Finding Space For Religious Community Online

Graphic by Erin Sass and Sam Shepherd

Building community is an essential part of the university experience. For many students at McGill, campus religious organizations provide a supportive community based on shared values and traditions, making them an excellent venue for some much-needed community building. McGill has nineteen faith clubs that students can turn to for spiritual or cultural connection. Campus faith clubs give students the opportunity to build the religious life they want for themselves while making close friends in the process. Like everything else this year, McGill’s religious organizations have been forced to adapt to COVID-19 restrictions and find creative ways to keep their communities going while practicing religious and cultural rituals safely. 

We look forward to the days where we will be able to come back to in-person Friday prayers and see the bright faces of the members of our community.

McGill’s Muslim Students’ Association has made shifts during the pandemic, such as moving MSA Frosh and other events online. “A large theme of our religion is community, interaction, and developing positive relationships with others,” says MSA President Mustafa Fakih. Traditionally, MSA holds weekly Friday prayers, followed by time to socialize or participate in service projects such as Project Downtown, in which MSA club members prepare and give out food bags to those in need. 

Yet, Fakih shared how COVID-19 stands in the way of developing these relationships by limiting social interactions. “Friday prayers on campus and at mosques have unfortunately been put to a halt, taking away one of the core acts that brought us together,” Fakih said. “The prayer that used to involve hundreds of McGill Muslims in the SSMU Ballroom or New Residence Hall stopped happening. We look forward to the days where we will be able to come back to in-person Friday prayers and see the bright faces of the members of our community.” 

Despite the changes, MSA has found new ways to learn and connect as a community, such as holding virtual events with panelists and scholars from around the world that would have likely been too expensive or logistically complicated to organize in person. In addition, Fakih explains that social isolation has been a time to develop an individual bond with God. 

“This has been done through individual and personal prayers and supplications, and also through online educational classes and seminars,” says Fakih. He also shares that this has been a time to look inward and be grateful. “[This time] has allowed us to appreciate the privileged and easy lifestyle most of us have living in Montreal and attending McGill,” explains Fakih, “I appreciate the life and health that we have during the pandemic, but also pray for the negatively impacted, sick, and deceased during these trying times.” 

We are also missing the meaningful aspect of being able to worship with others on Sunday.

Before COVID-19, the McGill Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (formerly known as “the Mormon Church”) typically met in person every Friday for supper and scripture classes, as well as devotionals and Sunday school lessons. When Montreal was briefly out of the red-zone, they were able to hold 25-person gatherings with proper safety measures, but for the past two months, they have moved all of their programmings to Zoom. “We were lucky to have been initiated to a ‘home-centered, church-supported’ way of worshipping just a year before the pandemic,” members Olivia Bala and Rebecca Jarvis say, “because we took the habit of studying the gospel mainly in our homes and using our time at Church to share our insights and experiences, we already had enough resources to adapt to new worldly circumstances.” Adapting to COVID-19 has brought some positives for the McGill Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, such as the new experience of intergenerational Sunday church calls with family members guided by some of the church’s resources. 

However, even while successfully adapting to these circumstances, it is hard to recreate a sense of community. “There is great comfort in being around like-minded people who can support you,” explain Bala and Jarvis. “We are also missing the meaningful aspect of being able to worship with others on Sunday. There are also many service opportunities we are missing out on, as they are not feasible in the context of a pandemic.” 

I have been baking a lot more challah than I would do in a normal year!”

Similarly, Am McGill is an egalitarian Jewish group on campus that aims to provide inclusive and safe spaces for Jewish students. Pre-pandemic, they held monthly Shabbat (Friday night) dinners and services as well as events to celebrate other Jewish holidays. “Community and enjoying meals together are a big part of Jewish culture, so celebrating a holiday online is definitely a more solitary experience,” says Am McGill President Sarah Alevy. Although it is challenging to participate in religious life as usual, Alevy has been able to attend virtual services for Shabbat and other holidays. The pandemic has resulted in more time inside to explore practices that bring joy and comfort. “I have been baking a lot more challah than I would do in a normal year!” Alevy beamed. 

“Am McGill has transitioned to online events this semester with mixed results,” shares Alevy, “We have had a hard time reaching out to new students, so we have mostly had smaller events with returning students.” Despite the challenges, Am McGill holds virtual events to maintain a sense of community and cultural connection. For the upcoming holiday of Hanukkah, Am McGill has helped organize a collaboration of all the Jewish groups at the university to participate in nightly Zooms throughout the holiday with different activities each night. 

Although virtual meetings will never match the in-person experience, McGill’s religious groups show us that there are still ways to come together during the pandemic to create cultural and spiritual connections in virtual spaces. Likewise, with social distancing restrictions, there is also an exciting, newfound push for people to try out personal spiritual and ritual practices for the first time. Adapting club programming to COVID-19 restrictions is a trial and error process, yet there are some newfound silver linings that bring unique perspectives and experiences to McGill’s religious and cultural life. 

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For more information about religious and spiritual life at McGill, check out the MORSL website here

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