Religion at Lafayette: How students continue to worship and celebrate amidst a pandemic

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The college’s Newman Association has been meeting at Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Easton. (Photo courtesy of Molly Dougher ’22)

For many of the religious organizations on campus, religious practice looks different this semester than ever before. And with multiple religious holidays just around the corner, many of these organizations have been planning carefully to ensure that their practices fit within the bounds of COVID-19 guidelines set by the college while still maintaining a vital sense of community.

Director of Religious and Spiritual Life and College Chaplain Alexandra Hendrickson has been working to navigate religious practices on campus in a safe manner this semester. She is currently in the process of incorporating in-person religious events to the agenda, given that they follow college policies.

Earlier this week, Hendrickson held a meeting with Director of Student Involvement Vanessa Pearson to discuss the topic of safe gatherings in religious groups.

Most events so far this semester have been held virtually, although Hendrickson maintained that online events are not designed to be replacements for being in-person.

“Students have been very willing to participate in virtual gatherings because they are committed to their faith and to the fellowship that is cultivated among people of faith,” Hendrickson wrote in an email.

The Hillel Society has had to put thoughtful consideration into their plans to observe Passover on campus this semester. The holiday, which is typically celebrated through a ceremonial dinner gathering called Seder, will now be held on Zoom. The board has been developing ways to replicate the intimacy of a normal event through a virtual setting.

“We’re hoping to do a larger Seder with everyone on Zoom that will be about 45 minutes and then transition into smaller breakout rooms so people can get the smaller scale socialization that is harder to get online,” said Hillel President Hayden Fisher ’22.

Dining services are going to supply kosher foods for the entirety of the holiday. 

Currently, the society has received word from about 60 people who are interested in attending the virtual event. However, they are expecting a decrease in attendance this year. 

“I think with a lot of people’s families trying to do Zoom Seders this year, we are going to see a reduction in attendance, especially from people that would be attending Hillel events, only because that option is now available,” Fisher said.

Besides Passover, the Hillel Society has been holding weekly Shabbat services on Zoom with breakout rooms open after. Fisher noted the importance of these consistent meetings as a way to keep in touch with the community and involve new members. 

“I think that these Shabbat services and this weekly consistency of having events has been really helpful for us in terms of getting engagement from freshmen and also sophomores who weren’t on campus for a whole lot of time last year,” she said.

The society recently held a Bagel Brunch, their first in-person event of the semester. Though it took a lot of careful preparation and an approved mitigation plan to establish safety measures, the event was successful in providing over 130 bagels to people on campus through designated pick-up slots and raising money for the Jews of Color Initiative

Fisher added that “it was nice to be able to have that outreach again in a way that we haven’t necessarily had a chance to have this past semester with it being really online.”

The society plans to hold another Bagel Brunch in the beginning of May. Until then, they will continue with their weekly Zoom calls.

The college’s Newman Association, a student-run Catholic organization, has had a similar approach to celebrating Lent and planning for Easter early next month. They have been holding discussions on holding Lent services, known as Stations of the Cross, through Zoom, but are hoping to have them on the quad provided COVID-19 guidelines permit.

While in a typical year many students would be spending Easter at home, the association is hoping to hold Easter Sunday Mass in person. A weekly Mass is currently held by Father Kevin Bobbin at Our Lady of Mercy located in the town of Easton, but Newman members are hoping to transition to Colton Chapel. 

“Once we have an approved mitigation plan, we should be able to have Mass at Colton Chapel again,” said Newman Association Vice President Molly Dougher ’22. “We’re hoping Mass will be more accessible to more people once we have it in there.”

In addition to weekly Mass, the association holds Zoom calls on Tuesday evenings in lieu of their usual in-person meetings. However, Dougher said that virtual events do not have the same community feel as being in person. 

“I think having the meetings on Zoom definitely decreases the amount of community we can foster,” Dougher said. “Me, along with the rest of the board, we do our best to engage everyone on the call, but it’s definitely not the same as Tuesday evening in Grossman Library. We’re doing the best to replace that, but it’s definitely not the same.”

Other religious organizations on campus such as the Muslim Student Association (MSA) have been in the process of developing their practices around Covid guidelines. With Ramadan starting in mid-April, the association is currently working to ensure that the community of Muslim students on campus have the resources they need to celebrate. 

“This year with COVID, [celebrating Ramadan together] is going to be a challenge,” President Marjana Tafader ’22 wrote in an email. “So, we are still in the process of figuring out how to still celebrate our holidays while socially distancing and still feeling a sense of community.”

In the meantime, the association has been using their social media to educate people on the importance of uplifting the Muslim community and the historical significance of Muslim holidays. 

Though practicing religion looks differently this semester, the college’s religious community continues to uplift one another through these turbulent and unfamiliar times. 

“Students in these organizations feel strongly about supporting their friends. Praying for one another, checking in on each other…These are things they did regularly before the pandemic and this past year has strengthened their resolve,” Hendrickson wrote. “This has been a challenging time for so many of us and I feel grateful for the ways our community cares for each other.”