7 Apr 2020

Faith in quarantine: How religion has been affected by Covid-19

5:27 pm on 7 April 2020

Churches and mosques around the country are now closed. Here's how religious New Zealanders are adjusting, and what they believe the pandemic means.

Elim Church has been livestreaming services on Facebook Live.

Elim Church has been livestreaming services on Facebook Live. Photo: Elim Church

Last Sunday, Adam Dodds stood in his local park and filmed his latest sermon.

Later that day, the senior pastor of Elim Church in Dunedin uploaded the message to Facebook, and interacted with people in the comments section. The video quickly amassed more than 1000 views. "It was strange … and I'd much rather talk to people face-to-face, but you've got to make do," he says.

There are almost 40 Elim churches in New Zealand, and more than 9000 worldwide. As the Covid-19 pandemic shuts down much of the world, most churches are doing the same thing as Adam Dodds - either pre-recording messages, or uploading them live.

Dodds is used to speaking to hundreds of worshippers every week. The church's services usually feature contemporary music played by full bands in front of a giant screen. Yet, the video sermon works surprisingly well.

"The number of viewers was actually higher than we would normally get on a Sunday," Dodds says. "I know it wasn't all church people, either. I think this is a time when those who are curious can watch with comfort from their own home."

He says for many people, the reality of the coronavirus pandemic is still sinking in. He hopes for those struggling, Christianity can become less about buildings and traditions, and more about relationships, even if the social aspect of his faith has changed. "But Christianity doesn't stop being communal because of coronavirus."

Adam Dodds of Elim Church during a regular service in Dunedin.

Adam Dodds of Elim Church during a regular service in Dunedin. Photo: Supplied / Elim Church

Elim is encouraging its worshippers to break off into smaller groups and keep in touch via social media platforms, something the Anglican Church is also doing.

It is not just Elim that is having to adapt. The Wellington Anglican Diocese has been live-streaming its services to thousands of viewers.

In antiquity, Christians are well known for taking care of the sick, despite the risk to themselves, but Wellington's Assistant Bishop, Eleanor Sanderson, says Anglicans must follow the government's requirements.

"There are creative ways that we can be with each other and support those who are unwell, and also clearly stay within social isolation," she says.

Before the lockdown, Anglican leaders visited elderly parishioners to make sure they wouldn't get too lonely, and that they had others who could support them in emergencies.

"My own great grandfather was part of a Catholic monastic lay order that was created to minister to the most vulnerable who were sick and dying, at a time before there was the kind of social welfare and hospital structures that we have now," says Sanderson.

In New Zealand, Catholic priests are unable to fulfill their usual role, and must socially isolate like most others. "I know that people are feeling great pain at not being able to fulfill that role here," she says.

For instance, a priest is currently prevented from giving the last rites to someone dying. So, last month the Pope performed a blessing in a live stream that effectively provides forgiveness and remission for the sins of those watching.

"We want people to know that even though our buildings are closed and people cannot receive sacraments, the church is still open for business," says Father John O'Connor of the Diocese of Christchurch.

"If there were isolated zones where people with the virus were based, you can be sure that priests would go and stay there if they were allowed."

Dozens of Catholic churches in New Zealand are now live streaming Mass, some daily. The Vatican also streams daily.

Father O'Connor says Easter - a particularly important time for Catholics - will be difficult this year. "But I'm hopeful that there will be a shift for Catholics in realising that their religion isn't just about what happens in church on a Sunday," he says.

"Faith isn't just about taking part in an institution."

Dozens of Muslims attend the Jamia mosque in Claudelands, Hamilton, for prayer, five times a day, while up to 500 people come for Friday prayers.

Federation of Islamic Associations president Mustafa Farouk says for weeks before New Zealand moved to Alert Level 4, fewer and fewer people were coming to his mosque. A few days before the prime minister's Level 4 announcement, the masjid asked its members to stay and pray at home.

"It is not easy for people who are used to congregating five times a day to stay at home … [especially] when their mosque is right there. People can get very sad knowing that their mosque is empty," Farouk says.

Yet he says there is precedence in Islam for a pandemic like this. The Prophet Muhammad strongly urged his followers to practice good hygiene, and said cleanliness was an important aspect of their faith.

The Prophet said: "If you hear of an outbreak of plague in a land, do not enter it; but if the plague outbreaks out in a place while you are in it, do not leave that place."

Farouk says Muslims are readily accepting the government's requirements. "But we're not going to sit and mope around and complain about why this is happening to us. That is not the attitude of someone of faith. It is to ask what we can do to help - and this is something we were taught many years ago. It is why we wash our hands before we pray."

He believes the pandemic is a test from God - a God who is also helping people overcome that test. "We are being tested, but like last year after what happened in Christchurch, our country came together. I believe that with the help of God and our government and our doctors we will succeed and defeat this virus.

"Because this virus has no religion."

Al Noor Mosque after Salah al-Maghrib (sunset prayer), Christchurch, New Zealand.

Al Noor Mosque after Salah al-Maghrib (sunset prayer), Christchurch, New Zealand. Photo: Copyright Janneth Gil

Other Christian churches differ slightly in their interpretation of the pandemic.

Adam Dodds says, "Much of what happens on earth is directly against the will of God."

He says it's Christian tradition to wrestle over the meaning of the Bible, and the interpretation of a God. "For some, their faith will be tested. For example, if you believe God causes everything that happens, your faith may be shaken."

Yet his faith is based on a "deep, unshakable hope" that God is working in any situation for good, even if he doesn't wish for the situation to occur.

"I go back to the theologian, John Polkinghorne, who said, 'The Christian God is not a compassionate spectator, looking down in sympathy on the sufferings of the world; the Christian God is truly the fellow sufferer who understands.'"

Eleanor Sanderson says times like these often lead to people asking big questions of their religion. "I only encourage people to keep it simple. From a Christian perspective, God loves the world and God loves each person and nothing in the world as it is, or in the world as it may come to be, can separate us from that love."

The Anglican Church's Wellington Assistant Bishop, Eleanor Sanderson.

The Anglican Church's Wellington Assistant Bishop, Eleanor Sanderson. Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

Once the pandemic crisis ends, Nicola Creegan, co-director of New Zealand Christians in Science, says she hopes Christians better realise the fragility of life. "Perhaps we can organise our lives more sustainably in future ... and emphasise more the strong messages of equality and care for the earth in the scripture."

Yet she also fears religious groups abusing the pandemic. "Many religious groups do exploit this situation to scare people into the kingdom of God, or to claim some special privilege for people of faith. The primary message of faith should still be that God is a God of healing and love for all."

Adam Dodds says he hopes the pandemic will lead to people re-evaluating their priorities, as well as greater compassion for their neighbours. He says hard times end up shaping people's lives more than the good.

He says his main source of comfort is that while he may be quarantined, "God isn't".

"God is at work in all kinds of ways, not least through the good decision-making of our government, the courage and professionalism of medical folk, the simple kindnesses people are showing to one another, and the scientists working on a vaccine."