Identity Abiding Faith

Religious invocations render aid and comfort amid crisis

With public worship curtailed, personal devotions strengthen believers’ faith in the power of prayer to help them through these anxious times. ‘I’ve seen people’s spiritual lives deepen’ during the pandemic, noted one high-profile Christian author.

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Thirty-five percent of Americans say the pandemic carries one or more lessons from God. Thirty-seven percent say lessons were not sent by God. Source: Pew Research Center survey conducted in July 2020

With every patient he treats, Dr. Heval Kelli follows one guiding principle beyond his Hippocratic oath as a physician:

Whoever saves (a life), it will be as if they saved all of humanity.” – Quran 5:32

A devout Muslim and cardiologist in suburban Atlanta, Kelli leans heavily on his faith, medical training and experience. That attitude, he said, has helped guide him through the choppy waters of the Covid-19 pandemic, both as a doctor and a worshiper of God.

“I have to balance the science with the spiritual,” Kelli said. “There’s always a level of a higher power (in medicine), but especially now because of the unclear science (of the virus). It makes us realize there’s so much we don’t know.”

For many people of faith, prayer has been radically reshaped. Before the recent lifting of face-covering and social-distancing restrictions, in-person worship and devotion had, in most places, been curtailed or canceled for months, forcing congregations to gather through video services. Communities lacking such technology were shuttered. 

Despite the dearth of opportunities for communal prayer, some adherents to the world’s three main monotheistic religions – Christianity, Islam and Judaism – maintained or ramped up the intensity of their devotion and petitions. Kelli and other believers call it a “do-it-yourself” approach.

“(Through prayer) I found the courage and strength to keep going,” says Dr. Heval Kelli. “That’s what I pray for. It’s been a tough year.” (Photo courtesy of Northside Hospital)

Liturgical churches in the Christian tradition, including Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and the numerous Lutheran and Anglican/Episcopal expressions of faith, made their prayer and worship rites available on the internet, in text and streaming formats. Many Protestant churches have done likewise. Similar resources exist for Islamic and Jewish believers, too.

A recent Google search of “pandemic prayers” yielded millions of results. One such resource, “20 Prayers to Pray During This Pandemic,” was written early in the crisis by Christian author Jen Pollock Michel. Her March 18, 2020, post on christianitytoday.com includes petitions not only for healing but for those facing economic hardship, frontline health care workers, and elected officials charged with allocating, testing and treatment of medical resources.

Michel said she conceived the list in response to feeling powerless in the face of the developing crisis. “Initially, it felt like a real time of uncertainty,” she said. “But, I thought, at least I can pray. I was imagining that it was something that we could do as a family.”

Michel consulted physicians in her religious community while compiling the list. Another physician, a nonbeliever, became a chief object of her prayers because of his role on the frontlines treating patients in a trauma center of a local hospital. So far, she said, that physician has avoided the virus.

“Prayer has become a much more regular practice of recognizing my dependence on God,” said Michel, a Presbyterian. “I’ve seen people’s spiritual lives deepen.”

Kelli, the cardiologist, can relate. Because his mosque had been closed and traditional Friday prayer services canceled, he put the onus on himself to maintain his prayer practice. “I try to pray as much as I can,” he said. “I say my morning prayers every day, and catch up with other prayers throughout the day.”

Despite its numerous detriments, Kelli said the pandemic has enhanced his faith. “Covid-19 has brought me closer to God. My faith brings me humility,” he said. “Being a spiritual person brings me closer to humanity.

“(Through prayer) I found the courage and strength to keep going. That’s what I pray for. It’s been a tough year.”

Although Arnetta Kimball of Halstead, Kan., has missed in-person church services, she has found her individual devotions fulfilling and effective. (Photo courtesy of Kimball)

Zalman Tiechtel, a rabbi who serves as director of the Chabad Center for Jewish Life at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, said while the pandemic curtailed one of the two vital aspects of Jewish prayer – the communal component – increased emphasis on the other, individual devotion, has been positive.

“When you’re forced to spend more time by yourself (in prayer),” said Tiechtel. “you become more reflective. You don’t do less. You do different.”

Tiechtel said his congregation once gathered three times daily – morning, afternoon and evening – for communal prayer, with 100 to 150 participants. Even though that schedule has resumed, attendance is lower because of concerns about continuing health risks. “It’s not the way it was,” he said.

But Tiechtel spoke enthusiastically about the effectiveness of prayer during the pandemic. “(Our prayers) are being answered with a light at the end of the tunnel, with an incredible blessing,” he said. “The blessing of a vaccine, the blessing of people recovering. Thanks be to God.”

In rural central Kansas, Arnetta Kimball offered a similar account. A devout Methodist who lives in Halstead, Kimball said while she has dearly missed “that bigger, larger feeling” of prayer and worship with a congregation, she has found her individual devotions both fulfilling and effective.

As a semi-retired addictions counselor, Kimball said the “12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous” and other recovery guidelines have long played an integral part in her devotional practice. 

Like Kelli, Michel and Tiechtel, Kimball is certain her pandemic prayers are being heard. “I’ve got to just put myself out there,” she said. “I have to be where God can find me. I hope to have a prayer life whether the pandemic continues or not.”

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Laird MacGregor

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Episode Abiding Faith