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Sunday, September 26, 2021

Religion becomes redefined for religious organizations as they transition to digital platforms

Many UC Davis religious groups find that students are having trouble adapting to virtual format as participation, faith and morale have decreased

When COVID-19 escalated in March, governors began instating statewide measures focused on restricting public gatherings and exposure. Shutdowns closed a majority of the country, and with them, religious institutions were forced to close too. Nearing the end of the year, certain restrictions have been lifted to allow for religious gatherings to take place under strict safety guidelines.

The Newman Catholic Center, the Muslim Student Association (MSA) and the Jewish Law Student Association (JLSA) are among many religious organizations that were initially banned from having in-person meetings and now have been permitted to host events according to county guidelines. Consequently, they are implementing a hybrid model with most meetings occurring online. Representatives from these organizations described shifts in their procedures as they were forced to pivot online. 

According to Vince Nims, the director of the Newman Catholic Center, the organization has adhered to state restrictions as well as the University Religious Council’s COVID-19 guidelines. Nims stated that though county guidelines initially restricted all masses to take place online, overtime there was a shift to outdoor and indoor masses. 

“As a student org, the Newman Center is not doing any activities, but as an institution of the Catholic Church we’re still operating, having mass and prayer events,” Nims said.

To allow for greater accessibility of their events, the Newman’s masses and weekly Newman Nights were streamed online through Zoom, according to Nims. 

Similarly, Cenna Abboushi, a third-year neurobiology, physiology and behavior major and the external vice president of MSA, stated that the organization took similar precautions and shifted all meetings online. Currently, the MSA is completely digital and Abboushi stated that the organization has taken several steps to strengthen community bonds. 

“We’ve been heavily relying on our Instagram,” Abboushi said. “Doing more interactive videos has been really important for us and advertising a lot on our Facebook and creating event pages.”

With no in-person meetings, the MSA has focused on strengthening their social media presence and producing an interactive online experience. Amidst the pandemic, the organization even created their own TikTok page which, Abboushi said, was used to invigorate involvement and excite the incoming freshman. 

Alexander Watson, the treasurer of the JLSA and a second-year UC Davis law student, described similar efforts of redirecting all events to be online. Many were canceled, however, due to their inability to be successfully offered online. 

Despite efforts to increase community interaction online, all three representatives mentioned that the digital atmosphere made it difficult to have a united community. Both Abboushi and Watson highlighted that, prior to the pandemic, offering food at meetings served an important purpose in attracting club members. 

“Central to a lot of religions, and definitely Judaism, is food, […] but with our student funding we can’t use it on food whatsoever, even if it’s food being sent to people,” Watson said. 

Ultimately, fewer incentives and a fully-online interface have led to a decline in participation and decreased morale among students from all three organizations. Moreover, all representatives emphasized that diminished spirits have led many students to face challenges in their faith.   

“There have been dramatic changes,” Nims said. “We are really experiencing church in a long distance relationship. It’s harder to communicate. It’s harder to feel. It’s harder to experience. That’s the status. If you asked me, ‘Has there been a deflation of morale and enthusiasm?’ I would say absolutely, because it’s just not the same.”

With religion being heavily practiced online, the community aspect has been completely rewritten for the members of these organizations. 

“Not being able to do things the way we usually do is […] spiritually fatiguing,” Nims said. 

To counteract this depletion in participation and enthusiasm, the Newman Center will host a COVID-safe friendsgiving with individually-boxed KFC. 

In response to similar issues, the MSA is looking to increase interaction with platforms like TikTok, include more speakers and collaborate with varying organizations and schools, Abboushi said. 

For the JLSA, the community has turned to Zoom in order to follow the traditional community aspect, yet still follow COVID guidelines. 

Though online efforts have made accessibility easier, the overarching issue remains that many students are unable to find sufficient motivation or connection to online religious platforms. All three representatives emphasized that the online system is inadequate at invigorating relationships as students experience disconnection. All anticipate, however, that online streaming will remain ingrained in the religious communities for years to come.

With online meetings becoming normalized, Abboushi said that “motivation is harder, but the access is easier.”
Written by: Farrah Ballou — features@theaggie.org

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