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Keeping the faith: how Miami students are practicing religion and faith during COVID-19

A lot of people turn to their religious communities for support through tough times. That sense of connection is different as people are navigating through the unprecedented time of 2020, but it’s not lost.

Emily Garforth, president of the Association of Jewish Students at Hillel, has felt the challenges of getting students involved in the organization this semester. She mentioned that less people are showing up to weekly Shabbat services because the dinner portion was pulled. 

Garforth herself had to miss Hillel’s big Purim celebration due to quarantining after being out of town the week before.

“We can’t really offer the things that were appealing to people last year,” Garforth said. “If I was a freshman during this, it would be hard for me to want to jump on a Zoom call and attend services.” 

Julie Whapham, a junior who is a part of St. Mary’s church and the campus’ Catholic ministry, has been participating in digital mass and finding new ways to connect with people in her ministry. 

“I’m just involved differently,” Whapham said. “As [COVID-19] has developed and it’s become more of a long-term thing in our society, the ability to adapt and keep going has been crucial to how I maintain my mental health.” 

Taylor Dancer, a senior who is spiritual and a Buddhist, is accustomed to individual devotion as her practices usually involve meditation, independent reading and self-reflection. She also misses the contact with other people as she feels it’s more fun to do things as a group. 

“Before [COVID-19] broke out, I hung out with friends who had the same kind of beliefs as I did,” Dancer said. “We’d get together, and we’d talk. It’s been really sad to not be able to do that within the last seven months or so. It was a lot more fun back then.”

In these times, students of all faiths are looking to retain the sense of community and purpose provided by religion.

Ben Flox, the director of student Jewish life at Hillel, has focused on how to foster a community that provides a unique experience for Jewish students on campus. Aside from utilizing social media, live streaming and pushing out asynchronous content, Hillel has been asking students what they are looking for. 

“We understand that there are people scattered across the country, and everyone is trying to balance everything on Zoom and video-chat,” Flox said. “We want to offer and provide our students with something that can’t be found somewhere else.” 

Garforth pointed out that the in-person events at Hillel have been the most successful. For example, Hillel had “food handouts” for the High Holidays where the students could pick up a quick meal on their way home. 

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“Just having that 30 seconds of in-person interaction and being like, ‘Hi, this is your meal, we’re Hillel, and we care about you,’ I think that’s big,” Garforth said.

Whapham, who used to go to mass every Sunday and participated in her church’s choir, has been spending quality time outside. 

“Going outside for a nature walk and being very thoughtful of where I’m at this week has been very effective in developing my religious identity,” Whapham said. 

Dancer also found connecting with nature a relaxing and calming activity to practice her faith. 

“Nature is a big part of spiritualism for me,” Dancer said. “I would spend eight hours a day sitting outside. It was a way I could control a time I felt that everything was out of my control.”

Dancer is also the president of Multifaith Engagement for Transformative Action (META) Collective. The student organization promotes an accepting space for students to learn about other religions and faiths. She wants to continue the efforts of the previous president by having meetings with thoughtful questions and topics that everyone from every religion can participate in. 

She joined the organization her sophomore year because she wanted to learn more about other faiths and religions that are different from her own. 

“I want [the members] to know that this is a space where you can ask questions, you can talk about anything and be completely assured that you’re not going to be judged,” Dancer said. 

Whapham is the vice president of the META Collective and has been a part of it since her freshman year. She also mentioned that the organization does a great job in helping her connect with her faith while sharing her knowledge of it with other students. 

“Every week, we talk about religious ideas and bring all of our different religions and spiritual places together into this beautiful conversation,” Whapham said. “That has helped me grow a lot as a human within a religious context.”

Garforth expressed how it is hard to feel a sense of belonging and community when these events are all remote. Even Flox mentioned that the biggest challenge for the organization was how to avoid “Zoom fatigue.” 

“That’s something that I’ve been wanting to focus on,” Garforth said. “We have students that are really interested and have this motivation to be a part of the Jewish community, but we’re all over Zoom, and it’s hard to create that atmosphere.” 

Dancer mentioned that she still meditates when she can, cleanses her crystals and tries to get as much advice from people as possible. 

“Over the summer, I spent a lot of time in Yellow Springs,” Dancer said. “I got advice from people who are more in-depth to Buddhism than I am. It wasn’t much, but I wanted to do at least something.”

Whapham expressed how she is focused on learning how to adapt to a new way of living. 

“Individually, it’s been a learning process,” Whapham said. “Being outside more, talking to my friends and family and connecting to people stems from spirituality and can all be brought back.”

Garforth said that she has a mezuzah on her door, she’s participated in social-distancing Shabbats outside of Hillel, sometimes lights Shabbat candles and finds meaningful ways to connect to her faith and other people within her faith.

“Reaching out to the community that you do have makes all the difference, especially if you’re not feeling very connected in this COVID reality,” Garforth said. 

Both Flox and Garforth expressed that religion and faith is congregational but also independent. There’s different ways people practice, and it’s all accepted. 

“There really isn’t a right way or a wrong way to practice, it’s really up to each individual person and what they want to do,” Flox said. “I always encourage people to do a little bit of their own research and find what’s right for them.” 

Whapham added that religion is a community for her, but at the moment, she’s just trying to live her life to the fullest in a way that is meaningful and purposeful for her. 

“The capacity of living everyday with purpose goes back to my faith,” Whapham said. “And with that, I feel stronger.”