By Grace George
Praying alone in the prayer room of Masjid Muhammad, Imam Talib Shareef was surprised to see members of his community peeking in through the mosque’s open doors. They were praying outside.
“They want to be close by where the mosque is [because] mosque is dedicated to prayer,” Shareef said in an interview. “They’ll pray on the grounds, in the parking lot, on the steps. Anywhere they can, they put prayer rugs out and they pray.”
In Islamic law, Muslims are required to come together in prayer, Shareef said. On this one occasion, he allowed the group of about 25 people inside for a spontaneous in-person prayer session.
“They were so excited to hear each other’s voices,” Shareef said. “It was just really warming and encouraging.”
For many religious traditions, community is essential. Restrictions on gathering in large groups and health risks due to the COVID-19 pandemic have presented the District’s faith communities with challenges to ritual and celebration.
“For Catholic belief, you’re not actually receiving our Lord in his body and blood [in virtual mass],” said St. Ann Catholic Church Monsignor James Watkins in an interview. “So, for the Catholic, that’s a tremendous void that can’t be filled in the same way virtually through live streaming.”
St. Ann Catholic Church partially reopened in June, allowing a maximum of 100 people inside. That is the number of people they can accommodate in the sanctuary while maintaining proper social distancing, Watkins said.
According to the most up-to-date information on The District’s reopening guidelines, gatherings of over 50 people are prohibited in D.C., with no exemptions for religious gatherings. While their 100-person maximum is higher than the District’s guidelines allow, St. Ann Catholic Church has yet to exceed either limit at their weekend or weekday masses, Watkins said.
Despite D.C.’s partial reopening, there are still discrepancies in opinion on when and how to reopen places of worship. David Lindsey, Executive Director of the Interfaith Council of Metropolitan Washington, said that some faith communities are more adamant about meeting in person than others.
“There is no universally accepted wisdom about when and how our faith communities can gather in person or when they really need to be gathering remotely,” Lindsey said in an interview.
The Interfaith Council of Metropolitan Washington is a local organization connected with about 2,000 houses of worship in and around D.C., with a mission to promote religious pluralism.
Holidays present religious leaders with another dilemma. Watkins is planning to cancel in-person Christmas Eve celebrations and hold the event strictly online to avoid turning away churchgoers.
“That would be very, very difficult for me—and difficult for them—if we had to turn [away] someone who made the extra effort to come and now is told, ‘I’m sorry, the District says we can’t allow you in,’” Watkins said.
For Christmas Eve, St. Ann Catholic Church would typically be visited by around 800 churchgoers, Watkins said.
Shareef has also had to plan holy day celebrations during the pandemic. Masjid Muhammad celebrated Eid al-Fitr in May and Eid al-Adha in July with a parade, during which they handed out meals and gifts to community members driving by.
“A lot of normal [non-Muslim] people who come down the street in front of the Masjid would stop and have some conversation, and we gave them a meal and let them pick out a gift,” Shareef said. “They enjoyed it. It was unexpected, but it worked out wonderfully.”
Sixth & I Synagogue, a non-traditional, non-membership historic synagogue and cultural arts center, held online events for Jewish holy days Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
“There’s kind of an incredible amount of isolation, loneliness [and] loss that people have been feeling that makes us feel that the programming we’re doing is important now more than ever,” Michelle Eider, Sixth & I communications manager, said in an interview.
Since the pandemic started, Sixth & I Synagogue has offered online religious programming as well as cultural events with guest speakers such as Jonathan Van Ness and Andrew Yang. Familiar faces tend to log on to their services, and the community appears to enjoy the online gatherings, Eider said.
“Of course, while it’s not the same as what it was, I think that our community has adapted, we have adapted,” Eider said. “[We’re] certainly doing the best that we can with the situation that we’re in to help people feel connected during this time.”
Masjid Muhammad is planning to reopen on Nov. 1 with strict rules regarding masks, social distancing and sanitization. Shareef said he will be monitoring COVID-19 cases in D.C. and cancelling the mosque’s reopening, if necessary.
Sixth & I Synagogue has yet to set a reopening date, but Eider has considered how the pandemic will change future crowd sizes.
“It’s just hard to say what that’s going to look like and what the timeline is for that,” Eider said. “I think what is normal for us in the future might not necessarily mirror kind of the 800 person gatherings that we used to have before.”
The Interfaith Council of Metropolitan Washington is not advising religious communities on whether to reopen or remain closed. Lindsey said he has been speaking with faith leaders about their grievances and concerns regarding reopening and livestreaming services.
“What I hear from folks is a kind of depressed acceptance of having to do everything virtual,” he said.
However, the worries in these communities appear to be pragmatic, rather than spiritual, Lindsey said.
“While there’s a kind of sadness about it, nobody has said to me, ‘Our faith is collapsing,’” Lindsey said. “What I think is going on is more practical matters for how we’re going to get through this.”