April 14, 2020

Faith Communities Persist in Era of Virtual Connection

While the COVID-19 pandemic has forced members of the Georgetown community into social distancing around the world, members of Georgetown University’s unique faith communities have been able to maintain their spiritual practices from around the globe. For students particularly thrown into uncertainty and chaos by the transition to remote learning, these communities serve as a vital support system in an otherwise difficult time.

Palm Sunday Mass is streamed live on Facebook from Dahlgren Chapel.
Palm Sunday Mass is streamed live on Facebook from Dahlgren Chapel.

Discovering e-Meditation

Brahmachari Sharan, who serves as the Director for Dharmic Life and Hindu Spiritual Advisor as well as an adjunct professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, has sought to find ways to create meaningful spiritual encounters in an online forum. 

“Dharmic traditions are rooted in the personal connection between seekers and guides, so it has been an interesting experiment to envisage that digitally. Creating an online classroom is a specific type of endeavour, but to fashion an online spiritual community that retains the integrity of true depth is a completely different task with the limitations of technology,” Sharan shared. 

To embark on this endeavor, Sharan has continued to offer spiritual resources to students from his home in London through digital spiritual direction appointments, online office hours, weekly e-Satsangas (devotional practice), and weekly guided e-Meditation sessions. Students also have the option to participate in an online discussion group called Decoding Dharma that meets every Tuesday evening in a continuation of the semester’s in-person discussion groups that “digest with vibrancy the hot topics of the day.” 

Sonia Gupta (SFS’20) has enjoyed discovering the ways in which these practices translate to the digital realm, and has found these resources to be reassuring during this time of uncertainty. 

“Meditation is a really important part of Hindu and Buddhist traditions, so it’s been really cool to explore the different forms meditation can take now that we’re no longer in a group setting,” Gupta shared. “Overall, it was just really nice to receive those resources from this person we all look up to and trust.”

Sharan admitted that there are certain aspects of the Dharmic traditions that do not lend themselves to the online environment. 

“Although I am glad that the online platforms exist and we can continue our work with students digitally, I look forward to the day when we can all say ‘Namaste’ to each other in person on the Hilltop again - and then wash our hands,” he said.

Regardless, students continue to appreciate the online offerings. “It’s been a really valuable resource and I’m grateful for how these faith leaders and members of the community just continue to show up even when it’s difficult to,” Gupta noted.

Imam Yahya Hendi, a Muslim chaplain at Georgetown, leads Friday prayer service via YouTube Livestream.
Imam Yahya Hendi, a Muslim chaplain at Georgetown, leads Friday prayer service via YouTube Livestream.

Drawing Inspiration from Online Ministry

Despite the interruption to the semester on-campus, Georgetown’s Catholic and Jesuit offerings have remained robust. Catholic Chaplaincy has been live streaming Mass every Sunday evening and offering virtual services such as Taize prayer and Catholic Faith Communities.

Kerry Ashkenaze (SFS’21), said that virtual Masses were quickly becoming an important part of her new routine.

“Mass has long been a pillar of my spiritual life and the cancellation of physical services has been challenging for me, but both Georgetown and my local parish livestream services,” Ashkenaze shared. “I've managed to stay grounded in this tradition by participating in Mass with my family by live-streaming it from our living room.”

An active member of Catholic Women at Georgetown (CWAG), Ashkenaze has also kept up with her weekly tradition of praying before Mass with other members of CWAG by scheduling online video conferences to pray the rosary at the group’s usual time.

Meanwhile, Michelle Siemietkowski, a Catholic Chaplain for Spiritual Formation in the Office of Campus Ministry, stays in touch with her off-campus residents via weekly emails offering guidance and support, continues to teach Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults online, and meets virtually with student retreat teams. 

The move to online ministry, in fact, is actually giving me more ideas of how to reach more students and have an even greater impact—through encouraging emails, engaging videos, and virtual evenings of reflection, for instance.

Fr. Matthew Carnes, S.J., an associate professor of government and director of the Center for Latin American Studies, has shared a number of uplifting messages about spiritual continuity with the Georgetown community in recent weeks. He has also discovered new aspects of connection in the era of remote learning. 

“I've taken special delight in seeing — almost always for the first time — the homes of my colleagues and students. This has been a great equalizer, in some ways, with all of us doing our best to adapt to the circumstances, but also a wonderful window into the life-beyond-the-university of each person,” Carnes said. “Seeing children, pets, pictures, art, and just the mess and mix of normal life has been so refreshing. And it's also made me aware of how many lives each of us is caring for, and how much bigger our community is than I sometimes recognize.”

Ashkenaze, meanwhile, draws inspiration from the efforts of the Georgetown community as a whole to serve others in this time of great need.

“The most inspiring aspect has been seeing how people have bonded together to help each other, inside and outside of faith communities. I have seen this in the students that formed the COVID-19 response group, the sorority sisters who helped me facilitate move-out from Georgetown from 2,000 miles away, and the people in my parish who are still keeping food pantries running in these challenging times,” Ashkenaze noted.

Bringing Shabbat Home to the Family

Students active in Jewish Life on campus maintain access to a number of programs and services. Maya Rabinowitz (COL’21) has stayed engaged in the Jewish community by signing up for weekly office hours with Rabbi Rachel Gartner and attending programming such as the weekly "Schmooze with the Jews,” which provides an opportunity to check in with other members of Jewish life. Rabinowitz has also been attending pre-Shabbat programming with her mom online. 

I really enjoy these Zoom sessions because I get to share my Georgetown Jewish experience with my family while at home, and a lot of Georgetown alums also join for the Shabbat programming so I get to see them as well.

Rabinowitz shared her feelings of a level of disconnect from the Georgetown community while stuck at home, but said her connection to Jewish Life staff members has eased the challenge.

“Because the Jewish Life staff is also going through many difficult transitions while moving to a virtual work environment, I feel very supported and understood when I need someone to talk to,” Rabinowitz shared.