Local religious and spiritual groups continue to provide community, companionship, hope

Culture

COVID-19 has drastically changed the way religion and spirituality is practiced in Victoria and around the world

wiccan wheel of the year, religion article
The Wiccan wheel of the year, photo by Alison Skelton.

With the holiday season approaching, religious groups are having to navigate worship at a distance. For many people in Victoria, these groups aren’t just people to pray or meditate with — they’re sources of community and companionship.

Every group, service, and industry has had to weather closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The latest restrictions indicate that no religious gathering is permitted, unless it is for a funeral or wedding. Even then, only 10 people can gather at any given time.  The Martlet spoke to four locals about how their communities and services have been impacted. 

Though this piece does not include every religion or spiritual belief and may not include much variation within the different groups it touches on, it is a small look on how residents have been maintaining their spiritual health during the pandemic.

UVic’s Muslim Students’ Association 

Mahum Azeem is a fourth-year software engineering student, and the president of UVic’s Muslim Students’ Association (MSA). Though the MSA has not been able to offer the same amount of services and programs during the pandemic, they still offer online programs.

Before COVID-19, the MSA offered a variety of services and programs that have since been put on hold. Azeem said that these mostly consisted of a Friday congregational prayer in the UVic Multifaith Centre open to students and non-students alike, an on-campus prayer room for individuals and groups to pray or just relax. The MSA also organized many talks and seminars.

Azeem said their focus has switched from educational events to community building — connecting newer Muslim students with those who have more experience at UVic. This semester, the MSA has done virtual events and small-scale socially distanced hikes. 

“Right now, our focus is just to … build sort of a network and build a little community. So, the events haven’t been as informative as they used to be,” Azeem said.

COVID-19 has had a large impact on the Islamic community in Victoria, and around the world. Friday congregational prayer was cancelled in March, which is one of the five pillars of Islam. Azeem said this cancellation was one of the hardest impacts to deal with, as Islam has not been affected on this type of scale since it’s origins in the seventh century.

It was the beginning of the Islamic holy month Ramadan, April 2020 on the Gregorian calendar, when the world first began to lock down. Although Ramadan includes individual prayer, Azeem said that there is usually a large social aspect that had to switch to an online format.

“It’s largely a month of introspection, but there’s a big social aspect to it. We all pray together, we break our fast together, and everything social from it was removed …  The leaders of the Islamic community in Victoria did attempt to move a lot of those aspects to Zoom, or other video conferences,” Azeem said.

Although there was a shift back to some in-person prayer recently, new COVID-19 guidelines have cancelled the Friday congregational prayer again until further notice. 

Lutheran Church of the Cross

Lyndon Sayers is one of the co-pastors at Lutheran Church of the Cross in Victoria and is one of the chaplains for UVic’s Multifaith Centre. The Church of the Cross is currently holding a weekly livestream on Sunday mornings, and there were opportunities for in-person worship until recently.

Although the change from in-person to online was abrupt, Sayers was already planning to make the church available online. He applied for a digital media grant, which allowed him to purchase a camera for live streaming. When the pandemic began, the church learned to use it very quickly and switched weekly worship to an entirely online platform.

The Lutheran Church of the Cross has been able to reach individuals and families from across Canada, with one family from Washington state even tuning in during the first part of the pandemic.

Despite the large geographic reach, attendance has dropped since March. Sayers attributes this decrease in viewership to Zoom burnout and choosing to be outdoors instead of at a computer, especially for families with young children. 

In-person worship was reintroduced in August and came with vigorous safety measures, but many were still not convinced to rejoin. Sayers said that the church had opened for up to 35 people, but turnout was still much lower than usual.

“I think people have had a healthy dose of fear around health risks. We’ve never even reached 35 people, even though on a typical Sunday we normally would have had 125 or more.”

After the B.C. government’s Nov. 19 decision, Sunday worship will shift back to the livestream-only format that has been used since March.

The physical separation that the pandemic has demanded has also affected those wanting to participate in communion, the act of sharing wine and bread that is said to represent the body of Christ. Sayers said that, because worship takes place at home for many, they have not felt the same connection while participating in the Christian sacrament.

As a final thought, Sayers shared his thoughts on how the religious groups in Victoria can help in the time of a pandemic and provided a question that anyone can reflect on, regardless of their spiritual orientation.

“I think about churches and other religious organizations, and multi faith that can be places where students and other members of the community can maybe find solace or comfort in the midst of a pandemic … what could we learn in terms of resilience and supporting one another in the midst of a crisis?”

Thirteenth House Mystery School

Angela Bone is a black-chord priestess for the 13th House Mystery School, and the registrar for the biannual class offered there. The 13th House Mystery School is a collective of witches whose goals are directed toward self expression through creative acts, with a focus on art, performance, healing and teaching. The school offers a 13-week introduction to witchcraft, shamanism, and wicca twice a year, has recently switched to a Zoom format.

“We decided to go ahead with the class, even though we had reservations because it is an experiential process. There’s a lot of good content we deliver,” Bone said. “But it is a feeling, an experience, to get people together in a room and create the synergy and atmosphere.”

Despite being apart, the class now has more attendees than usual. Like Sayers, Bone noted that the online format has allowed students to join from elsewhere in Canada. Recording the class is a new beneficial feature for instructors too, Bone said, because  there are multiple teachers coordinating lessons throughout the 13 weeks.

Before the pandemic, Bone and her group had hosted Samhain, the pagan festival of the dead and the end of harvest, primarily indoors. There were benefits to doing so with others in a smaller space. 

“Within my circle [before the pandemic] … we’ve been hosting Samhain indoors … The benefits of an indoor ritual are we as a group are witnessing what’s happening for ourselves and others,” Bone said. 

Bone recently organized an outdoor and socially distanced Samhain ritual. Although some things had to change, like going through the ritual alone, Bone still found the experience powerful for everyone involved. 

Though there are no concrete plans for Yule and future Sabbats following the Nov. 19 decision, Bone hopes for a positive future for her community and for people worldwide as the pandemic continues.

“What we all hope for is some major transformation that comes out of this,” Bone said. “Let’s… have our world be a more connected, kinder place. Let’s hope for that — not hope, let’s intend for that. Because that’s what Magick is about: intention.”

Victoria Buddhist Dharma Centre

Linda Hanson has been the secretary of the Victoria Buddhist Dharma Centre for over ten years. Sakya Buddhism is followed at the centre under the teachings of Lama Jampa Tenzin. In Tibetan Buddhism, a Lama is a veneered spiritual guide that either earned the title through acts in their life, or is the reincarnation of a previous Lama.  Up until recently the centre was open to the public one or two days a week for Pujas and Teachings.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the centre faced a four-month closure, and only started allowing members of the public in July.  According to Hanson, although the centre was open almost seven days a week pre-COVID-19, on average eight to twelve people attended the events. Now, only two or three people come in every week.

Because of the large amount of online resources to do with Buddhism, Hanson said, the Lama of the centre decided it was not necessary to offer extensive online programming during the COVID-19 closures. However, people can call in to the centre for spiritual advice.

Hanson said that there are usually gatherings planned for Losar, the Tibetan New Years, but it is uncertain how these celebrations will happen depending on the COVID-19 guidelines in place at that point. These celebrations are usually outdoors, so the only difference Hanson said, would be the number of members of the public allowed to attend.

Although the centre had been opened for members of the public since early July, the Nov. 19 guidelines have shut the centre down again.

Despite the difference in beliefs among each group, the ways in which each have adapted to the pandemic are very similar. Although there have been struggles, local organizations are continuing to find ways to connect people to their beliefs and attempt to provide some level of religious and spiritual support. 

Even with the province restricting gathering with those outside of our households, as well as shutting down religious gatherings until at least Dec. 7, there are still ways each community is able to reach people. When speaking to Sayers about the inclusion of students in multifaith, there was a sentence that summed up very well how each community is dealing with the pandemic:

“[It’s] important to reach students, some of whom are scattered whether in Greater Victoria, at home with their families, or somewhere else, that we can still support people even though we might not be gathering in the same ways.”