Virtual Sunday school: Where faith endures under lockdown

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COVID-19 has caused all kinds of rituals to evolve. Yet many Americans are adapting to new rhythms with open minds. Families of faith have found that home can double as a house of worship.

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Nadia Chaouch reads to her son Yusuf Kamel as they wait to break the Ramadan daily fast with an iftar meal in their home in Seattle, April 28, 2020. During the pandemic, the family is celebrating Ramadan with prayer and reflection at home, rather than in community gatherings and mosques.

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Handling religious education can be a tall task for parents pressed to oversee their children’s remote learning while making a living. Yet some families are experimenting with creative forms of spiritual instruction, whether online or through an increased parent role, because they see faith as an aid for helping their children process the pandemic with some hope and stability. 

Parents play a big role in their children’s spiritual development by role-modeling, says Lisa Pearce, a professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. How parents are responding to the pandemic may open up opportunities to connect with their kids about their faith, or cause friction if parents are too forceful, she adds. 

After the coronavirus outbreak halted in-person services at Rachel Lambourne’s local chapel of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she and her family moved Sunday worship inside their home in Fremont, California, and let the kids pick the music and give talks.    

“I think the peace that we generally feel when we are together, when we are praying together, that peace is the only thing that can really transcend all of the worry and confusion,” she says.

For parents who usually bring their children to churches, mosques, or synagogues, the coronavirus pandemic has cast yet another role on their shoulders: spiritual educator-in-residence. 

Handling religious education can be a tall task for parents pressed to oversee their children’s K-12 remote learning while making a living. Yet some families are experimenting with creative forms of spiritual instruction, whether online or through an increased parent role, because they see faith as an aid for helping their children process the pandemic with some hope and stability. 

“Judaism as a religion has been around for a long time, obviously, and has been through a lot. A lot of these rituals and structures, the language itself, the prayers, they’ve been fairly stable and that helps anchor [our son],” says Rob Seesengood of Reading, Pennsylvania. His 10-year-old son now attends Hebrew school online, and meets with classmates virtually to sing prayers before the traditional Friday evening candle lighting to mark the Sabbath. 

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Participation in organized religion is declining in the United States, with drop-offs in regular worship attendance and a fast-growing segment of the population identifying themselves as holding no religious affiliation. However, the global pandemic seems to have sparked some interest in matters of faith. A March poll from Pew Research Center found that more than half of U.S. adults have prayed for an end to the spread of the coronavirus, including 15% of those who seldom or never pray. 

Irwansyah Putra/Antara Foto/Reuters
Children pray as they attend an online service to celebrate Good Friday at their home amid the spread of coronavirus outbreak, in Aceh, Indonesia, April 10, 2020.

About 45% of the U.S. adult population attend religious services at least monthly, according to a 2019 Pew report. Since the coronavirus outbreak, more than half of regular attendees have reported watching religious services online or on TV instead of in person, and 51% of Americans believe in-person religious services should be permitted in some form during the pandemic, according to a recent poll by the University of Chicago Divinity School and AP-NORC.

While there’s little data on kids and religion during the pandemic, a number of religious institutions are experimenting with new formats and are releasing content geared specifically for kids, such as the free online Sunday school curriculum prepared by LifeWay Christian Resources, a publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. 

“I do think, similar to schools, religious institutions are taking this opportunity to advertise what may have been existing online resources, or working to build up more of those. Parents may also be turning to some of those resources,” says Lisa Pearce, a professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who researches family and religion.

Amanda Rabineau, a mother of four from Vestal, New York, says her local church moved its Sunday school and worship service to the online platform Zoom. Her kids recently listened to their teacher read the story of David and Goliath in the Bible and drew pictures. Afterward, the whole family sat on their couch to watch the pastor preach and to sing songs together.  

As parents decide how much to engage with the virtual tools offered to them by their faith communities, they’re also weighing how to practice their religion in their home and how to discuss some of the deeper questions provoked by the pandemic. 

Akif Aydin, a Muslim father of three from Greenville, South Carolina, says his children are experiencing a heightened fear of death since the coronavirus outbreak. He and his wife are talking with them about what death means in the Islamic tradition and reasons why the pandemic might be occurring.

“[We are] trying to explain at their level of understanding,” using simple language, he says.

Elizabeth Vice, the children’s spiritual formation director at Two Rivers Church, a Charleston, South Carolina, congregation of the United Methodist Church, hosts Facebook Live videos for parents demonstrating activities they can do with their kids, like telling the resurrection story while building with stones or Legos. She’s also shared tips for talking with children about grief or death. 

“We had a lot of modeling of how to have a religious conversation with your child because a lot of our families don’t tend to come from overly churched backgrounds,” she says.  

Parents play a big role in their children’s spiritual development by role-modeling, says Professor Pearce. How parents are responding to the pandemic may open up opportunities to connect with their kids about their faith, or cause friction if parents are too forceful, she says. 

Jason Redmond/Reuters
Members of the McClenahan family (L-R) Helen, daughter Isla, son Cade, and husband Tyler watch Pope Francis' special prayer from the Vatican at home, as efforts continue to help slow the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Seattle, Washington, on March 27, 2020.

“I think a lot of people turn to religion or spiritual practices to cope with anxiety or difficult situations. If there’s more of that happening in the home, then that’s going to open up examples or opportunities to see that or talk about it,” she says. “The negative flip side of that can be, I also see in my research that parents do try to force religion and spirituality on their kids. That’s not really successful when it ends up being contentious and really tense and children might be resistant.” 

Parents across faith backgrounds generally feel confident answering their children’s questions about religion, says Michael Rotolo, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Notre Dame and co-author of the book “Religious Parenting: Transmitting Faith and Values in Contemporary America.”

“In the event that they didn’t have the answer to their children’s question, [some parents said] they would be open to figuring it out together with their child,” Mr. Rotolo says. “There were actually quite a few parents who felt the internet would be a good enough resource to help answer those questions.” 

After the coronavirus outbreak halted in-person services at Rachel Lambourne’s local chapel of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she and her family moved Sunday worship inside their home in Fremont, California, and let the kids pick the music and give talks. 

While the family worries about those they know who are affected by the coronavirus, Ms. Lambourne appreciates the easing of their rushed lifestyle and the extra time spent praying, singing, and talking together as a family about their faith.  

“I think the peace that we generally feel when we are together, when we are praying together, that peace is the only thing that can really transcend all of the worry and confusion,” she says. 

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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