Facing a pandemic, metro-Detroit's places of worship adapt to a new reality

Facing a pandemic, metro-Detroit’s places of worship adapt to a new reality

From online religious classes to nightly prayers and service work, religious organizations are mobilizing virtually.

Krishna and Aruna Karunakaram tune into weekly Zoom calls with the Chinmaya Mission in Ann Arbor. (Courtesy of the Karunakarams)
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On March 23, Governor Whitmer announced the first stay-at-home order for people in Michigan. While her order included exceptions for religious gatherings, many places of worship — temples, churches, mosques — temporarily closed their doors in efforts to protect their communities.

But just because physical distancing is in place doesn’t mean people aren’t finding other ways stay connected. From online religious classes to nightly prayers and service work, religious organizations are opening their doors virtually.

The Indian SCENE talked to different families, community organizers, and religious leaders to see how they were coping during the pandemic.

***

Every night members of the Jain Society of Greater Detroit — the temple community that I grew up in — sign on to a Webex video call to hear and recite devotional songs and prayers together. The gatherings, which started on March 18, initially drew ten people. Two weeks later, over 80 people were logging on from within Michigan and out-of-state. They recite different stutis, or prayers, which are relevant during this time of uncertainty. Some were historically used at different points to find peace during plagues or epidemics.

The Jain Society of Greater Detroit hosts a livestream of temple idols every night. (Courtesy of Manish Jain)

“When you pray in a group, the vibrations are multiplied,” said Praful Shah, a retired product design engineer and a member of the temple’s organizational leadership. It was his idea to start doing prayers virtually. He wanted a way to connect community members, especially elders, while the temple was closed. “Doing bhakti, or devotional worship,gives us strength to survive in this condition.”

Shah starts the call a few minutes early every night, and he now notices seven or eight people already connected before him waiting for it to start.

“They don’t want to miss a second of it,” said Shah. The visual image during the calls is set to a livestream of the inside of the temple. This way people can feel like they are visiting the temple. “They are happy they can still view the idols of God, and they feel good vibrations within themselves.”

In addition to nightly worship and a constant livestream, the temple has set up a daily afternoon prayer, virtual Sunday religious classes, and has been planning programming for special fasting days online. The hope is these virtual options help the community stay in touch with one another during a time of separation.

For Manish Jain, the current president at the JSGD, the nightly calls have been a source of energy.

“Everyone is talking,” said Jain. Usually, the first few minutes of each call are spent catching up and seeing how everyone is doing. “You can clearly hear the happiness, pleasure… satisfaction they get.”

“We are social animals. We need to see people and talk to people,” said Rahul Munot chairman of the temple’s board of trustees. “[My kids and I] would not be what we are without JSGD. So this is one way we thought of connecting people and making sure we talk to each other every day and support each other.”

There are over 600 families who attend the Jain temple — my family included. On Sunday, April 19, nearly 150 people joined for prayers.

Munot’s daughter, Riya, sang prayers for one of the nightly gatherings. She appreciated that it reminded her of something she used to do with her family when she was younger.

“It helps me get in touch with Jainism again,” said Riya Munot, a junior at International Academy who grew up going to the temple. “It’s taking five minutes out of your day and praying in some way for some soul who is suffering out there. Things are changing for everyone, but if we all go through it together it makes it better.”

***

At the Hindu Temple of Canton, Jitendrakumar Sevak, a priest by trade, continues to do rituals to maintain the cleanliness of the bhagwan, or gods.

The priest, respectfully referred to as Pandit Maraji, started his religious education at a young age.

While the temple is in lockdown, outside worshippers can’t visit, but the pandit, or priest, alone continues the maintenance of the space. He performs the necessary rituals and prayers for the different depictions of god. Worshippers are able to connect through a live stream.

Pandit Jitendrakumar Sevak (Mukhyaji) of the Hindu Temple of Canton alone continues the maintenance of the space. (Courtesy of Pandit Jitendrakumar Sevak)

He says that this time is very challenging and dangerous for any individual. Whenever one feels pain, struggle, or worry, turning to prayer can help.

Bhagwan ka dhyan, seva, swadhyay karna chahiye,” said Pandit Maraji, which translates to “we should meditate, serve and learn religious teachings.”

He also reiterates that Hindu teachings have hygiene guidelines in place that mirror what we are told about how to stay safe during this pandemic. These include washing your hands or showering anytime you are planning to visit a religious place or covering your mouth when you talk.

“In this situation, faith helps make you strong,” said Pandit Maraji.

He advised that everyone, whatever faith they belong to, should pull together their loved ones and keep in mind who they believe in. He lives by his words and brings his own family together every night to pray.

“Not everyone gets this time,” said the pandit.

***

Sumaiya Ahmed Sheikh’s family is from Hyderabad, India, but she grew up in Michigan. She’s been organizing among the Muslim-American community for many years, and is used to being on the frontlines during a crisis.

“When times get difficult, we have to step up to the plate and be there for our neighbors,” said Sheikh.

Sumaiya Ahmed Sheikh has been organizing among the Muslim-American community for many years. (Courtesy of Sumaiya Ahmed Sheikh)

She recounts how COVID-19 hit unexpectedly and hard, and at the time her networks of Muslim organizers and organizations were looking for ways to give back directly and quickly. In the days since, they formed a grocery delivery program, and now have over 200 volunteers.

They have also started efforts to make and donate masks to Beaumont Hospital and to raise money for meals for healthcare workers.

“The beauty of the Michigan community is when it’s a time of need, it doesn’t matter if you are Muslim, Jewish, or Hindu,” said Sheikh. “It’s being human and wanting to get out there and help.”

Michigan Muslims grocery delivery service volunteers are all over metro-Detroit. (Photo by Samreen Vaid)

Ramadan began on April 23, and Sheikh is expecting it will be different this year. She says the different mosques and communities she has been part of are looking for ways to continue programming. People have been tuning in for Friday prayer virtually.

Imam Mika’il Stewart Saadiq, from Detroit’s Muslim Center, says the mosque and community center is looking for ways to help people stay connected to each other, their spirituality, and their homeland during this time. It has held community check-ins and Friday congregational prayers online, and the Imam treasures this way of keeping in touch with people he hasn’t seen, some in months.

“I don’t believe anyone living today has been through anything like this,” said the Imam, amid the Center’s brainstorming ways to celebrate the holy month.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) chapter in Michigan has released guidance on how to maintain spiritual practices during this time, including ways to maintain social connection and how to engage in burial customs during quarantine. Local mosques are holding their own programming, with weekend classes going online. But the organization has also heard of youth religious studies classes being Zoom-bombed, or hacked by anti-Muslim bigots.

“We like to say physical distancing, not social distancing,” said Dawud Walid, the executive director of CAIR Michigan. “We should be plugging into our communities, loved ones, and friends irrespective of religion or national background at this time.”For Sheikh, who has one-year-old twins, sometimes the virtual option creates more opportunities to engage. She hopes that this spirit of fighting together continues and that people know the Michigan Muslim community is there for them.

“Everyone needs to fight together,” said Sheikh. “I really see the community doing that.”

***

The Sikh Gurudwara of Rochester Hills, Michigan, is joining the fight as well. Mandeep Singh is the current president and has been involved with the community — on and off — for the past 15 years.

It has started streaming a daily morning session online for youth to recite praises of the divine. Nearly 40 kids now join every day, and they aren’t just from Michigan. Families tune in from all over the country — California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and even Ontario, Canada. In addition to this, the gurudwara holds classes on the Sikh philosophy and way of life. It also recently started online Punjabi classes.

Singh’s children attend online classes through the gurudwara. (Courtesy of Mandeep Singh)

“Our focus, my priority, has been with our youth,” said Singh, who knew something had to be done as many schools around the country closed. “It’s important to provide structure to children and have a sense of community, online and virtual, to see their friends and talk.”

Singh has received positive feedback from parents on the classes, and he has a 10-year-old and 12-year-old of his own.

“I can just speak for myself, but even in this time of unrest and uncertainty, our Sikh tradition has given me hope,” said Singh. “We need to make the best of any opportunity, of every breath that we have.”

The community has also continued their service work through SevaTruck Michigan, a food truck initiative first started in November 2017, which serves free meals to those who are experiencing food insecurity. So far, volunteers have served over 12,000 meals.

During the pandemic, Singh says his community has been serving close to 1,000 meals a week at locations around metro Detroit — schools, senior centers, outside the Rosa Parks Transit Center. The meals are free and available to everyone.

The SevaTruck serves free meals in over 35 locations throughout Michigan. (Photo by Charanpreet Singh/Instagram @_ charansinghweddings)

And they are practicing social distancing while they do this. Singh says they currently have two volunteers who work the truck, and an additional six to seven who help with food preparation in their own way.

“It’s amazing to watch people come together,” said Singh. He described buying bags of onions and leaving them on the porch of a neighbor who would chop them and leave on his porch when she finished. “Serving people is service of the divine. We believe the divine is in everyone and everything.”

***

Anilash Panikulangara grew up Catholic and traces his family lineage to Kerala in South India. In college, he found spaces to understand his faith more deeply, challenging it and growing in it.

With the pandemic making it difficult to access community spaces, Panikulangara wanted to find a different way to bring people together in celebration of Jesus Christ and his resurrection during Easter.

“Knowing that couldn’t be celebrated together at church… was really heartbreaking, and for a lot of people really scary,” said Panikulangara. “I had a thought or inspiration from God to do something.”

With the help of friends, Anilash Panikulangara organized a virtual praise and celebration for Easter Sunday, which nearly 70 people joined. (Courtesy of Anilash Panikulangara)

With the help of two friends, he messaged others in his community about holding a virtual praise and celebration for Easter Sunday. He said nearly 70 people joined from all different backgrounds and locations.

“I don’t think either of them celebrated virtually in this way, and with this conglomeration of people,” said Panikulangara, remembering how beautiful it was to see everyone come together. “[There were] people from all different languages, a variety of nationalities, and all over the country. We’re always told in our faith that every nation, tribe, and tongue would come together to praise Jesus Christ.”

There were also different denominations of the faith represented, including Protestants and Catholics. Throughout the program, people sang, set up PowerPoint presentations and delivered testimonies and sermons.

But even in this interview, Panikulangara said that he doesn’t want to center himself or be seen as the “kid who put this together.”

“It all just came together very beautifully. I’m very thankful and humbled by that,” said Panikulangara. “It shows the power of a message that [we] all believe in.”

***

Krishna and Aruna Karunakaram have lived in Saline, Michigan for nearly twenty years. They have been attending weekend classes, or Balavihar,at the Chinmaya Mission in Ann Arbor for even longer.

“It was one reason we moved here [to Saline],” said Krishna Karunakaram, an IT program manager for Consumers Energy. His daughter attended the weekly classes growing up.

In early March, when things with the coronavirus pandemic started to escalate, they said the Chinmaya Mission in Ann Arbor decided to move classes online. Both Krishna and Aruna Karunakaram help with teaching classes at the center.

Now, on Sunday mornings, the group gathers for an online lecture by Sharada Kumar, the resident teacher or acharya, followed by breakout classes for children of all ages. Students then have individual time to work on the lesson for the day, and parents are able to continue hearing from Kumar.

Krishna and Aruna Karunakaram tune into weekly Zoom calls with the Chinmaya Mission in Ann Arbor. (Courtesy of the Karunakarams)

“First, we didn’t know how it’ll be. We had never done this before. But we don’t feel anything different. We do miss [going to the temple], but this is a very good success and alternative,” said Aruna.

For both, it’s a way to continue accessing their traditions and community.

“The whole world is going through this unprecedented time with no hope or cure or end in sight. So being very strongly religious involved, for us, it’s like okay, God is the only one that can come to our rescue,” said Krishna.

They also attend spiritual lectures and gather families in the area. In March, they hosted their first chanting group gathering online, with over 25 people.

“We have been doing this for 15 years, and we didn’t want to miss it because of this [pandemic],” said Aruna.

Udit Thawani, a senior at the University of Michigan has been involved with the Chinmaya Mission Flint since he was a child. Now that he is home, he joins the center’s weekly calls. He also has continued weekly sessions with Chinmaya Yuva Kendra, or CHYK, a youth study group he helped organize among students when he was on campus in Ann Arbor.

“One of the biggest things that’s hard about all of this — quarantine — is trying to keep productivity up and stay sane,” said Thawani. “A lot of that has to do with keeping some routine, and having weekly class is a big part of that.”

Thawani studies biopsychology, cognition and neuroscience at the University of Michigan. He was looking forward to his commencement next month before the pandemic changed things.

But he has been engaging with the Flint center and has seen the community come together.

“Younger parents will collect shopping lists from older uncles and aunties and go grocery shopping for them,” said Thawani. “It’s cool that the community has stepped up in that way.”

***

Jeana Eapen grew up in the faith community. Her father, the Rev. Dr. Rajan K. George, has been a pastor at the Faith Christian Church in Royal Oak, Michigan for decades, and her family has been in the ministry for longer.

“It’s a part of the lifestyle. It’s not like you put on the religious hat and then put on the go-to-school [or] go-to-work hat,” said Eapen, who manages operations for the church. “Faith is part of how you live and how you present yourself and your decisions in life.”

Growing up, there were times she didn’t love the pressure of being the pastor’s daughter, and she knew it meant she had to be on her best behavior. But now, it is those experiences that ground her and help her stay connected to her family. She says that faith helped with a lot of decisions she had to navigate being born and brought up here.

“We’re a relatively small church — everybody in the church, you consider them family,” said Eapen. The church has a congregation of about 80 to 100 people from all different regions of India. Because the majority of services are held in English, the church brings together a unique mix of families many who speak a variety of native languages at home.

She says its small size enabled the church’s nimble response to the changes brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Faith has shifted Sunday services online and has been able to help elders get set up.

Eapen appreciates how robust and easy-to-use Zoom is, allowing it to be accessed by multiple generations. At one recent meeting, she remembers people lingered on after the meeting, just catching up and talking about other things.

Jeana Eapen credits her son, Joshua, with being her Zoom producer: helping to set up the calls, manage speakers, and make sure everything goes smoothly. (Courtesy of Jeana Eapen)

“It was as if they were congregating [as they would in person],” said Eapen, who estimates over 25 families sign on to these calls on average. “To me that’s really cool. We don’t want to lose that sense of community. Even though we are isolated, we’re still together.”

She says that it is especially important in this time for those who are vulnerable to feeling isolated — someone struggling with mental health, or the elderly — to stay in touch.

“You want to know someone cares about you and values you,” said Eapen. “When we get out of it, we’ll be stronger as a people.”

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