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Religious CIOs continue to foster a sense of community despite social distancing limitations

Leaders of faith-based organizations on Grounds adapt virtual and hybrid programs to keep their members connected to each other and their shared faith

GCF's Praise Team pose for a Zoom screenshot with an encouraging message shared with the rest of the fellowship over social media.
GCF's Praise Team pose for a Zoom screenshot with an encouraging message shared with the rest of the fellowship over social media.

Since religion and spirituality tend to be heavily based in community, the pandemic has placed a unique strain on University students hoping to stay connected to their faith and fellowship. Many of the University’s religious CIOs have remained committed to providing faith-based events — both virtual and hybrid — to serve their members’ spiritual needs and keep the sense of community alive despite the physical isolation. 

Led by third-year College student Christian Ro, Grace Christian Fellowship is one of the University’s religious CIOs that has decided to operate almost entirely online, keeping in mind the safety of all members and the Charlottesville community at large. GCF has used Zoom to hold weekly large group meetings, small group bible studies and other social events throughout the school year. As an organization, they have held all formal events virtually, but they do encourage members to meet with their small groups on their own time and safely. If gathering in-person, members are required to abide by all CDC and University social distancing guidelines, namely mask-wearing and physical distancing within a 75-person limit outdoors and 25-person limit indoors.

“With the Christian faith being so community-focused and relationship-building-focused, I think that was hard to transition from when everything was in person to something on an online platform,” Ro said. “People on Grounds want to do more of the in person face-to-face kind of things, but we can't neglect the people off Grounds who decide to stay home and the more vulnerable and immunocompromised members of the community.”

The lack of in-person community support has been particularly challenging for the University’s Muslim students who spent their second Ramadan without the ability to gather in large groups to celebrate Iftar and other aspects of this holy time. Black Muslims at U.Va. is still working on finding ways to celebrate Ramadan and Iftar as a community, all while adhering to safety guidelines.

So far, the CIO has held some virtual events to foster the purpose of Ramadan, such as a virtual gathering to write letters to prisoners in Mississippi. 

“For the letter writing party we had, it was that — although we do feel isolated and there is no doubt about that — because this is our second Ramadan where we haven't been able to gather with each other, we still have the responsibility to support others who have been isolated for years, who have not had the bodily autonomy that we have realized the pandemic has stopped us from having,” said Fadumo Hussein, president of Black Muslims at U.Va. and second-year College student. 

Although the inability to celebrate Ramadan fully as a community of Black Muslims has made it challenging for many members to stay engaged and continue participating in the organization, Hussein has led by example, choosing to put the health of the greater Charlottesville community ahead of individual desires.

The pandemic has shown her the important distinction between what she considers being kind versus caring for the community.  

“When it comes to program and praise events, we want to be kind and make it easier for people by having things in person — just for the sake of relieving mental fatigue — but if we say that we care about all parties involved — not just our members, but the people who they interact with — then we have the responsibility to do more things online,” Hussein said. “Even as a principle for Muslims, it is fundamental that we look out for people outside our circle. Following that means following the guidelines to a T.”

For the Hindu Student Council, aiding their members took the form of members gathering in smaller groups in order to more easily engage in open discussion of their faith. Many of HSC’s pre-pandemic events involved food, dancing and celebration, so with the pandemic limiting the ability to hold such large in-person events, HSC had to get creative.

They established a new religious text study in which small groups of students would gather over Zoom to analyze and discuss Gita, a sacred Hindu text. 

“[Gita] is something that some of our members grew up reading about, but not many of our members have gotten to closely study these books,” said Sujal Sigdel, president of Hindu Student Council and fourth-year Education student. “Gaining a deeper understanding of the significance of the Hindu religion — why certain things came about — was very eye-opening, and being able to hear everyone's diverse opinions on the topic also contributed to the value of the discussion.” 

To strengthen the sense of community that was largely lost by the pandemic’s social distancing mandates, Catholic Hoos — a Catholic faith-based CIO — has found creative methods of altering past social practices to adhere to the limitations of COVID-19. In normal years, Catholic Hoos would utilize “the common room” at local Catholic church St. Thomas Aquinas, where students could gather with their friends at any time to practice their faith or just have fun talking and playing games. With the use of this space largely restricted due to the pandemic, Catholic Hoos leaders developed a new way to gather as a community by creating a “common Zoom” — a designated Zoom link students could join at any time to spend time with other members. 

“It was open pretty much whenever anybody wanted to hop into it,” said Cora Wack, chair of Catholic Hoos and fourth-year College student. “Someone would just text in the group chat and say, 'Hey, I am doing homework, who wants to join?' or 'Hey, who wants to play chess?' and those interactions could happen. Obviously they aren't the same as being in the common room, but it was still a great way to foster friendships and a sense of community support to make everyone feel a little bit less alone.”

Catholic Hoos also transitioned their typical “TSup” — a weekly Tuesday night supper at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church — into a pandemic-friendly, Hello-Fresh type of meal prep kit called “Hello-TSup.” Students could either pick up or get ingredients delivered alongside recipe instructions to cook a meal for themselves and their roommates or friends. 

“The Hello-TSup idea helped me grow closer to my roommates and helped me realize the value of sharing a meal with people,” Wack said. “My house and the guys’ duplex next to us would get together every Tuesday, cook the meal and eat it together. That was really awesome and important, especially when there were U.Va. restrictions and fears and you couldn't see very many people.”

With the University expanding gathering limits to 75 people masked and social distanced outdoors, some of the religious CIOs have been able to expand their fellowship to include in-person events. The Brody Jewish Center held one of its first in-person events April 27th in celebration of Lag BaOmer — a Jewish holiday occuring in the period between Passover and Shavuot that is traditionally celebrated with bonfires. 

“This was one of the first in-person events of the year, and because of the more lenient restrictions, I was able to see a lot of students that I haven’t seen all year,” Alexa Rothborth, vice chair of the Brody Jewish Center and third-year College student, said. “There was a bonfire and s’mores, and overall it was just a really fun community-wide event.”

Ultimately, although the pandemic has imposed a great deal of suffering and loss upon the University community, it has also shown many people — especially members and leaders of religious CIOs on Grounds — the value of human interaction and physical support for one another. 

“I am thankful for the nuances of in-person things, and the greater gratitude that comes from having everything be online, where the nuances are kind of more lifted,” Ro said. “Sometimes you just miss people coughing or laughing. Those little interactions, you can't take them for granted. You need to cherish them.”

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