Religious leaders turning to tech to hold their flocks together

As the COVID-19 crisis closes churches, synagogues and mosques, congregations are finding new ways to pray.

As the COVID-19 crisis closes churches, synagogues and mosques, congregations are finding new ways to pray

Rev. Brent Stiller uses social media to connect with parishioners cut off by COVID-19 precautions. (Karen Stiller)

Their traditions go back millennia, but COVID-19 is forcing change upon churches, mosques and synagogues across Ottawa. 

Friday prayers, shivas and christenings are among the sacred events getting a modern-day makeover, thanks to the coronavirus. 

Ontario's state of emergency means gatherings of more than 50 people are banned, but even before the edict, most places of worship in Ottawa had decided to halt services to help stem the spread of the respiratory illness.

Instead, faith leaders are using technology to minister to their flocks at a time when many need extra solace.


"The church is the people," said Rev. Brent Stiller, rector and senior pastor at St. Peter's and St. Paul's Anglican Church in Ottawa. "We're called to continue to love and serve one another, in whatever context we find ourselves." 

The new context means posting the Sunday service on Facebook. It means creating a roster for parish members to lead daily prayer online. It means suspending communion.

But this Sunday, there will be a christening. Immediate family will gather around the baptismal font, in front of empty pews. The rest of the congregation will follow along on Facebook Live.

I think in these times, we have a very pronounced sense of our mortality and our need for one another.​​​​​​- Rev. Brent Stiller, St. Peter's and St. Paul's Anglican Church

The changes aren't just in cyberspace. Instead of its usual hot soup and social hour on Friday nights, the church is offering a free take-away meal, in keeping with the latest virtue: along with faith, hope and charity comes social distancing.

Stiller sees an opportunity in the COVID-19 crisis. "Absolutely. You know, there's an old saying: there are no atheists in the foxholes of war. And I think in these times, we have a very pronounced sense of our mortality and our need for one another.

"When things get quiet, when the noise settles down, we have an opportunity to listen, to wake up [and] to be human. To look beyond ourselves. To not be so consumed with all the things we thought we needed to own, to have, and to hoard."

'My living room is my new temporary pulpit,' said Imam Sikander Hashmi of the Kanata Muslim Association. (Farheen Fatima)


All of the major mosques in Ottawa-Gatineau are closed to group prayer.

"It was a very difficult decision," said Sikander Hashmi, Imam of the Kanata Muslim Association. "At times like this, faith leaders and places of worship want to be there for the community. But considering the circumstances it was decided it would be the prudent thing to do."

Hashmi was already putting his services online, and he's not alone.

"Imams are going online to hold lectures, classes and sessions for their communities," said Hashmi, who's also connecting with congregants using video calls "because I think it's really important, especially for seniors, to be seen and to see other people." 

Hashmi hosts online sessions with congregants, complete with live chat. (Farheen Fatima)

In addition, he's calling on families to hold their own prayer sessions at home.

"Instead of coming to the mosque, the advice is just turn your home into a temporary mosque. Do it at the same times we would normally pray at mosque. Even though we can't gather physically, we know we are gathering at the same time, albeit in our own homes." 


The COVID-19 crisis is also changing how rabbis and synagogues serve Ottawa's Jewish community.

"Everything is being cancelled, left right and centre. Even things like circumcisions for babies — it's still going on … but not with any guests, " said Rabbi Reuven Bulka of the Congregation Machzikei Hada. 

Bulka was invited to a bris, or circumcision ceremony, this coming Sunday. "I just opted to say, 'You know what? The responsible thing here is not to go.'"

Like the rest of his congregation, Rabbi Reuven Bulka has had to make personal sacrifices amid the COVID-19 precautions. 'At this Passover, I will not have my children and grandchildren with me.' (CBC)

Bulka is tending to the sick via telephone or email. He's even encouraging mourners to sit shiva by phone.

"We should be thankful we still have some means of communication. I think back to plagues we had generations ago where they were really isolated. Thankfully, we're not totally cut off."

It's hitting close to home for Bulka. "At this Passover, I will not have my children and grandchildren with me. It's not an ideal Passover."

But there is a blessing to be found, according to Bulka. People are finding time for study.

"Usually they'd say, 'I don't have time, I have to do this, I have to do that.' So we didn't have the time to meditate, to contemplate. Now all of a sudden we have this great gift. It's in a miserable circumstance, but it's a gift nonetheless."

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