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Asking the Clergy: How are you providing spiritual guidance to students affected by the pandemic?

From left, the Rev. Thomas Cardone of Kellenberg

From left, the Rev. Thomas Cardone of Kellenberg Memorial High School, Sanaa Nadim of the Islamic Society Interfaith Center at Stony Brook University, and Rabbi Dave Siegel of Hofstra University Hillel. Credit: Composite photo: Ray O'Connor Studios, left, Newsday / John H. Cornell Jr., center, and Nicole Siegel

While chaplains at religious schools and on college campuses have been physically separated from students during the COVID-19 pandemic, they have continued to support their communities. This week’s clergy discuss how they serve a far-flung flock.

The Rev. Thomas Cardone

Chaplain, Kellenberg Memorial High School, Uniondale

At Kellenberg Memorial, religion is about relationships. We teach, pray, lead retreats, coach and moderate activities by relationship, and this has been extended into our virtual school experience. Our website contains multiple spiritual resources that are relational: daily rosary led by families; spiritual workouts (in May a religion teacher and coach did meditations on the "Seven Sorrows of Mary" that included physical exercise). Spiritual clubs are in high demand.

Recently one group held a 100th birthday party for St. John Paul II, a celebration for Our Lady of Fatima, and a session in which students wrote notes to residents at nursing homes to help lift their spirits. One Sodality group has a spiritual "Question of the Day" to which students respond in group chat. We have an Instagram account where teachers and students share different topics, including favorite prayer songs and videos. Conference calls and emails keep the relationships going.

Each year we hold a May Crowning in which the student body assembles in prayer; then with the assistance of a local fire department, using its ladder and bucket to reach our elevated statue, the Blessed Virgin Mary is crowned with flowers. Since we are a Marianist school devoted to Our Lady, this tradition continued virtually!

Rabbi Dave Siegel

Executive director, Hofstra University Hillel, Chaplain, Hofstra Interfaith Center

In the rabbinic text Pirkei Avot (2:5), Hillel, the namesake of our organization, warns us not to separate ourselves from the community. We are living in unprecedented times. During our conversations, students report loneliness, uncertainty, pain and disappointment. They miss their friends and their campus. They miss their community.

Thankfully, we are still able to speak with students face-to-face and offer critical pastoral services via technology. Technology enables us to stay connected through scheduled individual meetings, as well as have students stop by our virtual lounge for group conversations. Additionally, we developed opportunities for our students to participate in Shabbat and holiday programs online.

A final important aspect of our work has been hosting virtual programming. It is essential that we create spaces for students to express themselves and to remind them that they are not alone. Examples of these programs include a virtual coffee house, discussions through Hillel International’s amazing Hillel@Home series, and a student board-driven project that thanked individuals in our lives making a difference during this pandemic. The work of university chaplains, campus professionals and student leaders is necessary now more than ever. We will get through this together.

Sanaa Nadim

Chaplain, Islamic Society Interfaith Center, Stony Brook University

As a chaplain, I have observed a marked shift in the pace of discussions involving anxiety, grief and sadness. I’ve leaned into Zoom and FaceTime as mechanisms to engage in one-on-one counseling sessions, groups meetings and campus events — like the group Iftar dinners during Ramadan, which was especially difficult given the absence of Muslim gatherings at mosques and homes this year.

One of the emotional impediments related to COVID-19 is the disappearance of in-person mourning after the death of a loved one, which has undoubtedly exacerbated loss. I’ve responded by trying to spend more time with my constituents on the phone. I’ve increasingly engaged the students in wellness regimens and spiritual practices that help them to increase their sense of resilience and relocate their expectations. On this journey, I’ve also been emotionally vulnerable with my students. I lost my brother recently. My students hosted a remote vigil for him on Zoom, and I was deeply comforted by their great show of affection.

This shift in daily life has been overwhelming, but I’ve taken solace in community engagement and finding new ways to maintain and sustain our connections and sources of supports.

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