Yale’s faith leaders bridge social distance to foster fellowship

Yale’s faith leaders are finding creative, compassionate ways to guide their communities through the stresses and uncertainties of the coronavirus pandemic.
Stained glass windows in Sterling Memorial Library

(Photo credit: Michael Marsland)

In March, an undergraduate asked University Chaplain Sharon Kugler if the global coronavirus pandemic meant the end of the world was at hand.

It’s the end of a world,” Kugler told the worried student, “and now we’re trying to create a new and better world.”

Answering the question as honestly as she could seemed to soothe the student, and also herself, the chaplain said.

I think the most important thing in spiritual leadership — and any leadership for that matter — is to be as honest as is humanly possible and to not falsely use generic language of hope,” said Kugler. “We need to be authentic by holding and acknowledging the fears and uncertainties people have.”

In her role as chaplain, Kugler helped guide the transition of Yale’s nearly 25 campus ministries — representing Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist and other religious traditions — as they adapted the way they relate to their adherents, mainly by providing an enriching digital presence when it was no longer possible to congregate or worship in person.

In the 10 weeks since most of Yale’s campus population dispersed, campus faith leaders have been providing one-on-one spiritual counseling and pastoral care; hosting virtual meditation, teaching, and discussion sessions; offering daily and weekly religious services and other group events via Livestream, Zoom, and FaceTime; and sharing words of wisdom in the form of weekly emails or online posts.

Many of the leaders have seen an increase in participation by Yale community members since the quarantine began.

Attendance has nearly doubled for our Monday halaqas — a weekly gathering for the study of Islamic spirituality and ethics,” said Omer Bajwa, director of Muslim life in the Office of the University Chaplain, who has been hosting study groups on Zoom.

Likewise, Coordinator of Buddhist Life Sumi Loundon Kim has seen many new faces at the twice-weekly meditation/discussion sessions she leads on Zoom. 

Most students who are participating don’t necessarily identify as Buddhist, but they are interested in meditative practice and in thinking about the meaning of their lives. They are trying to understand stress and suffering through a Buddhist perspective,” said Kim. 

Kugler, Bajwa, Kim, and other campus religious leaders said they have tried to find new ways to best meet the needs of their respective communities — for whom fellowship is often central to their practice — while campus is closed.

Jason Rubenstein, the Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain, with the help of Assistant Director of Programming Juli Goodman and other staff members at the Slifka Center for Jewish Life, sent out a survey to members of their community at the start of the quarantine to ask what they felt would be most meaningful. The center is typically a hub of events, study groups, meals, and other gatherings for Jewish students and other interested members of the wider community.

In the survey, people indicated a thirst for one-on-one connection and words of inspiration,” said Rubenstein. He and the Slifka team now routinely check in by phone or direct email with all student members of the center, and send via email weekly “Community Coronavirus” letters, which address such topics as loss and mourning, isolation, connection, death, and service to others from a Jewish perspective.

We have focused on the written word and the power of that to connect people,” Rubinstein said.

For Bajwa, the pandemic disrupted events he had looked forward to in connection with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which was observed April 23 to May 23 this year. During Ramadan, Muslims fast each day from dawn to sunset and spend time in prayer, contemplation, and study of the Quran. In the evening, they break the fast with a meal, called an iftar.

Ramadan is on a lunar calendar, so it migrates from year to year because each lunar month moves 10 or 11 days every year,” said Bajwa. “In recent years, it has taken place in the summer, so this year was to be special because students would have still been on campus. Following a tradition that my wife and I started years ago, we were looking forward to Friday night iftars in Battell Chapel with students and other members of the community. Fasting is a very personal, intimate, spiritual exercise, but the evenings are very communal, and it is hard to not be able to share in that together on campus.”

Instead, Bajwa has periodically broken fast with friends, family, and colleagues over Zoom. With the support of other members of the Muslim community, he also caters about 130 meals each Saturday to members of the New Haven community experiencing food insecurity.  

More than 120 Muslim members of the Yale community typically gather in Dwight Chapel for Jummah, the Friday midday sermon and prayer, which in Islamic tradition is required to take place in a communal space. Since Zoom is not considered a physical space, they now tune in for “Friday Reflection,” a 20-minute talk on Islamic philosophical themes by Bajwa, graduate students, or special guests.

The reflections I have done have focused on the new reality, the new normal, so to speak,” Bajwa said. “This is what is on everyone’s mind. It’s Ramadan, and everyone is unmoored because they don’t have a sense of community.”

In addition, inspired by Bajwa’s reflections, Muslim students at Yale offered twice-weekly, five-minute live or pre-recorded “Ramadan Reflections.”

During these, they talked about what Ramadan means to them, and about the confusion of this particular time. For the graduating seniors, these reflections were very poignant,” Bajwa said.

In a similar vein, the Slifka Center has been offering “Slifka Salons,” a series of online talks, which have attracted some 150 students, alumni, parents, and community members every few weeks on Zoom. Discussions have focused on both COVID-19 and other topics. Yale philosopher Shelly Kagan spoke about “The Ethical Quandaries of Coronavirus,” for example, while Supreme Court litigator Lisa Blatt shared an insider’s view of the nation’s highest court. 

Many of the campus religious leaders said their most meaningful connections are the personal check-ins they have with students and others in their communities — via phone calls, emails, and texts — to see how they are faring during this time of what Rubinstein calls “collective trauma.”

The pastoral care we have been doing is centered around the grieving of different kinds of losses — whether loss of life or loss of plans — and living with uncertainty,” Kugler said. “People talk about how exhausted they are; that exhaustion is rooted in how much work it is to grieve. Knowing that we don’t have the words to make things better, what my colleagues and I often can best do is just hold the grief that others are experiencing with them.”

Father Ryan Lerner, chaplain of St. Thomas More Catholic Chapel and Center at Yale, said that routine “check-ins” from the pastoral team with student members of his congregation have been especially important for those who may have returned to homes where they or their families are struggling, whether emotionally or financially.

For some of our students, such as members of the LGBTQ community, for example, Yale may have been a safe space,” Lerner said. “Are they feeling welcome at home? It is difficult for anyone to be torn from the communities in which they feel encouraged, but for those who may have difficulties at home, it is even harder.”

Some members of the campus community have recently lost loved ones, either from coronavirus or other causes, and restrictions on public funerals and other mourning rituals have intensified the grief they experience, Lerner and other religious leaders noted.

It is particularly torturous that people who have lost someone can’t be with others to share in that loss and physically console each other,” said Kugler. “So how do you do that? Sometimes the best we can do is simply breathe together on the phone.”

The good news, the ministry leaders said, is that in their own and in other spiritual traditions, there are teachings that bring into perspective the challenges and questions brought on by the pandemic and emphasize the resilience of people to survive and grow from them.

For Jews, the pandemic is one experience in a long history of Jewish endurance, noted Rubenstein, and both Judaism and Islam emphasize the importance of connection and community building. For Buddhists, the pandemic is a reminder of the impermanence as well as the interconnectedness of all things, said Kim.

Buddhism tells us that not only is it a fact that you are going to experience suffering — whether in the form of discomfort, distress, or anguish — but that looked at in the right way, you can use it as a springboard for deepening compassion, insights, and wisdom,” she added.

In Livestreamed Roman Catholic masses, check-ins with students, and other pastoral moments, Lerner said he reminds congregants to “keep the faith” and, quoting from St. Paul, tells them: “‘We cling to a faith that does not disappoint.’ We are always in the presence in God.”

Whatever one’s faith and challenges, over the past two months people have also witnessed and experienced great caring, as evidenced in the work of frontline medical professionals and other essential workers, in the generosity of those who have donated to help the less fortunate, and in the many daily kindnesses of ordinary people, Kugler noted.

We are all going to have to re-imagine our way of being in the world,” she said. “That goes for families, for institutions, for our religious organizations. This moment in time is changing everything, and the best we can do is hold the loss we are all feeling, name it, and then come together to think of a way to create new experiences.” 

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Part of the In Focus Collection: Yale responds to COVID-19

Media Contact

Bess Connolly : elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu,