During times of turmoil, many people turn to their respective places of worship for comfort and guidance.
With COVID-19 ravaging much of the Rio Grande Valley and new orders reissued to mitigate the disease’s spread as hundreds more are infected and dozens die daily, many local faith leaders are faced with something of a conundrum: how to provide hope during what many feel is a hopeless time.
For the Valley’s spiritual leaders, the answer lies in social media.
“Almost all of our parishes were able to kind of switch to social media to make livestreams possible,” Bishop Daniel E. Flores, of the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville, said Wednesday. “I have found the response very heartening. People are looking for that connection, especially when we have churches closed. It is a way to stay connected.”
Flores explained that most of the 72 parishes in the diocese have turned to livestreaming Mass, and many continue to do so as some churches continue to stay open amid the pandemic, in which health officials have urged social distancing and to avoid mass gatherings.
The bishop said that he continues to encourage individuals who are vulnerable or elderly to stay home. He said that those who tune in to the livestreams have now established a sense of community through social media, with many offering prayers for others in an interactive environment.
“I’m often stopped, and people will hand me a piece of paper with a name of somebody I need to pray for. Through the livestream, I want to encourage people to do that because I have been reading them,” Flores said, further noting that others are encouraged to join in prayer when he gets those requests online. “People do that kind of spontaneously anyway. I do read those, but not just me — the whole Facebook community; they read those and they pray for those people too.
“I think it encourages that we’re not alone in this, and we have to find ways to keep that connection going. I really hope people continue to do that because I think it really helps people feel connected.”
Flores said that he hopes that through the livestreams and the online community, the diocese can offer strength and encouragement to those who are suffering.
Having heard about the struggles of those impacted by the disease, the bishop believes unity in a time of crisis is paramount.
“Right now we’re being asked to be more aware of how precious we have it as a community — the ability to be together even though we can’t be together,” Flores said. “It’s important to tell people to please pray and accompany them in their sorrow. People are grieving. I hear about it everyday, and it’s heartbreaking. We have to walk with people.”
For Rabbi Asher Hecht of Chabad Rio Grande Valley in McAllen, he said that his community’s faith is not based around a synagogue. He said that many of the practices and rituals of his faith are rooted at home.
“It’s been a challenging time for us, but one of the beautiful things about Judaism is that we’re not so dependent about services at our places of worship,” Hecht said. “It is very much a homebound faith. We have so many rituals and commandments that don’t even happen in the synagogue. The synagogue is merely a place to inspire a more spiritual, godly life within your own compliance.
The rabbi said that his congregation is trying to shift their focus of the pandemic from having a negative impact to using their resources to inspire.
He said that his synagogue has been giving out free face masks to people of all backgrounds and denominations every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. outside of Chabad RGV. They have thus far distributed nearly 4,000 masks, and they have another 4,000 more to give away.
“We try to turn hard times into opportunities. We’re trying to use this opportunity to assist the present situation,” Hecht said. “Obviously, we’re limited in what we can do because we have to be very cautious not to become a source of the spread. We don’t know who has it and who doesn’t.”
The Shri Nanak Hindu Temple in Edinburg has also seen its congregation impacted by the pandemic, having experienced a drop in attendance.
“We’ve really seen less people coming in, like a lot less,” said Parveen Jain, trustee and manager of the Shri Nanak Hindu Temple. “We just recently closed again because the numbers were spiking. I think overall it’s been hard for everybody. We don’t see too many people coming to the temple to take blessings or gifts, or give blessings. It’s been rough.”
Jain said that the temple has also turned to social media to try to meet the needs of its followers by offering virtual prayers.
“We were doing it on Facebook live on the Shri Nanak Center page,” Jain said. “We were doing some prayers for people at certain times. This last time that we closed, we were telling people that if anybody wants to contact the priest directly, they can call him and schedule a private video praying for them.
“That’s about the most that we can do. After that, it’s hard to do anything else.”
When asked how the temple keeps its congregation in good spirits considering the virus surging in the Valley, Jain said that’s a question that they struggle with.
“Overall we’re doing the best we can in these circumstances,” Jain said. “The main thing is we’re trying to keep everybody healthy, including the staff at the temple and our own priest. There’s really nothing else we can do. We’re just waiting for this time to pass. Hopefully when the time passes, we’ll do a lot to bring the people back together.
“Just be strong and be patient.”