah prayers. 

Strengthening faith and community

Data collected in late April from the Pew Research Center noted that one-quarter of U.S. adults have reported that their religious faith has strengthened due to the pandemic. 

“If you are a religious person, in any of the monotheistic religions where doomsday is a thing, these things that are happening in the world echo the end-of-times kind of thing,” Faison said, adding that CML has seen new people log onto Jumuah prayer and more people contacting them interested in being more involved in their religion. “Between COVID-19 and the civil unrest, people are gravitating more towards spirituality because they aren’t finding answers in the regular world.”

On a college campus, however, where religious groups offer not only spiritual guidance but also a unique student community, increased attendance or new members doesn’t immediately indicate a trend of stronger faith; instead, the answer may lie at the intersection of individual spirituality and a larger community-based connection. 

“There are a lot of different theological understandings, but community and gathering are key to so many religious life groups. Who are you gathering with around this spiritual and faith commitment?” Lester-Bacon said. “It is an individual discernment that’s happening right now, but people wanting to do it with other people.” 

The unique nature of religious communities—it often lasts longer than a semester, there’s no grade attached to it or resume-building—allows for a space compatible with total engagement in questions of purpose and hope, as well as challenge, despair and grief, all of which are elevated during this time, she explained. 

“People are wanting to engage and wrestle with those questions. ‘What is the point of this time? Who am I when so many things have been stripped away?’” Lester-Bacon said. 

Because MSA has seen fewer people attend meetings, Fazili’s gut reaction is that students are not increasingly seeking out religious communities during this time. But for those who continue to come, especially if they are living off-campus, there has been a greater individual need to not only have this reminder of what Duke is to them, but a space to initiate deeper conversations in a familiar, religious context and community. This way, Fazili said, they can relate topics, such as the pandemic or civil unrest, to something that is a fundamental part of their lives and digest and process it on their own terms. 

Religious life leaders play a distinct role in this increased interplay between individual faith and community support. Faison has seen more students turn to the CML staff for non-religious guidance amid the pandemic, specifically because of their shared spiritual understandings, so that “they can hear things that they are familiar with.” 

“It’s less, like, let’s go to the Quran or the Bible and read together and understand that,” Faison explained. “Some of it has just been grounding, like, ‘Is everything going to be okay?’ or ‘I’m really stressed out, my mom’s trying to pay bills, what can we do?’”

With more students seeking out this guidance, the question now is, as Mahla asks, “How do we meet them during this time? If there are people feeling a need, how do we respond to that when it’s even harder to spontaneously meet people?”

Looking forward 

On her desk, Gordon has a post-it note titled, “What’s better now?” When something occurs to her that she’d like to continue after the pandemic subsides, she writes it down. One thing is that students have shown up during this time for one another and she hopes to keep emphasizing student leadership within JLD. 

Others are looking to carry on the presence on social media that has been crucial during this time. “It just hasn’t felt like such a sense of urgency prior to this, but it’s making us realize there’s no reason why it couldn’t be a part of what we do,” Mahla said. 

As for what religious practices will look like after the pandemic, things won’t go back to just as they were. Normal will be redefined as technology’s advantages are balanced against the inimitable nature of in-person connections. CML plans to continue having Jumuah prayers virtually and is currently considering what other programming would work. 

“The great thing about religious life groups is that we are all gathered on campus, and there is something made meaningful about being in person on the Duke campus that no one will want to give up,” Lester-Bacon said. “But there also will be more spaces for what does it mean to be more hospitable or compassionate for those who have physical mobility issues or other ways that are hindering their engagement with what we’ve done usually.” 

Until then, however, the work to be done is figuring out how to live in a world where plans made months in advance can change within a week. It’s learning how to, as Lester-Bacon puts it, hold lightly what you know and what you don’t know—and through it all, it’s holding on to one another.

Milla Surjadi profile
Milla Surjadi | Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator

Milla Surjadi is a Trinity junior and a diversity, equity and inclusion coordinator of The Chronicle's 119th volume. She was previously editor-in-chief for Volume 118.


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