Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Sikh places of worship mix tradition with high tech to meet needs of devotees hunkered down at home during virus
“Our devotees can join from next week to chant with our priests,” Dr. Uma Mysorekar, a physician and also the head of the Hindu Temple Society of North America, who oversees the Ganesh Temple in Flushing, told Desi Talk. It will be online chanting of course, following “ancient times” when swamis created “vibrations” that “are felt inside” and which also cleanse the atmosphere, Dr. Mysorekar said.
The Imams are drawing upon stories from the Prophet’s time, says Dr. Mahmood Alam, a practicing cardiologist, and one of the trustees of the Majid al Wali mosque in Edison, New Jersey. In their spiritual guidance offered on the phone and online, the Imam is drawing on the plague 1,500 years ago, when the Prophet (PBUH) “said that those inside should stay inside and those outside should not visit.”
“That story is helping people – when they can justify not joining a congregation to pray but to stay home and do it; that congregating can do harm and it is better to pray at home,” Dr. Mahmood said, adding, “In general, it is a unique experience.”
The Richmond Hill, N.Y, Gurdwara is very large, says Sukhjinder Singh Nijjar, the public relations and media spokesperson from the Sikh Cultural Society. “This is the first and largest gurdwara,” Nijjar says, “Social distancing with 100 people (at a time), is taking place.” He is referring to the 6 feet distance that has been advised for individuals to follow as a way to avoid getting infected by the deadly Coronavirus.
Reverend Manoj Idiculla, national secretary of the Mar Thoma Church Diocese of North America and Europe, in Merrick, N.Y., told Desi Talk all services had been cancelled, “in all our 76 parishes and congregations in North America.”
That means all 9, 285 families will not be able to visit their local parishes and congregations until the COVID-19 crisis is over. “We have instructed all 76 to do the worship though video conferencing, live streaming and call-in conferences.”
According to the Director of Religious Affairs at Ganesh Temple, Ravi Vaidyanath Shivacharya, all the pujas are happening inside closed doors. “We cannot stop daily pujas to our Gods, The pujari conducts the puja. We are doing live streaming.” Two priests at a time go into the sanctum to do the pujas.
Over the last few weeks, the temple has followed the guidelines issued by the city authorities, Dr. Mysorekar said. First only 50 people were allowed in at a time; then down to 20, “Now 8 people come for darshan. I cannot allow them to come to any service,” she added.
Those living in the temple premises in guest houses continue to do so. “Twelve priests are still working; and volunteers are helping. We ensure that we are all safe,” said Shivacharya. The priests do not travel out, and small amounts of food is cooked to offer up to the Gods, Shivacharya says.
Dr. Mysorekar says she makes sure that temple staff comply with all the rules and regulations.
“We are conducting special yagnas – all for Lord Shiva. We do havans and chanting, special prayers to deities morning and evening.”
Asked whether people are calling for spiritual or emotional solace, she said most people call only to find out about the temple, even though information is on the website. “I think it (COVID-19 crisis) will end after these hikes and spikes – perhaps three to four weeks,” Dr. Mysorekar estimates.
The BAPS Swaminarayan Temple in Robbinsville, N.J., took drastic measures early on. About two weeks ago in early March, all the 165 activities were stopped, Lenin Joshi, the media outreach person for BAPS in the U.S., told Desi Talk. Till a week ago, darshan was allowed for an hour in the day. But that is also now closed.
“Everyone is taking it very seriously. It is not time to go outside – it is time to go inside” of yourself, Joshi said. This Swaminarayan denomination has 100 mandirs in the U.S. alonge, and 3,850 worldwide.
Aarti is live everyday at 7 pm Eastern Time. Each regional mandir however, livestreams it locally in their time zone. Links to various forms of prayer are available on site as well including a satsang at home video (https://baps.box.com/s/dpcte1mxw1l1vmwnfo2dalkanqapenbf)
“And every day we are getting live streaming from Mahant Swami :Maharaj from India. He is also quarantined in a small village. He gets up at 3 am, does his puja at 5 am. We webcast it at 10:30 pm our time,” Joshi recounts.
From all accounts, BAPS devotees have been very cooperatie and understanding. “The swamis are saying it is a moral and spiritual duty not to spread the virus. The messages are being broadcast in Gujarati and other langues where needed. All hygiene rules are also broadcast and on our website,” Josi added.
Counseling devotees has also accompanied these practical instructions as many are bereft. ” People have lost thousands, can’t pay mortgages, people are losing jobs, small businesses are in trouble,” Joshi says and they are calling swamijis, who are counseling and giving emotional support. “Swamijis are doing an awesome job.”
BAPs is also checking in on local seniors, and how to help the community in general, not just devotees. “We found out through our contacts that we can procure 4,000 masks. So we donated those to New Jersey health centers. We are also going to give them to law enforcement and other critical services,” Joshi said.
According to Dr. Alam, the emotional toll the COVID-19 crisis is taking on the Muslim community is related largely to not being able to congregate to pray, something so ingrained in the culture. On March 22, when he was interviewed, it had been barely a week since the mosque closed to the public. Before that groups of 20 were allowed in.
Though all in-person activities including lectures and conferences apart from mass prayers, imams are doing distant coaching, learning, teaching. “We have stepped up our communications through all social media,” Dr. Alam said. “In general, it is a unique experience. We hope it gets over soon,” he said. “The biggest fear in the community is that the month of Ramzan in around the corner April 25. We have trustes and volunteers meeting on WhatsApp groups to assess the situation one day at a time. We don’t know as yet what we will do.”
Nazimool Saheb, director of Masjid al Wali, notes that before the shut-down, several decisions were taken to keep safe, including sanitizing the area, giving prayer mates to 200-400 people so they could take them home and bring them back for the prayers. The weekend schools which attracted some 180 kids, were working, but now closed and gone online.
For Juma prayers (Fridays), when 700-800 people gathered to pray.
“We are strongly urging home prayer. The benefit of that is people can pray with families, and that one does not have to go to a public prayer to show pride that they are going. Now they are learning how they can pray in their private space,” Saheb emphasized.
While everyone may be stressed and its okay to be stressed by the current situation because it is about the unknon, Saheb said, “We want to give hope and emtional support, from the Prophet, and advise paople to take precautions. In Islam, you have to pray but also take precautions.”
Because children are basically home-schooling, the mosque is planning to introduce story-telling so that parents and children can sit and listen together. “We are also starting fundraising to meet needs of those who are in difficult situation, and that is for the whole community, not just followers,” Saheb explained.
Just a few days ago the Richmond Hill Gurdwara prepared some 20,000 meals and reached out to New York City departments and homeless shelters to share them.
Life has certainly changed however. Where on Sundays along almost 3,000 to 5,000 followers came and went, now it has dwindled to very few.
The gurdwara is going online mainly to leave messages. Important decisions have to be made in the next few days. Especially, whether the Sikh Day Parade which falls on April 25, should be postponed, says Nijjar.
Gurmeet Singh Champi, who leads the Sikh Sabha of New Jersey in Lawrenceville, N.J. says the main goal right now is to make sure the sangat members are safe.
“We are going with state and CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines. We are meeting regularly within the executive board members who manage the Gurdwara. And trying to reafh out to those who live along and ask them what they need.
The drawdown started two months ago, Champi says, when the crisis started. “We started making sure all our 600 members stay informed. For many of them, who are not on Wall Street, this may be the only venue of information.” Extracurricular activities began to be limited, and as it stands, all are suspended.
“The gurdwara is open for individuals to visit for mattha tek, but no kirtans or langar going on,” Champi clarified.
Sewadars (volunteers) are on standby when the gurdwara gets a call for help, not just from members but from the local community in Lawrenceville. “We stand by to help.”
So far, “All the older folks we called, all seem healthy,” Champi noted happily.
Rev. Manoj, as he is more popularly called, Idiculla, says despite the cancelations and going online, things are going well.
“Parishes are doing well. A good number of people are listening in, almost 150 out of 200 families in every parish,” he calculated. One or two families are quarantined, most of them healthcare workers, he noted,
“This is a new way to pray. The technology has developed for people to pray together,” Rev. Idiculla said.
Father Jerry Jacob of the Malankara Archdiocese of the Syrian Orthodox Church, agrees it is a struggle when full services are not being conducted. He leads some 64 churches in this denomination around the U.S. and Canada, serving some 3,000 families. The Archdiocese has asked all local churches to follow local guidelines in this crisis. And they are offering spiritual counseling as well.
“Until things calm down, we are going to have to continue this as long as we have to. There is nothing much we can do other than pray,” Rev. Jacob says.
Income for churches are declining but fundraising has not been mobilized yet. “We may re-evaluate based on how things go,” Rev. Jacob said.