Home for the Holidays

How students of faith are adapting to virtual worship.


This year on Eid al-Fitr, Communication third-year Rahma Almajid threw a celebration for her five siblings and parents in the backyard of her Chicago home. It followed a royal color theme, replete with gold “Eid Mubarak” banners, and a home-made brunch for their first breakfast or lunch in thirty days.

Also known as the “Festival of Breaking the Fast,” Eid marks the end of Ramadan — which, beyond scripture and ritual fasting, is an important time for community relationships. While Almajid usually celebrates with her entire mosque, this year her family sequestered the party to the backyard of her Chicago home. After all, the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented the physical and joyous gatherings that normally accompany this holiday — and those of other religious observances — on Northwestern’s campus and around the world.

Each of the world’s five most-practiced religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism) celebrate holidays in the spring, which have been inevitably changed by stay-at-home orders that prevent people from physically attending worship services and celebrating in community. Northwestern students are certainly impacted: there are 33 religious student organizations listed on the Northwestern Religious and Spiritual Life website, and in the 2019 Northwestern Enrolled Student survey, 19 percent of 2570 student respondents said they actively participated in a religious or spiritual group.

Tahera Ahmad, a Muslim scholar-practitioner who serves as Associate Chaplain and Northwestern Director of Interfaith Engagement, says college is an important time for students to find their meaning and purpose. Religion — both in practice and general spirituality — can play a large role in that.

“[Students are] exploring their own practice, both ritual, which is associated often with the idea of religion, but then also this idea of spirituality,” Ahmad says. “What does it mean to even be a person of any kind of religious practice or just, who am I? What am I doing here? What is the purpose of my life?”

“Religious observance and religious holidays, at their best, have us thinking beyond ourselves, and thinking about people who are suffering. How do we make the world suffer less? How do we repair the broken pieces?” says Michael Simon, Executive Director of Northwestern Hillel.

For many religious leaders today, the challenge becomes how to build community virtually. During the 30 days of Ramadan, for example, the recitation of the 6,236 verses of the Quran and the Iftar (the breaking of the fast each night after sundown) normally occur in large gatherings. This year, Zoom services worldwide include Halaqah (prayer readings) every Friday at 5 p.m. and daily at-home group and individual Quran recitation at 5 p.m. and 10 p.m., respectively.

Faith-based organizations at Northwestern have also had to adapt the ways in which students connect to religious resources — from supporting students in celebrating holidays to offering services and resources for regular spiritual practice.

“Religious observance and religious holidays, at their best, have us thinking beyond ourselves, and thinking about people who are suffering. How do we make the world suffer less? How do we repair the broken pieces?”
- Michael Simon, Executive Director of Northwestern Hillel

This includes the University Christian Ministry (UCM), whose members normally gather every Easter morning at Clark Street Beach to watch the sunrise above the shores of Lake Michigan and remember the resurrection of Christ. This year, students instead messaged each other with pictures of the sunrise wherever they happened to be in the country or the world.

OM at Northwestern, a Hindu religious group, and Hillel have also made transitions into the digital realm. OM may hold a virtual speaker event rather than their regular Holi celebration, which typically involves students throwing brightly colored powders at each other and dancing to festive music on Deering Meadow.

At Hillel’s virtual Shabbat dinners, one student reads the blessing over grape juice to his peers across the country, allowing Jewish families at Northwestern to meet when they might never have been able to before.

But online worship services leave much to be desired for many. More observant Jewish families may have abstained from technology as part of Passover worship, making it potentially impossible to integrate Zoom into their observance this year. The receiving of Communion — the representation of the body and blood of Christ through bread and wine — typically occurs at Christian mass. Now, some Christians debate whether it’s necessary to be physically present to receive Communion, or if it can be practiced at home — say, with a tortilla and coffee. Other physical aspects of religious ceremonies, such as singing during services, lighting candles and eating meals together can be difficult or impossible to replicate, at least in previous full congregations, remotely.

One of the most significant challenges felt by students is the barrier to physical closeness that the pandemic poses

“I think for me, practicing religion on campus is all about the community aspect of it,” Sarah Kollender, a third-year student on the Hillel Executive Board, says. “I like the traditions and I like the meaning of it, but it's all about kind of feeling at home in a community, at least for me. That aspect is really hard to replicate when you’re not in the same room as other people, and all feeling the same environment and creating the environment together.”

Stay-at-home orders can also present particular challenges in access to resources this year for Northwestern students who celebrate Ramadan and still live in the Chicagoland area. The Illinois Department for Public Health (IDPH) has found that Devon Avenue in Chicago — where many members of the Hasidic Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu faiths live — is considered to have one of the highest concentration of COVID-19 cases in all of greater Illinois. According to Ahmad, many Ramadan-practicing students rely on Devon Avenue for groceries and halal meat to make food for the holiday. As a result, Northwestern Religious and Spiritual Life, in partnership with dining services and Compass Group, are making sure that students still on campus have at least one halal entrée every day on Foster-Walker dining hall’s menu.

Outside of holidays, many other opportunities offer Northwestern students ways to stay connected to faith-based communities. Ahmad mentions an interfaith dialogue series from Northwestern Religious and Spiritual Life and check-in hours with different faith leaders.

Hillel, for example, is offering virtual coffee chats, weekly Shabbat gatherings and “Hillel at Home” programming. OM at Northwestern is now holding weekly Shravan sessions in which they read and discuss chapters of “Self-Unfoldment” by Swami Chinmayananda over Zoom. The Muslim-Cultural Students Association (McSA) started a pen pal system for students to stay in touch through hand-written letters. Sunday night worship — sans the normal Sunday night dinner — is occuring for UCM students over Zoom and weekly bible study has moved to Zoom for students in Epic, Cru’s community for Asian and Asian American students.

“[Some students] are just feeling sad or lonely or isolated,” Julie Windsor Mitchell, Campus Minister and Executive Director of UCM, says. “And I'm always trying to remind them that they are not alone. And that even though we're not physically together as a Christian community, we are still bonded together in spirit and nothing can take that away.”

Weekly meetings and check-ins can remind students that their community is still there to support them — even if they are not in their usual on-campus meeting place, like OM’s gatherings in Parkes Hall, for example.

“OM at Northwestern teaches spirituality, but it also teaches you about the strength of togetherness,” second-year Mirage Modi says. “Even though it’s over Zoom, we still get to see each other’s faces and that brings a little joy in life during these times.”

Ahmad is holding pastoral care hours specifically for Muslim students in hopes of providing a healing space for students particularly impacted by the pandemic. Ahmad explains that Muslim students may be uniquely affected because one out of five American physicians and 33 percent of American medical residents are Muslim, while only 1.1 perent of total Americans are Muslim, according to the Pew Research Center. This makes it more likely that they have a healthcare professional who may be on the front lines in their families.

“And I've always tried to remind [students] that they are not alone. And that even though we're not physically together as a Christian community, we are still bonded together in spirit, and nothing can take that away."
- Julie Windsor Mitchell, Campus Minister and Executive Director of UCM

Crisis and trauma are subjects Ahmad focuses on in her pastoral care hours in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Religious communities often gather together for vigils and to mourn the deaths of loved ones from illnesses of any kind. Ahmad has been working to create virtual vigils for students who have lost loved ones which in the Muslim tradition, involves reciting parts of the Quran.

Many students are also reaching out to their faith community to grieve other losses in their life — a class they wanted to take, internship plans or dreams for the future. But even as some feel lonely and isolated, their faiths bonded them with their communities in spirit.

“This is collective grief, collective loss,” Ahmad says. “There’s an element of some form of loss for people at different levels ... As people of faith, the resilience [is what] I see of our students and of our community around this — checking in with each other, being there for each other, listening to each other.”

Religious practice can also give insight into how to deal with the struggles that come with isolation and living through a pandemic. Ahmad mentions that some Muslim practitioners have said that quarantine is a unique opportunity for one to reconnect with the self.

The slower pace of life that comes with sheltering in place has enabled some to spend more time focused on faith than in normal times. Third-year Kathryne Tao, Epic’s bible-study leader, has been trying to fill out a daily devotional each night with her two roommates as she shelters in Evanston.

“I think quarantine has been nice because I do have more time to work on my faith, and read my bible and spend time with God,” Tao says. “I think that's obviously one of the upsides of quarantine — is just having more time to focus on those things.”

For students who have been able to return home, many tune into the services of their local places of worship over Facebook or YouTube live. For first-year John McDermott, for example, weekly discussions from UCM supplement attending his Chicago church’s streamed services, offering new perspectives on how to understand faith in the current circumstances.

And, depending on a student’s home situation, practicing their faith at home is enabling time to reconnect with their families in ways they haven’t been able to before. Almajid spends several hours each night baking special Ramadan desserts while her parents prepare other aspects of Iftar. Kollender bakes Challah bread for her family for Shabbat dinner each Friday, which they wouldn’t otherwise have.

“It’s been kind of interesting how this has also been a source of reconnecting,” Ahmad says, “[It’s] accelerated something that people have been wanting to think about for some time — and I’ve actually seen more of an uptick on, if not a full practice of faith, the inquiry of faith has increased...Bigger questions [are] being asked about what is my purpose of living on this planet.”