Keeping The Faith

How the Tufts Community is Navigating Religion Amidst a Crisis

Where is the church, where is the steeple, and most importantly, where are the people? 

The pandemic has brought new challenges to the Tufts University Chaplaincy: while many services have switched to Zoom, various branches of the chaplaincy are also working to adapt to the new climate in other creative ways.

The Community of Faith Exploration and Engagement (COFFEE) is “a forum for any students who are interested to become involved in religious, philosophical, interfaith, and inter-belief conversation, learning, and action.” During a typical semester, COFFEE would congest the lobby of Goddard Chapel, providing baked treats, hot chocolate, tea, and of course, coffee. This year there will be no coffee from COFFEE; nevertheless, the community is thriving. 

“[W]e recently hosted the Fall 2020 GIM on Zoom and were happy to welcome many new faces from students studying on and off-campus this semester,” said Jane Romp, COFFEE’s current president, over email. “The topic of our meeting was ‘Faith during the time of COVID-19,’ which allowed all of us to chat about the challenges we have faced so far. The Zoom format worked out very well for us, but we did miss the cozy atmosphere of Goddard Chapel.”

Romp added, “A few [students] mentioned that the switch to a virtual worship format has led them to become less involved in their faith.” However, COFFEE is planning on arranging small in-person gatherings later in the semester to help invigorate interest.

As a result of the pandemic, the Protestant community has started virtual worship and reflection. According to Tufts Protestant Chaplain Reverend Dan Bell, students have been very adaptive to the situation. One of the Protestant community’s latest projects has been creating goodie bags for incoming students containing popcorn and hot chocolate, as well as some religious items. “They hope this will help new students feel more included and welcomed into the community,” he said over email.

Originally, Reverend Bell was disheartened by the current circumstances and expressed concern about feelings of isolation. “Lately, I am feeling more confident that we are dealing with this unprecedented situation as best as we can, and I have been inspired by the ways that students continue to care for themselves and one another,” Bell said. He believes that the advent of technology will “enhance what we offer in the future in terms of reaching new people, being more creative in our worship, and strengthening our communities in-person and online.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t the first obstacle collectively suffered by the world. Bell added, “Human beings are resilient creatures, even if we are often lacking in wisdom! So I trust that, by God’s grace, we will make it through these challenging times and come out stronger as a result.” 

In a university-wide effort to increase religious inclusion and meet the spiritual needs of students and faculty, the Tufts Chaplaincy hired two new community associates who serve as spiritual advisors.

Dr. Preeta Banerjee, the new Hindu advisor at Tufts, wrote over email that “[t]he beauty and the challenge of the Hindu community is that we hold all the spectrum of practice from cultural to philosophical to spiritual to religious and everything in between.” When asked how things have changed as a result of the pandemic, she responded by saying that it has helped many contemplate the fundamental question of, “Who am I?” 

Banerjee added, “We find we are more than the labels given to us and identities we carry with us into the world. In this exploration, we become seekers and that can be very emotional, especially for Hindus…We are beginning to find ourselves anew…opening, questioning, curious, contemporizing and working through the trauma to leave behind what no longer serves.”

Tufts also recruited Azmera Hammouri-Davis as the newly-created Africana Spirituality Advisor this fall. Hammouri-Davis shared over email that African spirituality is “about honoring one’s ancestors and celebrating the human experience by utilizing song and dance to cultivate a deep resolve, fortitude and hope amid life’s deepest challenges, particularly with historical racism and structural violence.” In light of nationwide protests, Hammouri-Davis is excited to collaborate with the Africana Center’s virtual conversation series Speaking Facts: Nothing but the Tea with hopes to reconcile understanding of current events and spark compassion.

Hammouri-Davis commended the efforts by the Chaplaincy to nurture peace-building across differences in identity, and was thankful to be a part of those efforts. “With the global rise in consciousness for the importance of honoring Black life, comes the need for accountability and steadfast patience as we all work to understand what it means to chart a new way forward. As such, for many, our core beliefs may be called into question, may be re-interrogated, or reaffirmed,” she said.

Faizah Wulandana is a sophomore resident of the Muslim House and communications chair of the Muslim Students Association. The MSA has hosted a plethora of events so far this year, including virtual bake nights, Zoom guest speakers, and socially-distanced outdoor picnics. Wulandana said over email, “Our chaplain, Imam Abdul-Malik, is also hosting a weekly class on theology over Zoom, and the nice thing is that Muslims from outside the Tufts community can also join.” 

Wulandana is a devoted member of the Muslim community. This semester, she has been participating in online courses held by various Islamic organizations. Participating in Tufts classes from the comfort of her dorm has allowed her to practice salat, or daily prayer, with more flexibility. “As an introvert, I feel like I have more time to myself with the current situation, and it’s been important for my spiritual health since I have a lot of time to reflect,” she emphasized.

Jacob Brenner, a sophomore living in the Bayit, is Hillel’s co-coordinator of conservative minyan, meaning he organizes weekly congregations for public prayer. Though his work has mostly consisted of Zoom sessions, he hopes to get outside and in-person safely. Brenner stated that “having to…[meet] on Zoom is tough.” However, he added, “I’m glad that [Judaism] is here, as an anchor, especially this year knowing that there is a community.” 

It is clear that Hillel has made latkes from potatoes given the state of affairs. Rabbi Naftali Brawer, the Jewish chaplain and executive director of Hillel, said over email that “[Hillel is] a warm, welcoming pluralistic Jewish space where students can celebrate everything Jewish.” The community is no longer able to host large Shabbat dinners or in-person prayer services, but creativity has led to the formation of new services and possibilities. Friday night multi-course takeout meals are the new normal. In addition, Hillel has started providing students with socially-distanced seating and the shpiel mobile, a food bike that offers cookies and refreshments. 

Chabad, a Jewish community with a more Orthodox focus, offers the same warmth and camaraderie as Hillel at a much smaller scale. On Fridays, Rabbi Tzvi Backman and his wife prepare multi-course meals for students, and are continuing to do so in the form of takeout. Emily Bigioni, a sophomore and Chabad’s treasurer, noted that Chabad is “literally the rabbi and his family,” giving it “a very homey atmosphere.” Lately, Chabad has been holding Zoom sessions before Friday night Shabbos begins, offering virtual challah bread-making and inspiration from the rabbi. 

“The inability to gather has taken a toll on a lot of people,” Bigioni said. Though she is not pleased with all of the changes, she is appreciative of the regulations put in place. Bigioni added, “Everyone is settling into a groove, either with Chabad or Hillel, or some other way of connecting to Judaism, settling into a new way of living and managing. Living in the Bayit gives more of a solid community to fall back on because we are able to do things together. It eases the difficulty of being able to practice religion.”

Nowadays, students are seemingly forced to choose safety over sanctity. However, from the safety of one’s room, students have the ability to pray whenever they want. Students are no longer confined by the walls of a temple, as more and more people are congregating outdoors, albeit farther apart from each other than usual. The places of worship may be closed, but the hearts of those willing to pray are open.