Adaptation and Action at the Grassroots: Religious and Interfaith Responses to COVID-19 and Structural Racism in the U.S. (2021)

This report offers a glimpse of religious and interfaith responses to COVID-19 and structural racism in Greater Boston and beyond.

The following report was written and last updated in 2021.

Abstract: In the summer of 2020, eleven Pluralism Project Research Associates conducted research on their surrounding religious and interfaith landscapes, paying special attention to the ways in which communities were responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and participating in the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Five of these researchers were based in Greater Boston and focused on both religious and interfaith organizations. The remaining six were scattered across the country and focused their research on interfaith organizations in their respective regions. This report draws on their combined efforts and seeks to provide a sampling of examples of these organizations’ activities to highlight prominent trends. Because research subjects were determined by the researchers’ locations, the following report should be read as a representative—but not a comprehensive—account of how religious and interfaith groups in the United States navigated the difficulties of 2020. Other faith-based responses and services, such as chaplaincy, are not included here but played important roles in both the health and race-related emergencies that arose. [1

Introduction

The year 2020 will long be remembered for its large-scale challenges, from the health and financial crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, to a series of widely covered incidents of anti-Black racism in the United States and the ensuing global uprising. Religious and interfaith organizations throughout the nation responded. Recognizing the deeply connected nature of these crises, they made logistical adaptations to operate safely and actively respond to newly heightened stakes of long-standing problems. Relying on existing networks of resources, or sometimes even creating new ones from scratch, grassroots organizations mobilized to provide for immediate needs, conduct political organizing to encourage legislation in defense of the marginalized and vulnerable, and offer educational programs to enact lasting change.

Adapting Operations

In March 2020, when schools and businesses began to close, most religious and interfaith organizations followed suit. With the closure of physical facilities, services were forced to move online. This was a first for some groups, and members were left waiting while leaders scrambled to make the necessary technological arrangements. Many will remember the joy of reconvening for the first time with their communities, albeit in a new way. Sikh Sangat Society Boston’s first Facebook Live broadcasts, for example, were warmly received with hundreds of views and comments—one grateful participant writing, “This is worth appreciation, we are missing kirtan so much.” Likewise, the Boston-area Center for Traditional Taoist Studies transitioned their meditations and trainings to digital platforms. Master Richard Percuoco expressed a sentiment common among smaller-scale organizations, pointing out that the public health crisis gave them the push they needed to truly invest in a digital presence. [2] After the shutdown, the center worked tirelessly to revamp their website and rethink how to present their teachings in an online format. Among the results were an online seminar and a podcast series. The logistical modifications undertaken by organizations across the country are a testament to the vitality and necessity of religious and interfaith sectors in the United States—and many of these communities’ operations will be forever changed.

Despite all that these efforts managed to achieve, communities still grieved over not being able to gather together in person. The sense of loss from going without regular services was only magnified on annual holy days, when celebrations were forced to be scaled down, altogether canceled, or made virtual. Congregations were also deprived of community-specific festivities: the Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for example, was forced to cancel its annual festival in June. Because the church typically depends on the funds raised at this event to maintain its fiscal budget for the year, the community had to rely more heavily on support from individual parishioners in a time when many were struggling to make ends meet. [3]

During times when local public health officials approved limited gatherings, organizations reopened their locations for services and worship with new protocols. At essential locations like food pantries, measures were taken for social distancing. At places of worship, new rules were implemented, including wearing masks, limiting the number of attendees, and sometimes permitting visits by appointment only or holding services outdoors. Some tradition-specific modifications to ritual were also made, like prohibiting prostration, and refraining from distributing prasadam or communion. Braj Mandir, a Hindu temple in Holbrook, Massachusetts, was uniquely equipped to adapt to these needs: housed in a renovated Friendly’s restaurant, they began using their building’s ice cream pick-up window to distribute takeout prasadam. They also set up their murtis in large windows facing the parking lot to facilitate drive-in darshan. 

Filling Needs

Beyond overhauling their basic operations, religious and interfaith organizations also turned outward to care for their communities’ immediate needs. As people across the globe suffered from the economic downturn caused by the pandemic, existing mutual aid networks found their services in higher demand than ever. Montana’s Missoula Interfaith Collaborative development director Rebecca Petit noted that this increase in need was, of course, accompanied by increased difficulty in providing it. Her organization navigated the challenges of working remotely to continue to provide their community with access to food, short-term shelter, and help in locating employment and affordable housing. [4] The Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association in Memphis, Tennessee, was able to continue its Meals on Wheels program for vulnerable seniors and families by adjusting the content and frequency of its deliveries. The Jain Center of Greater Boston raised money for their local community members—Jains and non-Jains alike—by donating to a local food pantry and supporting organizations making masks for healthcare workers. Rising to the challenge even in “these tough times,” their president Haresh Tamboli wrote, “brought our community together.” The Islamic Society of Boston University, aware of the local effects of the economic shutdown, shared a list of halal restaurants to encourage patronage at Muslim-owned businesses. Groups were also mindful of the global impact of the pandemic and extended aid internationally. One of these, the Zoroastrian Association of Greater Boston Area, promoted a fundraiser for the relief of their community members in India.

A similar responsiveness was demonstrated as cities experienced unrest in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others. In Minnesota’s Twin Cities, where George Floyd was killed in police custody, mutual aid and interfaith networks with years of collaboration behind them organized volunteers to help in the aftermath of the resulting uprisings. They cleaned the streets of debris and provided food and necessities to neighborhoods where grocery stores were closed. Demonstrations took place far from the incidents, too. In Texas, where nearly one thousand protesters were arrested across the state’s four largest cities, Faith in Texas’s bail fund, which was already in operation before the protests, was widely circulated in an effort to offset the inequities of the money bail system. Across the country, the immediate needs created by the uprisings were met by an increase in community engagement. [5]

Interfaith leaders also made significant contributions in the distribution and gathering of essential information. In Utah, faith leaders came together in a video message asking Utahns to comply with health regulations to control the spread of COVID-19. In the Washington, DC area, organizations like Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement called for volunteers to research COVID-related legislation and to participate in one-on-one listening campaigns to assess needs, hear stories, and determine how best to assist their community. They also compiled a list of ways to help. Another organization, DC Jobs with Justice, shared essential “Know Your Rights” information in English and Spanish about pandemic-specific employment and housing policies.

For many, a lost sense of security on top of the disappearance of basic routines led to a rise in spiritual demands, and faith communities were first responders. Countless prayers were offered up by religious leaders and practitioners, pleading for divine aid in pandemic relief efforts. Among those, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints designated worldwide days of fasting and prayer for the “pandemic [to] be controlled, caregivers protected, the economy strengthened, and life normalized.” In the Afro-Cuban Regla de Ocha-Ifá community, Emilio Hernández González of the Compañía Raíces Profundas shared a Facebook challenge encouraging people to post a video dancing the Orisha Yemayá--a dance that invokes the universal mother for healing. [6] Additionally, local organizations evaluated their communities’ spiritual needs. The Greater Boston Zen Center established a Sangha Care and Connection Initiative as a means of offering support and encouraging community-building during the pandemic. The initiative included pastoral assistance, support groups for the sick and their caregivers, virtual social gatherings or sits, and, importantly in a year when mortality rates spiked, memorial services for the dead.

When the social discourse in the country turned to racial injustice, many spiritual leaders drew on their beliefs and values to foster compassion and solidarity. The Brookline, Massachusetts Baháʼí community issued a call for unity in a local newspaper, rooted in their teachings on the oneness of humanity, the significance of the suffering of one, and the resulting shared responsibility for ensuring justice. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness, drew on teachings from the Bhagavad Gita to determine that speaking out against systemic racism in America was “the spiritually necessary thing to do.” Religious communities also sought to cultivate healing for those most impacted by racism. The Black church has long been a refuge of Black solidarity amid racial violence and oppression. Kìire Wellness, a New York City-based organization which draws on practices from African spiritualities with lineages of healing, offers Orisha prayer, song, dance, and breathing practices “to repair spiritual, emotional, and physical injuries caused by intergenerational anxiety, trauma and #AmericanSlaveCulture.” These and other communities and practices form a vital safety net in times of both publicized and private encounters with racism.

Changing Policy

Throughout the year, faith and interfaith groups were instrumental in organizing protests and in coordinating with governing officials to achieve adequate aid and necessary policy changes. In early April, the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) sent a letter to the governor on behalf of 74 member and ally institutions, offering assistance in responding to COVID-19 and bringing attention to three pressing issues: access to affordable healthcare, mortgage deferral and rent assistance, and safety for those in the criminal justice system. In partnership with Faith in Action, Massachusetts Communities Action Network called on governors in the region to introduce a racial equity lens in their COVID-19 response and reopening plans. GBIO and many of its affiliates also met with the governor’s Reopening Advisory Board in May to discuss religious institutions’ reopening plan.

In addition to direct coordination with government officials, many faith communities supported the BLM protests that surged in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May. The Cornucopia Collective, a Boston-area Pagan group, was one of many organizations to post on social media in support. Tapping into an existing infrastructure built up over years of effort to combat violence and state surveillance, Boston’s Muslim community encouraged Muslims and non-Muslims alike to protest anti-Black racism, state-sponsored injustice, and police brutality, and to push for legislative and political change. In Texas, leading up to the Dallas County budget approval deadline and the presidential election, Faith in Texas launched a Road to Liberation campaign to recruit religious congregations in Dallas to challenge white supremacy by promoting the “redirecting [of] significant funds from policing and incarceration to create new housing and job opportunities, especially for people who have been incarcerated.” In Kentucky, Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together continued their anti-racism work in the wake of the killing of one of their own community members, Breonna Taylor. They released a statement expressing their heartbreak and grief over the incident, highlighting their history in proactively fighting systemic racism, admonishing the police department and city officials on their failures, and calling on others in the faith community to join them in their efforts. The group’s social media accounts also featured progress of its work with city officials, such as a survey with metro council candidates on their plans for addressing community problems in Louisville.

For these organizations and communities and many others across the country, fighting injustice, responding to crises, and working towards a just future is not new; it is the reason for their existence. 

Shifting Ideas

Many organizations took on the work of introspection and internal change before extending that focus to their broader communities through educational outreach. Missoula Interfaith Collaborative started including trainings about white supremacy, covert racism, and principles of anti-racism for staff and volunteers. [7] Similarly, in Massachusetts, Cambridge Insight Meditation Center’s leadership took part in working groups to examine how white supremacy culture shows up in their sangha. [8] These reflective efforts were also exemplified by faith communities reckoning with their need for more inclusivity towards people of color. JewishBoston published articles, podcasts, and other resources for Jews looking to educate themselves and take action. Affinity groups such as Jews of Color of Greater Boston also unified behind the movement.

In addition to reforming their own communities, much of the programming sought to prepare individuals to be advocates of anti-racism in society at large. One of Boston’s Humanist groups, Kahal B’raira, held an online parents’ meet-up about raising anti-racist children. Unitarian Universalist (UU) churches used their systems of community education to advocate for racial justice. First Parish of Arlington hosted events to roleplay conversations about race for white people, and to discuss microaggressions and white supremacy culture. On a broader scale, the UU Church of the Larger Fellowship hosted a webinar with Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism to promote anti-racist education. Many UU parishes in the Boston area had plentiful responses and forms of involvement in the BLM movement prior to 2020, such as Melrose Unitarian Universalist Church’s Anti-Racism Ministry Team. These parishes demonstrate the value of having antiracist education and action systems in place before new crises emerge.

Looking Ahead

The challenges of 2020 confirm that religious and interfaith organizations have performed—and will continue to perform—an important role in American society. Although leaders and contributing members of these communities proved capable of providing essential services—material, spiritual, and political—even in the most difficult of circumstances, some major questions remain for the future. For example, in light of the increased level of burden on these groups, how sustainable are their efforts? How will legislative bodies respond to the advocacy work of these organizations to address the underlying inequalities that make their services so vital? How will the personnel behind these operations manage and recuperate from the fatigue that inevitably accompanies the intensity of a year like 2020? Additionally, how will non-profit organizations, who already work hard to fund their work, secure the resources they need in the face of the most severe economic depression in modern history? These and other concerns must be addressed for the country’s grassroots emergency response networks to survive and remain available for future needs.

 

 

[1] This report was compiled by Emily Farnsworth, based on the field research of Pluralism Project Summer 2020 Research Associates, including: Khadija Ali Amghaiab, Emily Farnsworth, Kate Hoeting, Nadia Milad Issa, Ethan Levin, Laura Mucha, Jimmy O’Leary, Elizabeth Poulos, Bilal Rehman, Virginia Schilder, and Meredith Stolte.

[2] Interview with Master Richard Percuoco by Elizabeth Poulos, August 12, 2020. 

[3] Interview with Father Vassilios Brebis by Elizabeth Poulos, August 4, 2020.

[4] Interview with Rebecca Petit by Meredith Stolte, Summer 2020.

[5] Interview with Rabbi Max Davis by Ethan Levin, July 15, 2020.

[6] Interview with Emilio Hernández González by Nadia Milad Issa, published as, “‘La misión era sólo rogar por una sanación para el planeta’: Social Media and Reparative Mobilizations in Regla de Ocha-Ifá during COVID- 19: An Interview Series With Emilio Hernández González, Frank Bell, and Oludaré,” in The Graduate Journal of Harvard Divinity School (Spring 2020), 19-20, https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/files/hdsjournal/files/hds_grad_journal_....

[7] Interview with Rebecca Petit by Meredith Stolte, Summer 2020.

[8] Interview with Christine Eaton by Jimmy O’Leary, August 5, 2020