Remote ministry helps ’Canes keep the faith

By Michael R. Malone

Remote ministry helps ’Canes keep the faith

By Michael R. Malone
University of Miami campus ministries are following a prudent approach to engage students online with innovative services, creative resources, and prayerful conversations.

On the Zoom screen, the rabbi is lighting candles and singing from the siddur. In his daily podcast, the pastor is urging listeners to “keep your heart alive.” For a live-streamed Sunday service, the chaplain is conversing with students, helping to assuage their grief and loneliness.

Chaplains at the University of Miami are digging deep into their spiritual toolkits to satisfy the soulful needs of their faithful while adhering to national warnings and mandates that strongly discourage—though do not ban—religious gatherings.

The pastoral messages are largely unchanged—and given the upheaval the COVID-19 pandemic has caused—are possibly more keenly felt, but the platforms of delivery and the customary rituals have radically changed.

For religious and spiritual organizations, springtime—the symbolic season of hope and renewal—is among the busiest and most important of times. The holy days of Easter, Passover, Ramadan, and others are about to commence, and congregants are often particularly motivated to visit their preferred house of worship.

“What binds us together no matter who or where we are is that the Passover seder is larger than any individual, and the idea is we’re all saying the same words wherever we are at the same time—and that is a powerful thought,” said Rabbi Lyle Rothman, of University of Miami Hillel. “The community aspect is there, even if we’re in different places.” 

Rothman serves as the chair of the Chaplains Association, the official University body responsible for religious life on campus. The organization comprises seven full chaplains and several associate chaplains.  

Rothman and the Hillel staff are using video calls to offer programming every night of the week to keep students engaged—Jewish Learning Fellowship, hangouts in the evening, virtual game nights, and matzo brei cooking classes. They are even providing a pre-Passover digital kit, with virtual activities, such as a scavenger hunt, that students can do at home.

Yet he points out that “Zoom fatigue” is a real thing. “We realize people are in front of their screens far more than they’ve ever been,” Rothman said. “And I’m not sure if it’s innovative or creative, but individual reach-outs are where it’s at. There’s nothing like an individual reach-out to check in with a student, and every single person usually responds and asks me if we can meet for lunch or have a meal together—they’re yearning for that.”

Father Phillip Tran, of the University’s Catholic Campus Ministry, is busier than ever. He and his ministry team offer services daily: morning mass, which attracts an average of 200 viewers; two masses each Sunday; six weekly small groups ranging from Bible studies to seniors groups; and daily afternoon prayer services. A movie night of faith videos has been very popular. He’s also reaching out to call students. “It’s almost like online counseling,” he said.   

Catholic Campus Ministry generally engages students with service projects for local charities, such as Camillus House, but owing to reasons of safety, those were suspended. Still, a group of medical students organized a collection of personal protection equipment to be dropped off in the church parking lot, Tran said.

Easter services present a problem.

“We’re still planning it out, but it’s going to be really weird,” Tran explained. “Easter is our biggest thing, but everything needs to be cut down to just two or three people. It’s really sad, and we’re trying to do what we can.”

Imam Abdul Hamid Samra, a lecturer in the College of Engineering, serves as spiritual guide for the University’s Muslim students. He is also the iman of a mosque in Miami Gardens.

“Everything has moved to virtual—we’re trying to give some spiritual help and support and make sure that everybody is fine or know if anyone needs any help,” he explained.

Friday prayer service, the main weekly service generally attended by 80 to 100 people and held in the Shalala Student Center, has posed the biggest challenge.

“The Friday afternoon prayer service has to be in a congregation where people can pray together,” Samra said. “We have five daily prayers, and it’s very much advisable, especially for the early morning and evening prayer, to be held at the mosque—these are the kind of things that we are missing.

“Yet in our worship there are a lot of things we do individually that we’re now trying to concentrate on, encouraging people to do themselves. Do it with your family, do it together. If you have a roommate, pray together,” Samra said.

For now, the Friday congregation service has been replaced with a virtual teaching session from the Koran and discussions. And students this week arranged for a special Friday evening virtual meal.

Joe Lortie, who has served as University Christian Fellowship chaplain for 26 years, is facilitating a Wednesday Zoom meeting for leaders and students, running three small group meetings weekly, and coordinating the regular schedule of Sunday morning services.

The Christian-based ministries had planned to do a combined Good Friday service, as they generally do, Lortie said, but those plans had to be canceled. 

“We’re all doing our own thing for Easter this year,” he said, adding that his Easter service message will focus on peace from a Christian perspective. “Our church is not liturgical in nature,” Lortie noted, “and our service will be quieter, more peaceful in nature, and will have a time for prayer.”

Lortie describes himself as being more a teacher than a preacher. “I want my students to interact with me, so I throw questions at them,” he said. “That’s still my format, but the challenge is how to make that personal in a Zoom meeting.”

With spring break recess held recently, this time of year would ordinarily be busy with mission work. Lortie noted that a planned student trip to the Bahamas to offer hurricane disaster relief was canceled.

Paige Holaday, who graduated with a master’s in divinity last year, was hired last June as the outreach director at Wesley Methodist Center. Then, when the executive director resigned, Holaday was promoted to the interim director role. The phrase “baptism by fire” couldn’t be more apropos.

“Well, it’s definitely been an incredible year with lots of learning so far,” Holaday said.

Sunday community nights, three weekly events, interactions with student interns, and other devotionals have been moved online. Holaday maintains an active Wesley social media presence and generates weekly sermons to share with students.

“We believe and practice that the chaplain does not have all the information, and that the students have a lot to share,” Holaday said. “Our sermons are very interactive, so the challenge has been how do we preserve that ethos while taking seriously the social distancing and precautions.” She said the Zoom capability for breakout rooms has been helpful.

Wesley maintains a living facility near campus for a handful of students, several of whom were not able to return home. Check-ins with those students continues to be conducted online as well, according to Holaday.  

Frank Corbishley, chaplain for the St. Bede Episcopal Church Center, has been generating a weekly online prayer service, keeping in touch with the wider group via group emails, and with students still in Miami via phone and text. He’s been particularly worried about loneliness for students who are unable to interact with others and has several Chinese graduate students who, early in the outbreak, were “frantic about their families back home and are now facing the epidemic here.”

Despite these many good attempts to engage students and maintain connection through remote ministry, Rabbi Rothman admits that something is lost.

“If we’re not together physically, we’re missing something. A virtual community can never replace true human interaction,” Rothman said. “So we can be the best, most prepared clergy, staff members, and professionals, but if we can’t have the most basic form of human interaction, then we’re missing something.”

To contact these and other campus ministries, visit the Chaplains Association at https://doso.studentaffairs.miami.edu/chaplains-association/index.html

In addition, a complete list of virtual programs and services offered to students is available at http://miami.edu/stayconnected