Religious communities persevere, innovate in wake of pandemic restriction

Goddard Chapel is pictured on April 25. Nicole Garay / The Tufts Daily

‘No matter the obstacles, we all crave meaningful connection’: Chaplaincy finds new ways to connect amid COVID-19 restrictions

If you’ve met with Nora Bond this semester, you’ve likely also met Samson, a large dog that yodels frequently while Bond is on Zoom, causing her to mute her mic until he quiets.

Bond, the Tufts University Chaplaincy program manager, works to aid different religious communities within the Chaplaincy in their transitions to online programming and services. She said the transition was necessary for the health and accessibility of students and staff, as well as for remote students. The change has come with some trade-offs.

“Mostly, I think everyone misses the lingering time, the space after a gathering, when we could hang out and chat,” Bond wrote in an email to the Daily. “That happens less in virtual spaces, and we miss it with our students.”

Another trade-off is that the Chaplaincy cannot host as many events involving food, which Bond said is a “big part” how the Chaplaincy builds community. Bond, however, noted that virtual programming offers some benefits, like incorporating alumni and recent graduates into services more often regardless of location.

Bond, who works closely with undergraduates, enjoys connecting with students on a regular basis. Bond said this has not changed with the transition, as she continues to talk with students about identity formation and existential questions and through moments of joy and grief.

“All of those needs still exist,” Bond wrote. “We all feel very glad that we can be people students turn to in any semester.”

Earlier this year, Bond hosted a student meeting, in which she left with an optimistic outlook on the semester ahead.

“No matter the obstacles, we all crave meaningful connection,” Bond said. “I’ve been inspired this semester by how many creative ways people have found to still share themselves and get to know others.”

‘People from all over can have some semblance of spiritual closeness’: The Sangha Community brings international guests to online services

The Sangha Community, a Tufts student group that learns Buddhist teachings and practices meditations, has smoothly transitioned to Zoom, while facing inevitable pandemic challenges.

The community organizes two weekly online meetings: reflections on Monday and meditations on Friday. 

Admittedly, there are some challenges. In-person activities are cancelled. The community is still considering the possibility of its annual spring retreat to Wonderwell Mountain Refuge.

Alternative online meditation lacks the physical closeness that people seek. Moreover, the cushion, the altar, the buddha image and the complementary props for meditation have been replaced with a desk and a laptop.

“It is definitely not ideal,” Ford said. “It is more like an enhanced solo meditation.”

The executive board has faced difficulties with the travel restrictions and time difference; however, without the need to prepare for in-person events, the executive board has successfully managed the simpler online activities.

“It is really a little less complicated because there are not many events we can plan virtually,” Ford said.

The difficulties have not suppressed students’ engagement with the Sangha Community, Ford said. The community has received over 50 email sign-ups from the Class of 2024 Facebook group alone.

“Tufts attracts so many cool people,” Ford said. “So many people want to try meditation out.”

With the flexible Zoom meetings and the work of Venerable Priya Rakkhit Sraman, Buddhist Chaplain at Tufts, the community members meet alumni and monks from around the globe. Venerable Ten, a Mahayana Buddhist from Vietnam and Venerable Upali, a Theravada Buddhist from Bangladesh, both joined the group’s Friday meeting in early October and shared words of wisdom about “maintaining a spiritual practice during difficult times.”

“That’s the perk of having Zoom; people from all over the entire world can have some semblance of spiritual closeness,” Ford said.

Even though it is a challenge, the Sangha Community is coping with the new normal smoothly.

“The whole thing is a challenge,” Ford said. “This is why we have mindfulness practice and why we have spiritual practice.”

‘The end result is still pretty satisfying’: Dawkins continues tradition of music, hymns to Protestant, Catholic services 

Music is an indispensable part of Tufts religious community. Events such as the Protestant Evening Worship and the Halloween Midnight Organ Recital all used to take place at Goddard Chapel. Because of the pandemic, wind instruments and singing are banned on campus, unless performers are alone in the Mods. How is the University Chaplaincy able to keep the sound of music alive?

Thomas Dawkins, the music director at the University Chaplaincy, like half of the Chaplaincy team, is working remote.

From his living room, Dawkins plays on his piano and sings the hymns for Protestant Evening Worship. To make the experience feel more like a chapel, Dawkins sewed a large cloth background, which he changes with the seasons.

Regarding the coming Halloween Midnight Organ Recital, the performance will go live on the University Chaplaincy YouTube channel on Oct. 30 at 7:30 p.m. The music will include pieces of movie and video game music, a selection by Grieg, and the traditional Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor.

The online music performance certainly poses some difficulties. Because of the pandemic, Dawkins is not able to collaborate with student musicians.

“In the past, I’ve worked with about thirty-five performing students,” Dawkins wrote in an email to the Daily.

Moreover, a lot of the instruments on campus are not available or need to be tuned and maintained, so Dawkins has to use his limited resources at home to provide professional music. Dawkins fortunately has a piano, but he needs to use technology to make sound of the organs. With an iPad equipped with a special organ sampler app, an electric keyboard and Garageband, Dawkins is able to accomplish the task.

“It takes more work than just sitting down and practicing and playing like normal, but the end result is still pretty satisfying,” Dawkins said.

Even though university guidelines have put serious restrictions on the Chaplaincy Music Program, Dawkins said students’ safety is a priority, and all the staff members at the University Chaplaincy are doing their best to make the religious traditions more usual. For example, Protestant Chaplain Dan Bell has made an altar at his apartment to provide traditional artistic elements in the rituals.

“It seems like a little thing, but I think it makes a difference and shows that we all really care for our students,” Dawkins said.

‘I often feel most connected with God through singing’: Singing ban limits closeness for some

“I’ve been disappointed that we haven’t seen more first-years at our services and meetings,” Alice Dempsey, president of the Protestant Student Association (PSA), said.

As one of the many religious groups on campus, the PSA is facing significant challenges due to the pandemic.

There is a notable decrease of online attendance from last spring to this fall. The first-years’ response to the meeting has been tepid, and the start of midterm exams has hardened the obstacle more.

Dempsey said the decrease may be because students struggle over Zoom and that people may prefer to stay connected online with their home church community. One student told Dempsey they had tried to only attend in-person activities.

The Zoom format brings difficulties as well. Due to Tufts’ ban on singing outside of the Mods, the community is not able to sing along with Thomas Dawkins, the Chaplaincy music director who offers hymns at Sunday services. Dempsey said a vital component to services for her is lost due to the singing ban.

“I often feel most connected with God through singing,” Dempsey said. “It’s very hard to not be able to join [Dawkins] in song.”

Moreover, people attending on Zoom tend to log off right away after the service, so there is limited opportunity for community bonding. Before the pandemic, members used to hang out in the foyer of Goddard Chapel, eat clementines and cookies and engage in conversations.

“It was the best way to get to know new members and catch up with my friends,” Dempsey said.

The Reverend Dan Bell, the Protestant Chaplain, mentioned the same difficulties, addressing them as “real losses.”

PSA is actively coping with the hard new reality. To make new students feel included, the executive board is putting together gift bags for first-years. They include snacks like hot cocoa and popcorn, and religious items like prayer beads and a Bible. They also have organized safe in-person outings to grab bubble tea in Davis Square.

Reverend Bell, using Zoom as a flexible platform, also employs his resources to invite preachers from various denominations to share their sermons.

“Hearing a good sermon or message is something that Zoom is actually great at,” Dempsey said.

Dempsey said listening to guest speakers is one of her favorite parts of services now.

For Dempsey, the pandemic has really brought the importance of services into focus. After the service, Dempsey feels more prepared to face the upcoming week.

“The familiar flow of the service, singing the hymns, being ‘together’ and feeling God’s peace were all meaningful ways that I could calm myself down and be a little more okay,” Dempsey said.

Despite the serious setbacks that the pandemic brings, the Protestant community remains strong and hopeful.

“I trust that, by God’s grace, we will make it through these challenging times and come out stronger as a result,” Reverend Bell wrote in an email to the Daily.

Dempsey and her fellow executive board members are ready to hand out their welcome gift bags for the new members, and they are hoping to plan more in-person activities before the weather worsens.

“I think we still are vibrant!” Dempsey said.

‘I knew in that moment that we were doing something right’: Catholic services find solutions to virtual services, Zoom fatigue 

“We were just like ‘wave at each other!’” Amelia Hern, an executive board member of Catholic Community at Tufts (CCT) said, when asked about how the members show the sign of peace at the Sunday online liturgy.

CCT, while facing challenges that the pandemic brings, is optimistically innovating ways to stay connected.

Because of the cancellation of in-person services, CCT switched the format of its Sunday masses at 5 p.m. to Zoom. For two Sundays a month, the Chaplaincy invites Friar Pat Nolan, priest at the Boston College High School Chapel, to celebrate with the group.

There is a sharp decrease in attendance, from roughly 50 people to a steady number of 15 people.

“I know that Zoom fatigue is real and that for many of the faithful, online mass during the lockdown proved quite underwhelming,” Catholic Chaplain Lynn Cooper said.

Also, the Zoom meetings lack the central element of religious gatherings: personal connections. In-person activities are also not on CCT’s schedule for safety concerns and inclusion purposes. It is just not as immersive as it used to be, according to Hern.

“At the end of the day, I am sitting here, in my bedroom, at my desk, looking at my computer, rather than being at Goddard Chapel, which is a really beautiful space,” Hern said.

However, the difficulties do not intimidate the Catholic community as Chaplain Cooper and the members find creative ways to bond and celebrate.

Chaplain Cooper has made herself as approachable as she can by setting up regular Zoom calls and Sunday one-to-one walks; she also communicates with the executive board of CCT through multiple emails per week.

“She is really an amazing resource and supporting system for everyone in CCT.” Hern said.

CCT members also actively adapted to the new reality. As many mass traditions such as receiving communion bread are not possible over the Zoom, members find other ways to stay engaged. For example, participants use the Zoom chat function to express their personal intentions for the prayer.

CCT has also found opportunities through socially distant gatherings. For example, CCT has been actively reaching out to alumni to participate online because of the more flexible platform.

“It is my hope that the virtual format of this semester’s programming will enable alumni to remain engaged and to participate from wherever they may be,” Sean Moushegian, the president of CCT, wrote in an email to the Daily.

Moreover, CCT has built a program during the pandemic that allows community members to show each other’s home parish, sharing their spirituality more comprehensively. Hern was the first one to share her home parish.

According to Chaplain Cooper, Hern’s sharing how her music journey as a flutist at mass inspired her deeply. The music during the liturgy was so beautiful that a few students were moved to tears.

“I knew in that moment that we were doing something right, something that held the promise of transformation,” Chaplain Cooper said.

To Hern, her community’s “visit” to her home parish is the most memorable thing since the pandemic.

“Getting to share [my home parish] with everyone was really cool, and I wouldn’t ever have gotten to do that in any other situation,” Hern said.

‘I really hope that we can foster the same welcoming community for the first-years’: Hindu Student Council recreates warmth of in-person services in online format, new programs

Akshita Rao, co-president of Hindu Student Council (HSC), found a little bit of home at Tufts while she was a first-year. She remembers feeling homesick, and actively looking for groups at the club fair that would help ease the transition to life away from home. She found comfort and reassurance in HSC, an organization dedicated to the preservation and understanding of Hindu culture and ideology at Tufts.

During past years, weekly meetings ended with a communal aarti, a Hindu ritual of worship where a lamp is lit to deities and songs are sung in praise of various gods and goddesses. The ceremony lasts approximately 10 minutes, during which participants pass around sweets, like sugar cubes and raisins. Rao said she misses the closure and community the ceremony provided when in person.

“Aarti was always such a calm and auspicious way to end my stressful work day,” Rao, a senior, wrote in an email to the Daily. “The entire group singing together reminded me of home and of the strong Hindu community we have on campus.”

Rao even finds herself missing the mundane activities, like casual conversation, that surrounded the beginning and end of weekly meetings. Though the transition to online services has mostly been seamless, the format has hindered the personal and intimate connections that are often fostered through these conversations.

“We also used to have many small side conversations before and after the meetings so students could catch up and check-in with each other,” Rao said. “It’s been difficult trying to incorporate those social and emotional connections into our online meetings.”

This semester, HSC continues to host its Tuesday meetings, though with a number of changes. The council has included more guest speakers, ranging from members of JumboVote to Hindu scholars, in its weekly get-togethers. The goal, Rao said, is to take advantage of the virtual format to incorporate a variety of voices in its space.

Rao has noted an increase in participation this semester, which she attributes to the ease of attending events through a virtual format. In previous semesters, Rao said it could be difficult to incorporate meetings into a busy schedule. Some students, she said, found it hard to attend HSC’s 9 p.m. meetings after a late-night lab or lecture.

“I want to emphasize how grateful I am that our club can still have engaging events and discussions on a virtual platform,” Rao said. “I know there are so many groups on campus that can’t conduct meetings or practice or rehearsal online, and I’m really thankful that HSC can still create a safe space and a welcoming community for students virtually.”

HSC has a series of events and programs planned for the rest of the semester. The council, in coordination with the new Hindu Chaplain Preeta Banerjee, has launched the Amar Chitra Katha program. The program distributes graphic novels and comics written by Amar Chitra Katha that are based on religious Hindu legends and epics. Chaplain Banerjee hosts monthly discussions on the stories. Rao said the program takes advantage of the virtual format to deepen connections within HSC.

Rao reflected on how HSC has impacted her experience at Tufts, and how she hopes to positively impact first-years’ experiences as a leader at HSC.

“I have learned so much about my faith, had such intellectually stimulating conversations, and made incredible friends that I know I’ll keep in touch with even after I graduate,” Rao said.

She hopes to carry that forward to first-years.

“I really hope that we can foster the same welcoming community for the [first-years] this year, just like how the HSC alumni did for me,” she said.


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