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Across The City And Across Religions, New Orleans Keeps The Faith In The Time Of The Coronavirus

Ben Depp
Father Emmanuel Mulenga is streaming online from St. Augustine Catholic Church of New Orleans during the COVID-19 pandemic. New Orleans, Louisiana. April 9, 2020.

There was an eerie silence in St. Augustine Catholic Church in the Treme on Palm Sunday as Father Emmanuel Mulenga cleaned the altar at the end of mass before a nearly empty stretch of pews. No field of narrow green palm spears in the hands of congregants. No choir.

The pandemic hasn’t just hit our communities with devastating consequences — it’s come during one of the busiest and most important times of year for holy celebrations in a range of faiths. Across Louisiana and the nation, churches, mosques and synagogues are empty (with a few glaring exceptions), just as Easter, Passover and Ramandan are upon us.

“I've never seen anything like this. Most of us can't remember in our lifetime where Holy Week could be the way it is right now,” Father Mulenga said.

Father Mulenga has been sending out Sunday reflections on the Gospel through email, and the Archdiocese of New Orleans has been live-streaming Holy Week services from the St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter. Leaders of all faith traditions have been doing their best to keep in touch with their communities — calling congregants, holding Zoom meetings and live-streaming sermons or prayers.

But it's just not the same.

Credit Ben Depp / For WWNO
Father Emmanuel Mulenga is streaming online from St. Augustine Catholic Church of New Orleans during the COVID-19 pandemic. New Orleans, Louisiana. April 9, 2020.

“You know how we are at St. Augustine, just like the very face of New Orleans,” Father Mulenga said. “Hugging, celebrating together. We're in each other's business and faces and, you know, we love that part of us.”

At the Christ Church Cathedral, the Very Rev. David duPlantier has been broadcasting his mass as usual on the radio, but with the exception of maybe one or two people (when “at least there’s a heartbeat,” he said), he’s had to imagine faces in the church.

“I still get vested. I still wear the same clothes. I stand in the pulpit. In churches, people often sit in the same places. So I'll kind of look where Mr. Jones” might have sat, he said. “I'll kind of look out and kind of pretend that I see them there.”

The Temple Sinai has been live-streaming services for a few years now, but Rabbi Daniel Sherman has still been speaking to a crowd, until now. He has another trick.

“I tried to picture people sitting at home on their computer, phone, or projected on their TVs, trying to picture them watching and tuning in,” he said.

It seems particularly cruel that what many use as a source of solace — their religious communities — have been fractured when we perhaps need them most.

Churches are typically packed to the gills on Easter Sunday. Community seders during Passover might have 100 or 150 people, Rabbi Sherman said.

Feasts held at the end of a day of fasting during Ramadan, which begins later in April, draw similar numbers to the city’s mosques, said Muhammed Akbar Khan, the secretary of the Muslim Association of New Orleans. During that time the entire Quran is read, one piece each day.

“That's a great source for us to be connected to our religion, to God, to all the whole community,” says Khan. “And that part we’re definitely going to miss.”

But religious leaders are also drawing strength from the meanings behind these holidays. Easter is the central story by which Christians understand the world, Reverend DuPlantier said.

“The disciples, particularly as we get towards the Good Friday period of time, were also scattered and alone and frightened,” he said. “And it gives the preacher a chance to say, ‘Yes, even in the midst of all of this — that we can't explain, that we can't grasp — we believe as Christians that God is there in it, and that God is present to us in ways we may not fully see. And that God will always bring resurrection out of even this deepest, darkest hour.’”

Anwer Bashi, the secretary of the Jefferson Muslim Association, said the words of the prophet Muhammad have given him hope.

“He says, you know, how remarkable the state of the believers is, if something wonderful happens to him and he's grateful, it's good. And if a calamity strikes me and I’m patient, then it's also good,” he said. “If we put it into perspective, this is just, you know, the ups and downs of life. And you're grateful when you can be, patient when you have to be.”

The story of Passover is the story of a journey from slavery to freedom, from degradation to exhalation, said Rabbi Katie Bauman of the Touro Synagogue. Jewish history is the story of a people resilient in the face of tremendous challenges. And both have lessons for our current crisis.

“Remembering that those who have come before us have faced very difficult times and have used those times, however unwelcome, to grow, learn and to be more grateful. And to be more generous and to be more creative,” she said.

Even the food of Passover is rich in symbolism, she added.

“One of the lessons of the maza, which is bread without any leavening in it, is a story about learning what is essential,” she said. “All the things that puffed it up are gone. And it's just very basic sustenance. And so that also helps us to remember what we have to do right now, which is focus on what is most essential in our lives.”

That, she said, is one another.

Credit Ben Depp / For WWNO
Father Emmanuel Mulenga is streaming online from St. Augustine Catholic Church of New Orleans during the COVID-19 pandemic. New Orleans, Louisiana. April 9, 2020.

The pandemic is also bringing clarity to the role that religious leaders play in our lives and communities. One role is that of offering prayer, Father Mulenga said.

“We are to offer prayer unceasingly, prayer constantly for the people we serve. Prayer for the church, prayer for ourselves, prayer for the world,” he said.

Another is companionship, Rabbi Bauman said:

“People are suffering, people are dying, people are afraid,” she said. And the only way to walk with people during that is to own all of that and keep it at the front of our minds, and be as emotionally and spiritually available as we can.”

Another, said Bashi, is solidarity.

“One of the other clergy I talked to hoped that this might be a way for people to really feel like one people. Because it doesn't really matter if you're a Muslim or Christian, or, you know, this color or that color. Doesn't really matter. You're still in the same world. We're still fighting the same pandemic,” he said.

“So his hope was that this might help bring us together.”


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Rosemary Westwood is the public and reproductive health reporter for WWNO/WRKF. She was previously a freelance writer specializing in gender and reproductive rights, a radio producer, columnist, magazine writer and podcast host.

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