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Harvard Chaplains Reflect On A Year of Religious Life in the Pandemic

Before the pandemic struck, Harvard's religious groups would physically gather to worship, study scripture, perform service work, and enjoy food in each other's company.
Before the pandemic struck, Harvard's religious groups would physically gather to worship, study scripture, perform service work, and enjoy food in each other's company. By Allison G. Lee
By Nelson Matthew P. Tan, Crimson Staff Writer

Instead of heading to Boylston Hall on Friday nights like in past years, Harvard’s Southern Baptist Chaplain Daniel S. Cho ’96 and other members of the Asian Baptist Student Koinonia now assemble online for Bible studies, games, and small group reflections.

Before the pandemic struck, Harvard’s religious groups would physically gather to worship, study scripture, perform service work, and enjoy food in each other’s company. Though the University’s chaplains say they are pleased by how well their groups have maintained continuity through the pandemic, they agree virtual programming is no match for in-person gatherings.

“Being together in person, in physical proximity to each other, was such a central part of our identity and practice, and I think that's not just true for faith communities, but it's true for the college as a whole,” Cho said.

Cho said the Harvard ABSK is working to combat the isolation of online life. With the help of alumni, the group has shipped care packages to students across the globe. They have also taken advantage of the Zoom environment to connect with other ABSK organizations around the country and overseas through a virtual global retreat.

Patrick J. Fiorillo, Harvard’s Catholic Chaplain for undergraduates, said members of the Catholic Student Association surprised him with their motivation and zeal to stay involved. The CSA began several new initiatives such as online Sunday homilies, podcasts, and a YouTube channel featuring different Catholic students.

Fiorillo said he also created his own podcast where he interviews Catholics at Harvard. Meanwhile, George S. Salzmann — the Catholic Chaplain for graduate students — created a weekly YouTube series about history and faith in Harvard and Cambridge.

“I don't want to brush over the reality that this sort of Zoom setup and social distancing is, in the end, not a positive. I want to make that clear,” Fiorillo said. “But great benefits have come from it, and from a perspective of faith, we believe that God can use all things for an ultimate good.”

“However, I can’t wait for the return of the sort of normal human interaction that’s superior in every aspect,” he added.

Harvard Quaker Chaplain John Bach said that Quaker students worked hard in ensuring that the Zoom is “not a barrier, but a pathway.”

“This may be an opportunity for us to re-examine and, as the Quakers say, to ‘move towards the light’ to a greater sense of inclusivity and diversity,” Bach said.

Bach also noted more students have joined the group’s Sunday morning worship, during which participants reflect in silence and then commune with one another. Quakers at Harvard are planning to reintroduce small in-person meetings that abide by social distancing guidelines, per Bach.

Baha’i Chaplain Donna Hakimian said the Harvard Baha’i Association has used the online environment to collaborate with members of the faith beyond campus. With a group from Northeastern University, they celebrated the Baha’i holiday Ayyam-i-Ha in a virtual gathering with musical performances, holy scripture readings, and group reflection.

“I have just been so inspired, so heartened by the response to this pandemic and the disruption of the lives of students and how they’ve really tried their best and they’ve used these constructive resilience tools,” Hakimian said.

Khalil Abdul-Rashid, Harvard’s Muslim chaplain, said Muslim students have focused on communal support and grief counseling through large Zoom meetings. At the end of each meeting, students would share “spiritual multivitamins” — lessons or reminders of something positive and uplifting.

Though the Muslim Chaplaincy and the Harvard Islamic Association are working towards planning a trip to the Mecca late in the fall, Abdul-Rashid said the wait for a reunion is difficult.

“The general sentiment has been one of longing,” he said. “Longing for a sense of the return to a real sense of community.”

Orthodox Christian Chaplain Vassilos Bebis said that virtual programming cannot match the profundity or impact of in-person engagement.

Bebis recalled a time when he could hold masses for more than 60 undergraduate students of Eastern Orthodox Christian faith in a physical church, and also invite them to join him in volunteering at local soup kitchens.

“It's not the same,” Bebis said. “We don't have the same feeling, and many students are tired, because they use Zoom, again and again and again.”

— Crimson staff writer Nelson Matthew P. Tan can be reached at nelsonmatthew.tan@thecrimson.com.

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