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Asking the Clergy: What do we need from faith leaders during the pandemic?

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“These are the times that try men’s souls,” the philosopher-patriot Thomas Paine wrote of the crisis at the birth of this nation. This week’s clergy discuss how they can help — from a distance — in the soul-trying times caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

The Rev. Rick Saladon, Pastor

Living Water Church, Riverhead

I was born on a farm in 1951, a few years after World War II ended. I have lived through and witnessed many tragic and frightening events, including the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and 9/11.

In all of these things I have never witnessed the fear and distress that the coronavirus has caused in the hearts my fellow countrymen. When I think about what all religious leaders need to give their people right now, two things come to mind. First and probably the most important is hope — that they can survive this, that a better future is over the horizon and that they can hold onto what makes them unique, someone made in God’s image.

Next, we must encourage our congregations to live their faith by loving their fellow man with the type of love that causes action — calling someone, writing a letter of encouragement or possibly buying groceries for an elderly neighbor. There are many things we could tell our congregation right now, but I think if we focus on hope and love, we will make it through as a people who are not only surviving, but are better off than when this began.

Rabbi Dahlia Bernstein

Congregation Beth Ohr, Bellmore

People need faith leaders to take the call in the middle of the night from a congregant whose loved one has passed away, when only two weeks ago they were healthy. They need us to help them mourn as they struggle to find closure when they could not even hold the hand of their father, mother, sibling or friend when they were dying.

We need to give language to the anguish we all feel and to remind each soul of personal and communal resilience in times of crisis; to call on ancient stories to remind them of our collective confinement and eventual liberation. Faith leaders need to be matchmakers between those who cannot shop for themselves and those who are able. As it says in the Passover Haggadah, “All who are hungry, come and eat.”

We need to offer some normalcy through prayers that do not change whether they are on Zoom or in person. As a rabbi, I try furiously to write a sermon that might offer some connection and understanding. But people mostly need us to pick up the phone and check in. They need us and we need them for direction, for strength and for purpose.

The Rev. Natalie Fenimore

Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock

Right now, we need to do what we have always hoped to do — but with more urgency and clarity: Call everyone to community, develop an awareness of our interconnection and interdependence, rely on the ability of faith to unite and comfort us, make available actions for justice and equity, gratitude and assistance.

In a time of social distancing and isolation faith leaders can emphasize to those in their communities that they continue to be supported and connected. They can use technology for virtual gatherings and be “old-school,” with calls, letters, prayers. It is important that no one be alone. Leaders can support the leadership of others by developing and supporting lay leadership teams in their congregations and communities.

As people are deprived of public worship and ritual gatherings, faith leaders can remind their communities that the purpose of the rituals remains central: sustenance for the faithful. Worship, ritual, study and reflection in groups online or with family at home can continue to provide this sustaining power. They continue to be efficacious — and because the intent of our social isolation is to protect others, as well as ourselves, this distancing from gathering for worship is an act of care for our faith communities.

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