New Orleans’ Residents Return to Traditional Healing as Cases of COVID-19 Continue to Grow

New Orleans’ Residents Return to Traditional Healing as Cases of COVID-19 Continue to Grow

Esohe Osabuohien |

Photo by Education Images/Getty Images

The people of New Orleans are no strangers to crisis. Over the last 15 years, they have been pummeled by hurricanes, unusual concentrations of cancer cases and, now, the onslaught of the novel coronavirus. The impact of coronavirus on the state of Louisiana and its residents has been amplified as a result of their preexisting environmental and health concerns.

The statistics are staggering. In Louisiana, African American residents make up over 50 percent of COVID-19 related deaths, despite being only 33 percent of the state’s population. In addition, the Indian Health Service reports an overall 10 percent increase in positive cases throughout the indigenous population. However, environmental activists believe that the issues they are currently facing are exacerbated by Louisiana’s long-standing environmental crisis.

But just as the New Orleans community has its own challenges, it also has its own remedies. In addition to gloves and face masks and social distancing and COVID-19 testing, it also has plant medicines and traditional spirituality that have sustained the community for generations.

Angela Comeaux is a clinical research nurse and member of the Bvlbancha Collective – an indigenous and ally cooperative that makes plant medicine, regalia and focuses on the support of indigenous communities. Before the outbreak, the collective used to convene twice a week for ceremonial services and prayer and to make traditional medicine. Now their sessions have gone virtual, with prayer taking place every Saturday and Sunday in their respective homes.

“Spirituality is very nature-oriented,” Comeaux said.

All of the medicine and elixirs that they sell are locally sourced, using only what is available and in season. This has also produced some challenges, especially during the time of COVID-19. Comeaux notes that their store sold out of the herb Spanish Needle, a plant that carries anti-malaria properties and has been used to treat the flu and other infections. Additionally, she’s noticed an increase in orders for medicinal herbs with immune-boosting properties.

Prior to COVID-19, the collective would primarily tend to the immediate neighboring communities. However, with the strengthening of social distancing rules, and demands for preventive herbal remedies, they have taken to social media to not only confirm orders but to check-in on group members that might be feeling isolated or are in need of support due to recent layoffs.

Technology is not traditionally used in the spiritual practices of indigenous communities. In the past, many tribal elders have shunned the use of technology as it counters the traditional practices and potentially leaves sacred ceremonies vulnerable to being shared with non-members.

Alternatively, for other traditionally private religions, technology has been able to assist practitioners to go beyond connecting with fellow members but provide services to those not a part of their faith as well.

Janet Evans, who is widely referred to as Mama Sula, is a priestess of Mami Wata, a water spirit associated with West African Vodun, folk Catholicism and Louisiana Voodoo. She is also a student of the orishas, deities of the Yoruba tradition, and provides services such as spiritual cleansings and readings based on the traditions at the Temple of Light (Ile de Coin-Coin), home for the Mami Wata shrine which honors ancestral femininity, in New Orleans.

However, since the onset of COVID-19 Mama Sula has had to take her services online and over the phone. Communicating with clients and attendees of the Temple of Light in virtual spaces is not new for Mama Sula; she hosts a weekly class on Facebook Live for children and their parents, educating them through story and song on spiritual baths, the act of pouring libations – the ritual pouring of a liquid as an offering to a god or ancestor – and Asase Yaa, or Mother Nature/ Earth goddess of fertility of the Asante people in Ghana. But what is new for her is the lack of new clients and income coming in.

“Putting out $100 for a reading may not be a priority for them, it’s more of a luxury at this time,” Mama Sula said.

Most of Mama Sula’s services average about $150, with business blessings starting at $300 and up depending on the service performed. She states that prior to COVID-19, she would make anywhere from $100 to $1,500 on a good week where she could see three or six clients a day.

Although business is slow for Mama Sula right now, she remains hopeful about the current state of things in New Orleans and looks forward to meeting with clients at the temple again in person.

“These last four weeks have been remarkable for me,” Mama Sula said. She has found that the pause created by coronavirus has prompted her to source her own natural medicine and start a medicinal farm. “We work really hard, and it feels nice to get some relief and be able to sit down and create,” Mama Sula continued.

On the other hand, while the opportunity to assist more people in need and connect with other members of the indigenous community has presented itself to Angela Comeaux and other members of the Bvlbancha Collective, they are still plagued with growing environmental concerns, such as rising sea levels and wetland erosion negatively impacting the herbs and plants, like river cane, often used during ceremonies and for making medicine. Then there is COVID-19, which will force many indigenous communities to rethink the ways in which their pipe and sweat lodge ceremonies can safely operate during the time of coronavirus.

“Indigenous culture is going to have to adapt, but it’s been adapting since the beginning of time. We just don’t know what that looks like yet,” Comeaux said.

A Shelter in the Bronx Where the Homeless and the Friars Shelter Together

A version of this story was published in Religion News Service

A Shelter in the Bronx Where the Homeless and the Friars Shelter Together

Zoé Chevalier |

Photo by Friars of the Renewal

On a sunny spring afternoon, a dozen men stand around a cornhole game. The excitement is palpable. On a video of the event, they are laughing, screaming and high-fiving each other while a loudspeaker projects the voice of the organizer. The video slows down to enjoy the gripping moment when the bean bag-like object enters the goal. Points are scored. The excitement builds. Things seem normal. But upon closer look, this group of friends consists of two very different populations: Franciscan friars, in their traditional grey habit, and homeless men.

The video was shot in mid-April by one of the missionaries at the Saint Anthony Shelter for Renewal on East 156th Street in the South Bronx. The game takes place in the courtyard area of the complex that was once a Catholic school. It has been transformed to host two friaries (St. Crispin and Our Lady of the Angels), a homeless shelter, a youth center and an auditorium. Friars and guests live in a community with each other, but the COVID-induced quarantine has intertwined their lives more than ever.

The men gathered at St. Anthony’s are an unusual response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The friars have chosen to be close to the men they serve, in effect quarantine with them until the danger passes. While they share meals, prayers and recreation, they do their best to maintain social distancing rules.

It has been something of an adjustment, both for the friars and for the homeless men. The friars have to contend with serving three meals a day, and keeping the shelter running around the clock. The guests have had to follow strict rules about drugs, alcohol and even bedtime. In the process, they have become a community.

“It’s been a challenge for them and for us, but there is a feeling that we are all in this together,” says Father John-Mary, one of the friars.


The Saint Anthony shelter is part of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, a community that was founded in the Bronx in 1987 by Benedict Groeschel and seven others. As Catholics, the friars follow the direction of the Pope, and their main values are those of poverty, chastity and obedience. But the friars distinguish themselves by continuing the tradition of St. Francis of Assisi, known for his life of penance, charity and solitude.

“We live things a little more intentionally or intensely,” says another member of the friary, Father Mark-Mary. The friars devote themselves to a life of poverty, living in the hardest neighborhoods, begging for food and depending on donations for survival. They have no personal bank accounts, little technology and devote themselves to serving the poorest. If a neighborhood got “too nice,” the friars are asked to leave to a more impoverished community, according to Mark-Mary.

The friars believe in a hands-on approach to helping the poor. “The Gospel tells us to take care of our neighbor,” says John-Mary, adding that he believes in the approach of “Give them a sandwich, not just a blessing.”

This Franciscan order has 15 friaries and about 140 friars around the world, including Ireland, Nicaragua and Honduras. At the St. Crispin Friary in the Bronx, where the shelter is located, there are about 10 friars, 20 missionaries, volunteers who come to live in the community for a year, and 30 guests, in need of shelter. It is hard to get an exact number because the friars seem to live in a number-free community, there are no limits on how many friars can join, there will always be room for one more.


Father Mark-Mary, has been with the community for 11 years, and although he lives in the other friary, Our Lady of the Angels, he now has to help out at the shelter. Mark-Mary is usually in charge of a youth program, teaching catechism to children of the neighborhood, but since the pandemic started, the complex closed its door to the outside, and the classes transitioned to Zoom. Now, he works one day a week at the shelter.

His interest in the Franciscan order came in a rather unexpected way. One night as a teenager in Orange County, California, where he grew up, Mark-Mary says he was eating at In'n'out Burger, a classic fast-food chain in California when a young man approached him and started talking about this unusual order. He was talking about “hard-core Franciscans who sleep on the ground,” said Mark-Mary, and his interest was piqued. Fresh out of college, Father Mark-Mary came to join the friary.

Joining the order is a serious process. First, the applicant does a few phone interviews with the friars, in order to assess his interest. The next step is to come visit. Once a month pre-quarantine, the friars would welcome the potential new recruits for an introduction into the friar's life. In May, applicants are invited to stay for a couple of weeks, in which they are required to take a psychological exam, to make sure that they can take on a life of penitence and service.

Postulants then start in September for 10 months, after which they are allowed to leave or go on to Novitiate, during which they start wearing the habit and choose a religious name. Four years later are the final vows. The final step, if the new Friar wants to become a priest, is to study for another four years of seminary, after which they can be ordained.


This strict life is often very different from the one their guests live. The Friars pray together four to five hours a day, according to Father Mark-Mary, and most of their remaining time is spent serving others at the shelter, the food bank or the youth program that they run. There is often not much time for leisure, and the commitment is complete and life-long.

Before the quarantine, Jorge, one of the guests at the shelter, would spend his days walking around the neighborhood, take the subway downtown and go to WholeFoods, get a coffee, sit in the park and watch a movie, he would wait for the time to pass until he could get back to the shelter. Some other guests spent their days at the library, where they could watch movies on their phones or play chess together. Others would go to work or look for a job or apartment. Some had social workers meetings and programs to go to.

Every night, Jorge would take the mandatory breathalyzer, and drop his belongings in box 23. These were things like food and pills that were not allowed in the rooms, he also had to give away his phone, which stayed in the office for the night. The men’s belongings are often searched for drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, and any “risqué publications,” all forbidden according to John-Mary. Brother Patrick explained that “It is a catholic environment, guests are immersed in the norms of the community,” although they do not have to be catholic to be offered a room.

Jorge would then have dinner and activities with the men, and retreat to his room. At 9 p.m. the lights would go off and come back on at 5:30 a.m. the next day. Jorge is not a morning person, and having to do all his chores, shower, eat breakfast and be out the door by 6:45 was always a struggle. He would often forget his wallet behind.

These different lifestyles often clash. “I don’t like my freedom taken away from me,” says Jorge, laughingly, adding that he is very grateful the friars offered him a place to stay, and that “They are very strict but there is a reason why (...) I've never heard of a shelter like that.”


The shelter runs on order, discipline and a fine-tuned schedule. But now everything has changed. Having the men stay in around the clock while maintaining social distancing rules has been a challenge. The guests now eat in shifts, to avoid being all in the same room at the same time, they wear masks, and most importantly, are not allowed out of the complex.

Some rules have changed during the quarantine, so the men are allowed to have their phones during the day, and smoke in the little garden outside the shelter. Jorge used this opportunity to connect to his sister's Netflix to watch action movies and play games on his phone to avoid getting bored.

To occupy the guests, socially distanced movie nights are organized every other day, where they watch “family-friendly movies” found on Pureflix, a Christian version of Netflix.

The friars even buy guests cigarettes, but only three or four are allowed a day. Jorge, who just left the shelter to live with his mother, laughs during our interview: “I’ve already smoked three since we started talking!”

The shelter structures and discipline is good for him, Jorge thinks, but he also struggles with the added control exerted on him during the quarantine. Now he only gets out once a week for his medical visit, driven by one of the friars. Before leaving the complex, he had to explain why his appointment was necessary and let one of the friars speak with his doctor. “I didn’t sign up for that,” says Jorge. He was uncomfortable with his doctors learning that he was homeless.


Because of high demand, Jorge’s spot at the shelter was not easy to get, and he was willing to sacrifice some liberty in order to be part of this special community. When the quarantine started, he had already been there for five months but decided to stay at the shelter.

Jorge used to be a cook, but his life took a turn when he lost his job due to a disability that made it hard for him to walk and breathe. He would drop hot pans in the kitchen, shaking, he would put himself in danger, and was eventually fired. Without this income, he soon wasn't able to pay for rent, and his landlord decided to take him to court. Jorge packed his belongings in a big bag and left his Bronx apartment, where he had been living for the past 12 years with nowhere to go. He headed to 14th street and spent a week sleeping in a park, in the subway, or on a makeshift bed in front of the Salvation Army.

He relied on people he met on the streets to figure out his next move: “I had never been in this environment, I had never been homeless before,” he says. One day he met a man who told him about a shelter on Lafayette Street, he headed there and stayed a few nights. There he met another man, who had just come from the St Anthony shelter, and got kicked out because he started using again. There might be a free bed now he said, Jorge trekked to the Bronx to try.

At 6:30 p.m. every evening, men lined up at the door of the Saint Anthony Shelter for Renewal in the Bronx, coming back to one of the 30 beds available for the night. Some had been there since 9 a.m. to get one of the few openings when someone leaves, usually after a six months stay. When the doors opened, they were breathalyzed and had access to a bed, a hot dinner and breakfast. At 6:45 a.m. the next day they would be on their way in the streets of New York City, living their lives for 12 hours before curfew.

Jorge came five days in a row around 5 a.m., he wanted to be first in line in case a bed opened up. On the fifth day, there was an opening and after a negative breathalyzer, he was admitted. In the meantime, he heard that his friend who told him about St Anthony died of an overdose. “He was a good guy,” says Jorge, who himself had been clean for three months “I know what addiction does, ” he added, “I get high in my head and I end up alone, miserable, broke and unhappy.” The shelter provides solace from these problems and a place to reconnect with his Catholic upbringing.


Easter was not the most festive this year. Usually, all the friars from across the friaries get together and have a nice meal for Holy Thursday, this did not happen this year. Although the liturgy was the same, “it was all much simpler” said Father Mark-Mary. No flowers decorated the Church, and the doors were not open for Sunday mass. The music was much simpler too, without the usual 15 musicians who would usually come.

But despite their best efforts to avoid any outside interaction, COVID did not spare the friary. Michael Kearney, 23, a missionary has had to quarantine in his room for two weeks as he showed mild symptoms. In an interview, Kearney said that the biography of Mother Theresa, and the tomato soup and grilled cheese prepared by Jimmy, the cook, got him through. He also read the NY Times and watched a lot of Terrence Malick movies.

Five friars have had the virus, including Father Luis, the head of the shelter who Jorge describes as “the rock.” Two missionaries also showed symptoms. The six-floor of the friary has then been converted in a makeshift quarantine zone, where the men isolate and are brought meals three times a day.

Another source of worry was food supplies. The friary usually depends on a New Jersey Food Bank, but deliveries have stopped with the fear that their elderly drivers would be at risk. So others stepped in to deliver food.

Somehow Jimmy, the cook for the shelter always manages. “He’s the best,” says Jorge, adding that during the Holidays, thanks to a donation, all the men were treated to lobster tails and filet mignon. He still remembers it with emotion.

But the most heartbreaking to Father John was to see one of the volunteers who usually help out at the shelter come back to use the Food Bank for himself. After losing his job, he now needed the friars to support him, too.


Despite all this, the friars are keeping a hopeful attitude. Father Mark-Mary cited the long tradition of Franciscans serving and dying during plagues and says that it is expected to continue helping others. “We have given our life to suffer with those who are sick and vulnerable,” he says.

Jorge left the shelter a week ago and now lives with his mother in the Bronx. He missed being able to attend mass at the friary for Easter but enjoys the new found freedom he gets from walking around the neighborhood every day. He found a subsidized apartment and looks forward to moving in when the quarantine ends.

“I have been blessed,” says Jorge, who strengthened his Catholic faith at the shelter. “I speak to God in a normal basis, like he was a normal person.”

No Atheists in the Foxhole

No Atheists in the Foxhole

Neha Mehrotra |

Robert Harding / Getty Images

It’s Thursday, April 8, the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Passover, and Hillel, the Center for Jewish student life at Columbia and Barnard, is hosting its annual Seder – traditionally a time to gather around a table with family and friends. The center’s rabbinic intern, Andrew Oberstein, is officiating at the celebration. But today, when Oberstein kicks off the evening asking, “What makes this night different from all other nights?” he is referring to something over and above Passover’s traditional history. Though the formal characteristics of the occasion are the same—they will still have four questions, there will still be four children, they will still sing dayenu and they will still retell the story of Israelites exodus from Egypt—Passover is exceptionally unique this year.

Rather than sitting with others at a holiday table, Oberstein sits all alone in his living room in the Upper West Side, staring at his computer screen. People on his right and left are in their own homes instead of at his side. With grocery stores transformed into the new danger zones, tonight’s Seder plate consists of leftovers from his kitchen, though in one form or another, all the essential symbolic elements are there: the shank bone, vegetables, bitter herbs, eggs and a fruit and nut dish known as haroset.

This is Oberstein’s first—and God willing his last—Zoom Seder.

For years, surveys have indicated that Millennials (born 1981-1996) and Generation Z’ers (born 1997 onwards) are far less likely than older generations to identify with a religious group. Overall, 35% of adult Millennials, i.e., one in three, identify themselves as “religiously unaffiliated.” This is hardly a surprise, given the irreverent world we now live in. Rather than look up, we now prefer to look askance. We no longer need God to answer questions beyond our reach. The internet suffices. When Nietzche said that God is dead, he was prescient. Agency is no longer surrendered to a higher power; instead, humans control their own lives. We are our own gods.

But to those who proclaim religion’s obsolescence, the Coronavirus pandemic sweeping the world has foregrounded a different reality: Far from being obsolete, religion has adapted to the need of the times, and in the process, has succeeded in proving its own dynamism and continued relevance. Amongst the younger generation too, religion—if once seen as static dogma—is now appreciated for its reflexive, reflective timelessness.

April is a time of renewal in religions all around the world: Jews celebrate Passover; Christians come together for Easter; Muslims fast for Ramadan; Hindus light firecrackers for Ram Navmi; and Sikhs offer societal service for Baisakhi. This year, as students across the country vacated college campuses and returned home, on-campus festivities were understandably abrogated. But as Columbia Religious Life communities attempted to salvage what little celebratory spirit they could, they realized that COVID-19 might have derailed some aspects of their yearly rituals, but it had accentuated other, more underlying, connotations of the festivals themselves.

“In many ways, an out of the ordinary Passover is part of the fabric of Jewish history,” said Oberstein at the start of the virtual Seder. Oberstein, a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, only recently joined the Columbia/Barnard team as an intern. The online group he is officiating at today comprises 20 people, most of them students and alumni of the university, tuning in from the isolation of their homes.

“Jews kept Passover in underground caves during the Crusades, they kept it during the Holocaust, in ghettos, in concentration camps. And today, it’s a new reality. Today, we gather alone in front of our Ipads and laptops. But the spirit of the holiday is stronger than COVID-19 and maybe now, more than ever before in our lives, we need this story of the possibility of redemption, the story of hope.”

The very next day, Columbia Muslim Life hosts its weekly Friday Jummah Zoom. The student religious life adviser for Muslims, Amina Darwish, introduces the speaker for the afternoon: Imam Suzanne Kasim from Berkeley, California, who will be heading the prayer today. It’s the week leading up to Ramadan, and Kasim’s sermon emphasizes the holiday’s significance in these crisis-ridden times.

Darwish, who earned her traditional Islamic studies certifications from the Qalam Seminary in Dallas, and the Critical Loyalty Seminary in Toronto, Canada, knows Kasim from before, and the two keep up a warm, friendly banter throughout the sermon. Their conversation is punctuated by frequent laughter. “I love laughing with you friend,” exclaims Darwish at one point. “We always laugh so much, we do,” sighs Kasim.

Kasim goes on to frame her sermon around the twin axes of qadr (Allah’s divine decree to his followers) and dua’ah (followers supplication to Allah): “On the night of Ramadan, any dua’ah you make is answered,” says Kasim. Ideally, if you’re dua’ah is strong, it can push adversity away. If you’re dua’ah is weak, meaning you’re distracted, or you don’t have a strong relationship with Allah, you are liable to be afflicted with calamity. Ramadan, however, is a special circumstance. “If an illness or calamity happens, and a person makes a dua’ah on Ramadan, that dua’ah has the power to change Allah’s qadr. Allah accepts that person’s supplication and changes His decree.” And so Kasim encourages Muslim students to spend Ramadan supplicating to Allah to deliver humanity from this pandemic.

Personally, Kasim believes Allah has a purpose for the pandemic. “I think we have been abusing ourselves and the people and the earth around us. And Allah has paused everybody to think about what we’re doing. This is a pause.” Though Amina Darwish, the Islamic life advisor, agrees, she knows that for some students, this is going to be a really difficult test. “I know a student who lost her job because of this crisis and is now struggling to pay rent,” she says. Students come to Darwish with all kinds of concerns, now more than usual. Someone wants to know how they can serve those less fortunate than themselves; another student is worried about her grandmother, who is in a nursing home in Harlem; a third wonders how to sustain a sense of community in times like these. “I don’t think people’s religiosity has increased but they are more self-reflective now. Because they have so much time, they have turned inwards,” says Darwish.

Two days after Friday Jummah, it’s, once again, a time for celebration. Easter Sunday is here, and 39-year-old Ryan Kuratko, the chaplain of Columbia’s Episcopal Campus Ministry, has a packed evening: a 5 p.m. Bible study followed by a 6 p.m. Easter service. Only two students show up online for the Bible study, but one of them, undergraduate student Andi Dixon, encourages me to come for the 6 p.m. service because, as she puts it, “everyone and their mothers will be there.” And true enough: 17 students tune in an hour later, some accompanied by mothers, fathers, grandmothers, others settled in bed, alone but happy enough to chatter away. In fact, Kuratko’s own father has tuned in from North Carolina, and sits through the entire service, beaming proudly.

“In a way, online services are more intimate, more personal, because you can see people in their own homes, with their own family, like peeking into their window,” says Kuratko. Before this, Kuratko had never seen student Christine Piazza’s bedroom; he didn’t know Madeleine George gorged on chocolate when home alone; and he had definitely never met so many students’ parents all at once. “It’s a new kind of community,” he says.

It is indeed a new kind of community, even if it’s a smaller one: Across the board, Columbia’s religious life advisors agreed that the number of students attending weekly meetings has fallen, approximately by half. However, they didn’t think this was an indication of anything other than students having left campus to go back home. “This is just a disruptive moment,” says 40-year-old Rev. Dr. Ian Rottenberg, Dean of Religious Life. “My guess would be every event that had 20 people prior to students dispersing has seen drop offs. If I had been a college student, I wouldn’t have gone to my clubs at a time like this. I would just be trying to finish the semester. And a lot of students I’ve spoken to, their usual clubs have not reconvened since the breakup. So I don’t think it’s a religion specific thing. In fact, a 50% attrition rate is pretty good I would say.”

Though weekly attendance has fallen, the number of appointment requests for religious counseling received by Rottenger’s office have remained more or less constant. For his part, Rottenberg has noticed increased anxiety amongst students. “This is because students are losing family members. And the worst part is, they can’t even be there with their loved ones at a time like this. People are passing away, and students can’t even have a funeral service for them, can’t pay tribute to them as they deserve.”

Times like these have, as many of the people I spoke to pointed out, propelled an acute religious awareness.

“Even my nonreligious friends are grappling with this,” says Simran Jeet Singh, the 35-year-old Sikh pastor at Columbia. “People are realizing what the absence of community means, and are trying to connect - with themselves, with other people. And now they finally have the time to do it.” Darwish, the Islamic life advisor, admits that she has been praying a lot more, for people in all corners of the world whom she doesn't even know.

Virtual Buddhist meditation circles are witnessing an increase in new members frequenting weekly sit-ins to calm their anxieties. “Buddhist teachings allow students to take this crisis well,” says Rev. Doyeon Park, Buddhist religious life advisor at Columbia who received full ordination in 2007 and has since been working in New York City. “Because Buddhism teaches them about impermanence and how to cope with these changed conditions.”

Forty-one-year-old Father Dan O’Reilly, Director of Columbia Catholic Ministry, puts it most succinctly: “There are no atheists in the foxhole.”

Aria for the Bounty outside my window after Sharon Olds

Reflection Through Poetry

Aria for the Bounty outside my window
after Sharon Olds

Kate Cammell |

Pleasant Ave, East Harlem / Photo by Kate Cammell

I’d never noticed that there
are twelve of them on my block, trees
with branches like varicose veins, twisted
toward sky. Their nakedness
casting soft linear shadows
on the sidewalk. When
had their leaves fallen? I’d been
so damn busy in Autumn. I
can’t even remember
what color they turned. Perhaps
orange, but I couldn’t name
the hue. Maybe a shade like
campfire or papaya innards? But
now, I suppose, I’ll have time
to watch buds appear and to make
up for not knowing
which railings birds prefer
for perching on the wrought
iron fence across the street. I
can wake up and sit
in the light of my bay window
and notice the man wearing
a corduroy jacket buttoned
halfway up, his beret tilted
slightly—it’s important
to look crisp in a crisis
I think, letting ourselves pretend
in whatever way we
can to have control, sometimes
we need that. This morning
I made coffee and drank it
out of a pale pink Ikea
mug, then I did something
unbecoming of the New
Yorker I’d convinced
myself I am, I waved to people
rolling their metal carts
down the street, having just
pillaged shelves of the Harlem
Costco one block down. I
stood inches from
the glass, to be closer
to them and so I could
taste my own breath
bouncing back at me, a reminder
that I am alive. Every so often
a car honks their horn
at the nearby intersection and I’ll let
myself believe that they’re saying
hello to me. Saying we see you
by the window and we
are in this together. I’ve
started smiling back
at the face someone carved
in wet cement, now frozen
forever on the sidewalk below
my window. Yesterday, a
man strolled by after a successful
supply run, his cart bursting
with Bounty paper towel
packaged in groups of six, nestled
in plastic covering, ready
to provide—mental manna
for indefinite isolation. The man rested
his hand atop the package, perhaps
for stability but I saw
what I wanted. And
that was a gentle touch. Like
a measure reserved for loved
ones, and it was comforting
to think of being touched
as I looked out at a street
where people were speed-walking
to the safety of a home, their
Bounty in tow

You can Zoom a Mass, but Confirmation will have to wait

A version of this story was published in Religion News Service

You can Zoom a Mass, but Confirmation will have to wait

Ricardo da Silva, S.J. |

Rev. Paul Rospond presides at the Good Friday liturgy from the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in Manhattan, New York, streamed online.

Since the beginning of February, a small group of Roman Catholic young adults has been meeting at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in Manhattan, to prepare for the rite of Confirmation which they were to receive this Easter.

For the past three years, Emily da Silva-Prado, 25, had not managed to organize herself to attend Confirmation classes. When she enrolled this January, she was determined that by Easter 2020 she would be Confirmed.

But only a few weeks into da Silva-Prado’s instruction, the coronavirus would strike New York, shutting down all non-essential services in the city. Among these, religious institutions like St. Paul’s.

“To be honest with you, I just didn’t take it seriously for quite a while,” da Silva-Prado said, remembering her initial reaction to the public health crisis that has, now, crippled New York and much of the world.

But the unreality of the situation would quickly change for her.

“It got really real for me when we canceled class.”

Suddenly, the Sacrament da Silva-Prado had put off for three years, now deeply desired and had finally been preparing to receive, was left in the balance.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that during the celebration of the Sacrament of Confirmation, believers are “enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit” and become “true witnesses of Christ,” completing the grace they received during the Sacrament of Baptism, which most receive as a child.

Confirmation has its roots in both the Christian and Jewish traditions.

In the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles in the Christian Bible, the disciples are gathered in Jerusalem during Pentecost, a word that stems from the Greek for “fifty.”

The scripture recounts how 50 days after the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and 50 days after the Jewish celebration of Passover — “a noise like a strong driving wind” entered the room where they were gathered and with it, “tongues as of fire which parted and came to rest on each one of them.” When this happened, the disciples “were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.”

It is from this collective experience that the Christian community is said to have been born. In that instant — even though they spoke different languages — their common experience united them in understanding. That experience, Catholics say, is much like the status of their church today, a church that is spread across the world yet follows the same liturgical ritual and offers the same Sacraments to believers everywhere.

A first-generation American Brazilian, da Silva-Prado was raised Catholic. But as a teenager, when the time came for her to be confirmed, she had other things on her mind.

“This is full disclosure,” she said, looking down, her cheeks growing redder and redder. “It was more for a boy.”

She left the Catholic Church so that she could spend more time with her high school sweetheart.

As a young high schooler at the time, she reckoned she could fulfill both her desire to go to church and to be with her boyfriend, by going to his Brazilian Baptist church instead. Not long after, she encouraged her mother to join her — leaving her father to attend Catholic Mass on his own.

But two years ago, following a “conversion” trip to Italy, da Silva-Prado, who is an art historian and educator of ancient religious works at The Frick Collection, decided it was time to return to the church of her childhood.

“I don’t know,” she said, “When I was at the different churches; when I was in Rome; when I went to the Vatican — something happened where it just all made sense.” It was then that da Silva-Prado decided to begin Confirmation classes. But, short of two months in, with the coronavirus taking hold in New York, her class was quickly forced to find a new way to meet.

After the citywide shutdown, the priest teaching the class, the Rev. Paul Rospond, was determined to continue the program he began teaching at the parish center. “I can actually see the people’s faces on Zoom,” he said, laughing at a discovery that now seemed silly to him. “It took me a week to figure it out!”

Before the coronavirus hit — a time now jokingly referred to as time B.C. — the priest, who is 68 years old, had never taught a class on Zoom, the online video conferencing platform that allows people from all over to meet in a virtual room. “It’s a little more difficult,” he said. “You don’t get the same kind of rapport or feedback.” But, “I’m grateful that I have a way to continue, that gives me some hope that we’re finding ways to continue our ministry. That’s very important. Now, when people will get confirmed, who knows.”

“It’s a time where we really have no precedent,” said da Silva-Prado as she tried to make sense of the shape her faith would take in forced isolation from her community. “It’s been odd doing it through Zoom. It’s not like in-person where you can kind of be, ‘Oh wait, I didn’t quite get that’ or ‘Could you repeat that?’ or ‘Can we go a little bit further in-depth?’.

The new and somewhat stilted format of the class is proving especially difficult because this time has forced da Silva-Prado to think deeply and differently about her life, without the reassuring security net of personal face-to-face contact with a priest or her friends. “I think that this is a time where we’re being asked to take stock of our lives and really evaluate what’s important; what is not,” she said.

“What is that life in the church when we don’t have the physical building anymore?’”

She took a second to digest her question.

“I’ve never lived in a time where Church has been canceled — ever,” she added. “That’s just so scary and very frightening. You don’t know when it’s gonna come back.”

“We are participating through watching Mass online; watching Mass on television,” da Silva-Prado said. “But the physical Mass, I thought that I could attend forever and ever and ever — till kingdom come — is canceled.”

This time of forced introspection and self-quarantining is testing, but da Silva-Prado is confident “there will be an end to this,” she said. “It will be like the raising of Lazarus, that will be amazing and wonderful and miraculous.”

Still, she doesn’t want to avoid the pain nor lose sight of the seriousness this moment has called her to recognize. “There needs to be this death first,” she said, recalling the present unabating cycle of death taking place in New York. “There needs to be the weeping. And Jesus will weep with us and he’s there in our suffering as well. And I’m positive and I’m confident in that. I just think that it’s going to be longer than we expect.”

The prolonged wait to return to her church is only exacerbated by the indefinite wait to be Confirmed.

The Confirmation ceremony is usually presided over by the local bishop and involves an elaborate set of rituals. It is not something that can be done on Zoom.

In the traditional Confirmation ceremony, the bishop smears oil on the foreheads of those being confirmed and lays his hands on their heads. The ritual is meant as a sign that strengthens the faithful to persevere in the Catholic life and to serve as full-fledged members of the church. A strength upon which many now rely.

“The touch is important,” said Rospond. “The anointing with the oil is important; gathering together for the sacrament is important; the connection with a bishop is also important.”

For da Silva-Prado, her classmates and many who were expecting to be received formally into the Catholic Church this Easter — which last year in the United States were more than 37,000 people — they will have to wait indefinitely for a time when they can, again, gather inside churches. No date has been set for this year’s Confirmation.

But when it does come, da Silva-Prado said she will be ready. “I think that Confirmation is going to mean a lot more when this is all over.”