New York City entered 2021 with new hope, a bevy of vaccines on the horizon and, we thought, one step closer to the end of the pandemic. The Covid-19 rate ebbed and flowed, with many New Yorkers embracing the “new normal.” Nearly two years of outdoor dining in the cold, social distancing, mask wearing and not seeing family and friends wreaked havoc on New Yorkers’ — and much of the world’s — mental health. During this time, many people reached out to religious leaders to help them stay sane and keep the faith. 

Epicenter-NYC Reporter Andrea Pineda-Salgado spoke with religious leaders all over New York City to hear their reflections from the past year.

Hanadi Doleh from the Interfaith Center of New York — an organization that works with diverse faith communities across New York City helping them work and tackle social justice issues — said religious leaders became much more than just spiritual advisers during the pandemic.

“Our leaders often act as social workers, therapists, faith leaders, leaders within their communities, they literally oftentimes are carrying the burden of their communities,” she said. 

Along with the many different hats worn by religious leaders, their communities faced issues surrounding food insecurity, lack of financial resources and vaccine hesitancy.

While New York City was slowly reopening its bars and restaurants to tourists, New Yorkers were — and are — still lining up for hours on food pantry lines. Pandemic unemployment checks stopped, leaving many people without a much-needed income. 

“It was hard. It was hard because being a Muslim chaplain, you’re in the middle of all of this stuff. We had to do funerals. We had to talk to grieving families. We had to go to hospitals and be told that we couldn’t get in and we weren’t given the assistance that we needed in order for us to stay afloat. All of those things compounded came with the pandemic. And then we have our personal challenges added to that, that just compounds the impact of it all” said Imam Abdul Aziz of Al Masjidu Adam Community Life Center for Human Excellence. 

Photo courtesy of Imam Abdul Aziz

This mosque in the Belmont section of the Bronx, was not only disproportionately affected by the pandemic but 23% of its population also faces food insecurity. When the mosque shut down during the pandemic, Aziz used a senior community center to distribute food, with many people from the community lining up daily. 

After contending with long lines, the Al Masjidu Adam Community Life Center for Human Excellence, hands out emergency food packages daily and does bigger packages to last up to a week on Fridays.

A common dilemma faced by places of worship was how to continue to receive funding. It was not as easy to receive money from congregants via Zoom, so many places saw the coffers diminish substantially. 

Rabbi Shaul Chill of Young Israel of Far Rockaway tells us some people “are not affiliated with the synagogue in any way right now. They’re not benefiting from any of the services. So in some cases, that meant fewer donations being given to the synagogue or membership dues or things like that,” he said. “Funding has dropped off, there was a decline of membership so that’s a real need.”

Aziz’s mosque has dealt with the same issue. 

“We need financial help. We need manpower, we lost a lot of congregants as a result of the pandemic. We were not able to make any money during the pandemic. So that left us in this situation,” he said. “It’s a challenge. We’re okay with it because we’re willing to stand up to the challenge.”

But perhaps one of the biggest challenges religious leaders had to navigate with their community this year was vaccines. Many leaders received inquiries, questions and concerns about them and the pandemic in general —  subjects that a lot of the time, they were struggling to understand themselves. 

“When communities have an issue. They don’t go to the police right away. They don’t call therapists. They don’t go to the doctor, they go to their faith leader,” Doleh said. “[Vaccines] were a big public health crisis for Muslims. They were contacting their local imams saying, ‘Can we take this vaccine? We don’t know what’s in the vaccine. Is it Halal?’ The same thing was happening in Jewish communities and or, other religions like Hindus, for those that don’t take in animal products. They are trying to understand what is in this vaccine.”

Some places of worship like the Queens Church of God were able to understand the importance of vaccines very quickly, but it came at the expense of their leader, Pastor Ben Thomas. 

“In 2020, I got sick with Covid and I wound up in the hospital for 102 days, 54 days on the ventilator and six weeks in a coma,” he said. “I was at testimony myself. People saw me recovering and weak. I told them, ‘If I can handle the vaccination, they can too.’”

This year, Pastor Thomas’ church was not only a place of worship but an informal 

Outreach center. Young tech-savvy congregants helped many seniors make vaccine appointments and stay informed.

“Churches are the life of a community. If you go back to American history in every ethnic group, it doesn’t matter what ethnic group it is, church is a place where people feel safe, share their burden, and help each other in prayer,” Thomas said. 

Religious leaders are not only a lifeline for the community around them, it goes both ways, too. 

“After 102 days in the hospital … they declared there is no hope. I’m standing here and I’m addressing you because of a community who prayed for me,” he said. “Medical science, of course, helped. I got the best treatment, I had the best doctors, and I’m thankful to all the medical professionals, especially the doctor.”

However, as vaccine mandates continue to grow stricter, there are people using their faith to obtain vaccine exemptions, leaving religious leaders in a tricky situation. It is a battle between faith and science for many people who ask for religious vaccine exemptions, largely fueled by misinformation. Luckily religious leaders are there to help. Dr. Uma Mysorekar from the Hindu Temple Society of North America in Flushing, Queens, has had to deal with several people who asked her for letters of vaccine exemption. 

“They have even asked us to give them a letter to say that based on religion, that we would not advise on vaccination. And there is no such thing in our [religion] and so we do not issue any such letter, especially for children. That is what they were asking for,” she said. “In the last six months or so, we have brought experts to re-emphasize the importance of vaccination. We’ve had virtual messages and even now as we see the people, we insist upon going to different places to get vaccination [advice].”

Religious leaders are generally not experts in medicine or science, but do their best to point people to accurate information that allows them make informed decisions.

“The main question they all have is vaccinations for children. They are all very hesitant and to be honest with you, I don’t know if I am comfortable also. I don’t know too much about this. [I feel] they have not done a tremendous amount of work on how the children would eventually react.” she said. “It is a big concern, a really big concern.” 

Despite her doubts, Dr. Mysorekar continues to point her congregants toward experts and helps them avoid misinformation.

Rabbi Chill has also faced issues similar in his synagogue that is located in Far Rockaway, one of the least vaccinated communities in New York City. Some of his congregants may not want to get their vaccine, but he continues to encourage them by pointing out the benefits of the vaccines.

“It has been a very thorny issue. A lot of people are not convinced that everybody is expert enough about the disease and the pandemic,” he said “[I tell them] what it is not to take the vaccine. This is not to be taken lightly. Look at the death toll and look at how many people have suffered. Even people who have not died, there are people who have suffered terribly from it to this day.”

Far Rockaway, the neighbourhood where Rabbi Chill’s synagogue is located, is one of the city’s lowest vaccinated communities. In an effort to encourage the vaccine-hesitant, Rabbi Chill was part of a video outreach effort.

While some religious leaders battled to get their community vaccinated, others faced the exact opposite. In April, when vaccines were administered to the public for the first time, Aziz’s mosque was used as a vaccine center. 

“We had vaccinations here for five days and we vaccinated hundreds of people here at the mosque. The mayor came here but then they discontinued us as a vaccination site,” he said. “Then they’re crying about why minorities are not getting vaccinated, but yet this is an area that is largely minority. And you take the vaccination site away. I don’t understand. How can you explain that?” 

In the meantime, Imam Aziz continues to help his community by combating vaccine misinformation and easing doubts surrounding getting the vaccine. 

Work religious leaders have done during the pandemic is often taken for granted, it is important to highlight the important work they do for their communities. Doleh tells us that there are things we can do to support religious leaders during these uncertain times.  

“[Supporting religious leaders] is about understanding that they are human as well. They do carry the burden of their communities. We can also help by finding ways to help them navigate these hard times,” she said. “We have people that are in our congregations from all different professions. So finding a way to use their expertise to better help their communities can help their faith leaders excel.”

If you want to support any of these religious leaders, you can connect with them via their websites: 

Imam Abdul Aziz, Al Masjidu Adam Community Life Center for Human Excellence

Pastor Ben Thomas, Queens Church of God

Dr. Uma Mysorekar, Hindu Temple Society of North America

Rabbi Shaul Chill, Young Israel of Far Rockaway

Hanadi Doleh, Interfaith Center of New York

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