Finding connection and care: Emory Spiritual Life moves online during COVID-19

Emory Report | April 8, 2020

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The staff of Emory’s Office of Spiritual and Religious Life (shown here before the COVID-19 pandemic) has found ways to continue supporting the community during this time of social distancing by transitioning many programs to online settings.

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When Emory announced the transition to remote learning in keeping with public health advice during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Office of Spiritual and Religious Life needed to suspend its communal gatherings in Cannon Chapel.

“This presented a challenge, given that Cannon Chapel is an interfaith house of prayer and comfort for all at Emory and a nexus for campus and community,” says The Rev. Greg McGonigle, university chaplain. “However, we were guided by the religious principle that to save one life is to save the world, and out of concern for the most vulnerable among us, we could not in good conscience safely encourage gatherings. We needed to find a new way forward in this time.”

The chapel is usually home to a myriad of weekly religious and philosophical gatherings and services, as well as many special events, including Protestant worship, Catholic masses, Muslim prayer, Hindu aarthi, Buddhist meditation, Humanist gatherings and many Bible studies and fellowship groups. 

Emory OSRL quickly developed a resource page of online spiritual opportunities in light of COVID-19 to continue supporting the spiritual needs of students, faculty and staff. Adopting best practices shared through national chaplaincy networks, the office started by helping transition some programs that usually take place in Cannon Chapel into online formats. 

“At first, we did not know what to expect, because being in sacred space and being together in person are generally fundamental to the ways we build spiritual community,” McGonigle says. “But we quickly found that our online gatherings were drawing 30-40 people each, and they were having benefits that in-person meetings could not — people did not need to worry about traffic, they could explore some spiritual offerings for the first time, and they could more easily visit to learn about a tradition not their own. We have had family members, Emory Healthcare staff and deans all joining in.”

Some of the transitions also involved the holy days observed in April by some of Emory’s largest religious communities: the Jewish Passover, Christian Holy Week and Easter and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Although not all religious observances can be transferred to online formats, all of these communities have been exploring ways to respond and adapt. 

  • Emory’s Protestant and Catholic Christian communities have moved many worship services online, such as the Beloved Community Protestant services for Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter. Learn about Holy Week virtual events.
  • Emory Hillel is offering Passover @ Home resources including “How to Host a Virtual Seder,” recipes and entertainment ideas. In addition, Emory Chabad is offering free to-go Passover Seder plate kits
  • OSRL is working with the Muslim community and Emory Dining Services to offer suhur and iftar packages so that Muslim students still living on campus can be supported in observing Ramadan. 

Virtual communities and inspiration

Emory OSRL chaplains and staff, religious life affiliates and religious and philosophical campus organizations have moved many of their meetings and programs online.

The University Catholic Center and the Emory Hillel Jewish community have embraced online religious and community life with live-streamed masses, adoration services, rosary prayers and game nights, as well as online Torah Tuesdays, group study hours, challah-bakes and Havdalah. 

Other special events have included an Emory Muslim Community Check-in, led by Muslim Religious Life Scholar Isam Vaid and student leaders; a “Positive Psychology and Well Being During Quarantine” program led by the Emory Holistic Hub; and an ORSL Off the Record program with Candler professor Nichole Phillips speaking about experiences of disruption and finding support and resilience in hard times.

Online Buddhist Club Meditations are held on Thursdays at 6 p.m. and Beloved Community Protestant Worship is held online on Sunday mornings at 11 a.m. The Adventist Christian Fellowship, Bread Coffeehouse, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Reformed University Fellowship, Ukirk Presbyterian Ministry and other groups also are creating ways to connect online. The Rev. Lyn Pace, chaplain of Oxford College, offers weekly “Children’s Books with the Chaplain” readings on Wednesdays at noon.

Pastoral care and other support

In addition to providing opportunities for the community to gather and grow in their spiritual and ethical lives – and seeking to maintain the rhythms of worship, prayer and meditation – Emory OSRL also has worked to extend resources for caring and pastoral care.

OSRL’s chaplains, religious life scholars and many of its religious life affiliates are available to Emory students, faculty and staff for pastoral care (a form of confidential care and counseling that provides support for spiritual, ethical, emotional and existential concerns). Pastoral care within OSRL makes no assumptions about the faith or non-faith of the person seeking care; the goal is holistic wellbeing. 

Emory’s chaplains can be contacted directly for pastoral care appointments. OSRL also is offering virtual drop-in hours with a chaplain; check their COVID-19 resources website for up-to-date information. 

“Living in an unprecedented time means not only bearing the gravity of what is going on all around us, but also carrying the weight of how our lives are deeply and immediately affected. This should not be shouldered alone,” notes The Rev. Kevin Crawford, Emory OSRL’s assistant chaplain. “If you are finding yourself lonely, seeking connection or just wanting a place to put some frustration, celebrate life or anything in between, please come and bring sorrow, joy and a cup of coffee or tea for community and connection.” 

OSRL provides this support in partnership with other campus resources such as Counseling and Psychological Services and Belonging, Community and Justice for students and the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program for employees.

Students supporting each other

The Emory Inter-Religious Council, coordinated by The Rev. Lisa Garvin, OSRL associate dean, represents approximately 25 religious communities on campus. It continues to share information and process changes through weekly dinner meetings, now moved online.

“The IRC has always been a centering experience and it continues to be even now,” says Emory College senior David Kulp. “Knowing that on Monday nights I’ll join my ‘crew’ again keeps me grounded as I navigate online courses and this global pandemic that is impacting so many people’s lives. When the world is chaotic and scary, the IRC is a community I can truly count on to be there, to be constant and to be present.”

The offerings of member communities of the IRC, such as the Emory Buddhist Club, have had a similar impact.

Senior Caroline Wilkinson logged in to meditate the first week at home with her parents sitting alongside her. “The virtual meditations are grounding. In my first few days at home, I couldn’t help but feel a great sense of upheaval. But by participating in the meditation, I was able to share not only the practices, but the wonderful people in the Emory community with my parents,” she says. “The Emory Buddhist Club has offered me a sense of community for practicing many of the concepts I study as a religion major – joy, warmth and peace.”

These same communities will provide care, work to combat inequality and discrimination, and bring healing and restoration on the other side of the pandemic. 

“One message of our religious holidays this spring might be that our human community has survived times of great hardship in the past,” McGonigle says. “Our ancestors persevered with conviction, courage and community.

“This year, our traditions offer us the promise of hope and renewal in the midst of great suffering. We have the opportunity to come together, to learn more deeply from each other and to understand that we are interdependent.” 


For the most up-to-date information on Emory OSRL’s programs and services, subscribe to the their weekly e-newsletter or visit the department’s website.