DMN: “With holy celebrations on the horizon and many isolating, a multi-faith group launches livestream chats”
Published: April 22, 2020 • Updated: April 22, 2020
Author: Yaqeen Institute
This article was published in Dallas Morning News and written by Brad Townsend.
The year’s holiest month nears amid one of the most somber backdrops of our lifetimes.
The coronavirus pandemic has caused, out of necessity, mandated isolation at a time when millions faithfully congregate in churches, synagogues, mosques and temples.
Houses of worship likely will remain largely empty through Passover, Easter and perhaps all of Ramadan. But in North Texas, an unlikely trinity has united in message, if not ideology, to help their communities collectively confront COVID-19.
With solidarity, not solitude.
They are Rev. George A. Mason, Rabbi Nancy Kasten and Imam Omar Suleiman. A Baptist, a Jew and a Muslim.
They are the faces of Faith Commons, a multi-faith, multi-ethnic non-profit. Last Sunday they debuted “The State of Our Faith,” a weekly Facebook Live conversation they vow will continue as long as the COVID-19 crisis lasts.
“What once was a default Christian culture has become more like the rest of America,” said Mason, founder and president of Faith Commons and senior pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church. “Religious pluralism is both the original idea of America and its new and future reality.”
Faith Commons was founded in 2018 to promote common good from distinct faiths, but current circumstances compelled Mason, Kasten and Suleiman to step forth in the coronavirus-era version of shoulder-to-shoulder.
Sitting six feet apart on benches last Sunday at Wilshire Baptist, they spoke to their Facebook Live audience about hunger, food and insecurity. Each week’s stream is scheduled to begin at 12:12 p.m., the spiritual number combination that signifies unity, purity and love.
This Sunday’s scheduled topic: the role faith traditions play in addressing fear, including a discussion about Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s suggestion that “grandparents” should sacrifice to lessen America’s COVID-19-hastened economic woes.
“There are very loud voices in our community who claim to have the moral high ground in terms of what faith is, and they tend to separate that entirely from what’s happening in the world around us and the day-to-day experience of people,” said Kasten, Faith Commons’ chief relationship officer.
“We’re here to provide another option and try to offer another voice that sees the day-to-day as part of God’s creation – and the ongoing work of creation and ongoing demands of the covenant we have with God.”
Suleiman, founder and president of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research and resident scholar of the Valley Ranch Islamic Center, says that interfaith solidarity is uniquely strong in North Texas.
It’s a kinship that reminds Suleiman of the faith bonding he saw in his native New Orleans post-Katrina, where he was the imam of the Jefferson Muslim Association and, in 2005, directed Muslims for Humanity amid the hurricane’s devastation.
Suleiman says he sees eerily similar “despair in the air” as North Texans watch rising COVID-19 infection and death tolls. Last week he visited homeless people sheltered at the Dallas convention center and had flashbacks to New Orleans’ Superdome during Katrina.
Immediately after Katrina, citizens were encouraged to stay indoors due to the unsanitary conditions, but neighbors ultimately collaborated for the good of the city, and one another. But now?
“Unfortunately, one of the things I’ve seen thus far is that everyone is sort of hunkering down,” Suleiman said. “We have to, right? We’re not just isolating as individuals, but as communities. Just by way of the circumstances, everyone just has to care about their congregation, their mosque, their synagogue, their church right now.”
Thus the importance, Suleiman says, of collective action and spiritual messaging to North Texans – of help, resolve and hope – from Faith Commons and other religious leaders.
“I think every one of us can lead by example,” he said. “And say, ‘Listen, I deeply love this person, who I deeply disagree with, because I see how similar we actually are.’
“It’s a paradox.”
Within their respective communities, Suleiman, Kasten and Mason are helping to lead outreach efforts within the constraints of social distancing.
During last Sunday’s “State of Our Faith” conversation, Kasten noted that religious organizations’ grass roots efforts have helped fill significant gaps – such as food bank restocking and door-to-door food and medical deliveries – that government assistance can’t reach.
“But we’re also faced with the fact that our typical volunteer efforts, in certain ways, are not enough because we’re not able to do some kinds of one-on-one interaction that we were before,” she said.
Unprecedented times necessitate creativity. At Wilshire Baptist, Mason and fellow leaders have coordinated the Friday 5 Plan, in which members choose five people outside of their usual inner circle to contact congregants for well checks and to collect prayer requests.
Two email updates go out each week, as well as a 15-to-20-minute midweek video with greetings, prayer, a devotional and a song played on guitar.
“We are working on the idea of physical distancing but social connection,” Mason said. “We can remain engaged with one another via technology, and we can share one another’s joys and burdens this way.
“The Christian faith, as with others, is oriented around face-to-face, flesh-and-bone community. But at the same time, we are spiritual communities called together by faith in an unseen God. So now we are focusing on this spiritual dimension that is both deeply personal and inextricably social at the same time.”
Pre-COVID-19, combined weekly attendance for the five daily and Friday congregational (begin italic) Salah’s (end italic) at the Valley Ranch Islamic Center was about 2,000.
It’s permissible for the daily prayers to take place at home, but Friday’s congregational prayer is mandatory attendance.
Suleiman says that for the first time in his and most lifetimes, the Friday prayer has been suspended due to Dallas County COVID-19 orders that prohibit public and private gatherings.
Sermons that occur online are not permitted to take the place of the Friday prayer, but as a way to offer mental and spiritual uplifting and engagement, Suleiman has been conducting Friday online lectures.
His first Friday lecture drew more than 200,000 viewers.
“I think that’s because people in their own communities are looking for an online mosque in the meantime,” Suleiman said, modestly, failing to mention that his Facebook page has 1.45 million followers.
Like many of us, Suleiman, 33, bears personal anxieties along with being a spiritual-care provider to his congregates. He has three children and his 77-year-old father, Ahmad, lives down the street, having moved last year after retiring as a professor at Southern University.
The Valley Ranch Islamic Center has about 60 congregants who comprise the Golden Club, age 65 and older. Many of those members’ only social outlet was meeting for daily prayers and weekly teas at the Islamic Center.
Some now get grocery deliveries through ICNA Relief USA, which provides to victims of adversities and survivors of disasters, but Suleiman, Sh. Yaser Birjas and the Islamic Center’s other leaders provide emotional support through phone calls and Facetiming.
Conversations are becoming more difficult.
“To be honest with you, it’s always a fine line of trying to instill hope without coming off as dismissive of people’s fears and pain,” Suleiman said. “So we’re trying to be optimistic and upbeat and help people see the light at the end of the tunnel. But for some people there’s this grim reality that this might be the end of the tunnel.”
For followers of many faiths, April is both a time for solemn reflection and spiritual uplifting.
It’s normally a time for gatherings, but not this year. Sermons will be delivered not to masses, but micro-worshipers via Google Hangout, Zoom and Facebook Live.
Kasten, whose husband, David Stern, has been the senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El Dallas since 1996, says members also are looking for ways to virtually conduct Seder, the ritual feast that marks the beginning of Passover.
Seder gatherings often include multiple generations of families, as well as friends and neighbors.
Muslims observe Ramadan as a month of prayer, fasting, reflection and community. Suleiman says that many of his congregates are distressed by recent images of the empty mosques of Mecca and Medina, each of which have a capacity of more than one million.
“I think more are worried about what that will look like [during Ramadan] than what the present moment of the virus looks like,” he said.
At Wilshire Baptist, a favorite Easter Sunday tradition is the throwing open of the church’s shutters, signifying the end of Lent, a period of sorrow and darkness.
“A lot of people already are feeling a sense of anticipated loss, not being able to come together and see those shutters flung open,” Mason said during last Sunday’s “State of Our Faith,” which has more than 18,000 views. “But I saw a meme this week where someone said, ‘Whatever Sunday we get back together will be Easter Sunday, and we’ll celebrate it that way.’ ”
It’s difficult to envision what the world and specifically North Texas will be like by then.
Mason, though, noted that believers of all faiths are at their best when they adapt. When they rise to whatever challenge confronts them.
“Technology is sometimes, I think in our traditions, viewed as kind of an enemy of the faith because it distances people from human contact,” he said. “But in this case, maybe we need to see it as a work of the spirit of God that is bringing us together.
“In new sorts of ways.”