“It is a time where everybody started questioning the validity of everything,” says Sahar Roy* about the outbreak of COVID-19. Roy is a fourth-year visual arts student at York University who grew up in Southern India, where she currently resides.
Roy is Muslim, but has a mixed race background as her father is British Indian. “My faith gives me a sense of direction, especially in a time of such unpredictability.”
In order to contain the virus last year, churches, temples, mosques and other places of worship were forced to close and transition to online platforms. Some virtual faith groups have had massive success amidst the pandemic.
Alpha, a Christianity course that helps people explore the meaning of life, launched in May 2020 through the Catholic Chaplaincy at York (CCY).
Dwayne Santos, master of ceremonies and host of the program, says that he didn’t think the program would work online. “A huge component of Alpha is hospitality,” he says. “It’s usually run out of church and includes meal-sharing, watching videos and having meaningful discussions with one another.”
However, with the help of the CCY leaders, 140 people were enrolled in just 10 days. The program generated lots of positive feedback from participants. “Seeing the hunger they had to work on their relationship with God is powerful,” says Santos.
But not everyone has welcomed online religious practice. Roy says in Southern India, some people were still celebrating Ramadan in person. “Apparently there was a group of people going to the mosques a lot and lots of people going for lectures,” she says. “I feel like this happened with a lot of faiths, even with the Hindu faith, there was a big pilgrimage in North India and it made a surge in the coronavirus cases.”
Roy says that practicing faith online works for her and her family. “We’ve been doing online discussions or we just have talks about whatever’s going on. When there’s a will, there’s a way. If you do feel like you want to keep practicing, you will find a way. If you don’t feel like it, then maybe you won’t.”
She has also noticed a large increase in much needed mental health resources available online. Organizations such as Yaqeen Institute combine science, logic and faith to help people get through the pandemic.
However, Roy also acknowledges that online worship and religious services only benefit those who are privileged enough to have access to the internet. According to research conducted by ACORN Canada, more than one-third of Canadians have to make financial sacrifices in order to afford home internet. Not having access to technology or the internet can be a massive barrier to maintaining faith practices while also staying safe during the pandemic.
“Lower class Muslims probably don’t have access to the internet and online communication, which is also probably why they still go to their religious lectures or seminars,” says Roy.
When it comes to faith in the post-pandemic era, it is difficult to predict whether people will be more or less inclined to turn to religious groups and practices. Every individual has a subjective experience of the pandemic and relationship to the world.
Roy says that she believes some people will still want to return to religious and spiritual gatherings. “But I also cannot speak for people who are not privileged. I cannot speak for people who are marginalized. I cannot speak for people who have witnessed a lot of trauma or have been in war torn countries and are trying to get vaccinated and they can’t,” she says. “It really depends on what gives the individual strength.”
* Sahar Roy is a pseudonym used to protect the safety of the source