Campus religious groups adapt to COVID changes

Campus Ministries at the College of William and Mary allows for religious groups to collaborate. Jamie Holt / The Flat Hat

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted student life in ways that few could have anticipated since the College of William and Mary first converted to a virtual format over a year ago. Like all student and community groups, campus religious organizations have been challenged by the new circumstances of the pandemic. The Flat Hat reached out to every campus ministry listed on the College’s directory to ask how their organization is continuing its work in the age of COVID-19. Of the 15 organizations listed, five responded by the time of publication: the Canterbury Association of The Episcopal Church, the Christian Science Organization, Hillel, the Lutheran Student Association and Ukirk Presbyterian Church USA.

Both students and clergy in all five ministries broadly described their communities and organizations as able to successfully adapt to the new demands of social distancing and other pandemic-related restrictions. Fr. Charlie Bauer ’08 of the Canterbury Association described the transition to virtual worship as a necessary step that created new possibilities of connecting members with each other.

“We’ve changed in some obvious ways – we have moved nearly all aspects of our life together online,” Bauer wrote in an email. “With only a few exceptions over this past academic year in following with W&M guidelines, we have worshipped on Zoom. But this has led to some positive developments. Where once our campus ministry was almost entirely bound by the academic calendar, we have continued to gather for worship and fun at least once a week, even over the summer and winter breaks. We never thought to do that before, but since we’re already on Zoom, we might as well not stop!”

Courtney Grossman ’24, Hillel public relations chair, also described a mostly smooth shift from in-person to virtual activities.

“The biggest challenge in continuing in my role as Hillel PR Chair during COVID-19 is connecting the Hillel members to our virtual events,” Grossman wrote in an email. “We have adapted relatively well, providing options for both virtual and on-campus students; however, it is hard to create a personal connection for all the members when interactions happen over the computer screen. Regardless, COVID-19 has allowed us as an organization to find innovative ways to connect our members: socially distanced picnics, virtual and small in-person Shabbat services, and other social events.”

Hunter Phillips ’22, junior warden of the Canterbury Association, said that one of the aspects of pre-pandemic life he misses most is the simple ritual comforts of in-person weekly worship.

“I know personally I am someone who was attracted to the Episcopalian/Anglican tradition for its liturgical rhythm,” Phillips wrote in an email. “We experience practically the same Eucharist service every week and our worship life is very cyclical. As someone who appreciates and loves that rhythm because it helps me feel grounded, the pandemic came as a blow to my faith initially. However, as I came to experience new ways of worship, and I came to really appreciate the church as a spiritual community rather than a physical one as a result of not being able to worship in person in a physical church, I learned to lean into the weirdness.”

Rachel Hébert, associate pastor of Community Care at Williamsburg Presbyterian Church, said the best way to maintain personal connections has been to find innovative ways to discuss the challenges associated with the pandemic in students’ own lives.

“We started to use music in a creative way to help maintain connection,” Hébert wrote in an email. “On some Wednesday nights, students were asked to bring a song with them — a song of hope, a song that describes where they are in the present moment, a song they listen to when the world is overwhelming, etc. We would then listen to each other’s songs and students would create a Spotify playlist for others to listen to and allow for group contribution. I think the students have at least 6-8 playlists now that have been created over the past year!”

“We started to use music in a creative way to help maintain connection,” Hébert wrote in an email. “On some Wednesday nights, students were asked to bring a song with them — a song of hope, a song that describes where they are in the present moment, a song they listen to when the world is overwhelming, etc. We would then listen to each other’s songs and students would create a Spotify playlist for others to listen to and allow for group contribution. I think the students have at least 6-8 playlists now that have been created over the past year!”

Students also described growing in their personal faith over the past year, despite the changes and chaos caused by COVID-19. Jordan Strong ’22, president of the Christian Science Organization, said that difficult times can make balancing a healthy spiritual life with the demands of day-to-day activities a challenge, but that his faith provides him with a welcome constant in a changing world.

“I know that God’s love does not ever vary, even if churches can’t meet in person, even if friends can’t be within six feet of each other, even if services have to look different, etc.,” Strong wrote in an email.

Rebecca Wagner ’23, president of the Lutheran Student Association, said that she is proud of the work LSA has done over the past months and the important role it plays in its members’ lives.

“For me, a large part of faith is tied to a strong, welcoming, and supportive community, Wagner wrote in an email. “Seeing LSA grow and flourish despite the challenges we faced this semester only proves that our faith can carry us through times like these, especially when it manifests in the friendships we hold so closely. I personally have been extraordinarily grateful for our little ministry this semester, I don’t know if I would have made it through without them.”

“For me, a large part of faith is tied to a strong, welcoming, and supportive community, Wagner wrote in an email. “Seeing LSA grow and flourish despite the challenges we faced this semester only proves that our faith can carry us through times like these, especially when it manifests in the friendships we hold so closely. I personally have been extraordinarily grateful for our little ministry this semester, I don’t know if I would have made it through without them.”

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