Bringing Religion Home: 5 Families Share Their Stories of Faith in the Pandemic
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When I was growing up, my mother had a saying: The Devil works overtime on Sunday mornings. She meant that every minute I spent arguing with her about clothes, every harsh word spoken as she herded our family out of the house to get to church on time, was a kind of warfare: Satan trying to keep us from worship. Now, as a mother of three children who are most definitely spiritually cursed when it comes to putting on shoes in a timely manner — we were rarely on time to church, back when we went to church — I know my mother was right.
No matter your faith, or lack of one, I would guess this sounds familiar. Even if you weren’t begging children to wear collared shirts for church or temple, you likely wrangled a small human into a gymnastic leotard or shin guards. And I’ll bet the first few weekends of no plans, of Zoom Sunday School in your pajamas, felt restful. But if you are like my family or any of the others I spoke to, it didn’t last. We missed our communities. We longed to pray or fast or eat or sing with our neighbors. We grew extremely weary of being teachers — of multiplication tables and the mysteries of life after death. So, what did worship at home look like for those of us trying to maintain some sort of tradition for our kids?
In our house, it’s something like the following: My children’s classes meet at different times, and my husband and I are rarely able to pay attention to a livestream sermon until our toddler is asleep (and then, only if we can stay awake). I sing a cappella while my children roll their eyes. We fight over computer screens and yell at each other to be quiet. In other words, Sundays tend to look like every other day of the past year. That is a bit of a gift, though. Our faith shouldn’t be confined to Sunday mornings; it should permeate every hour of our week.
So we didn’t get to the sermon? Maybe we watch it on a Tuesday, and it sparks some kindness or a change in attitude that carries us through Thursday. There are other, small blessings. My children see their parents log on to a community group meeting and hear a bit of our discussion; in normal times, we’d leave them with a babysitter. But the most important to me is that my kids see me falling apart. As the months drag on, and my stress level rises, and I struggle and weep and scream over our messy house, canceled school, being asked to play Ticket to Ride (nope), I need my faith more than ever. My kids know it. We are asking for forgiveness and praying over our horrid moods a lot lately.
In talking to other parents, I heard a chorus of agreement. Some of our houses of worship have reinstated limited gatherings, but few of them offer childcare, so families are still navigating spiritual education in creative ways. We are memorizing Bible verses to repeat when we’d rather say something less … life-giving. We are organizing Pizza Shabbat (more on that below). One Muslim family wakes up before dawn, together, to pray — something they didn’t do pre-pandemic. Many of us are starting new traditions that will endure, even after the buildings open.
All of us have felt broken, and that brokenness has led to a deeper reliance on faith that our kids are witnessing.
“We light candles to invite the Sabbath in.”
In November 2019, just months before the pandemic hit, Leah Wiseman Fink and Allyson Stone, two friends in Brooklyn, started B’nai Brooklyn, a progressive Jewish community in their neighborhood of North Brooklyn that is home to many Jewish families but lacked a middle ground between Orthodox congregations and, well, nothing.
“We wanted a little religion and a lot of fun,” says Leah.
Their first “Pizza Shabbat,” held at a local church, had 75 people. In January 2020, they had 150. There was a short service, then parents socialized and drank wine while kids ran around, making crafts. As New York City shut down, they, like everyone, pivoted to Zoom and kept things simple. Their goal was to keep their community connected and offer moments of hope to each other’s families.
“On Friday nights, as the sun sets, we light candles to invite the Sabbath in. It’s gone on for centuries. During the Holocaust, Jews would light Shabbat candles in secret. It gave them hope. The action gives our community hope, our houses hope, our children hope,” says Allyson.
Sometimes the two friends FaceTime each other with their children — Leah has a 7- and 3-year-old; Allyson has a 2-year-old — and they also Zoom with B’nai Brooklyn. Pizza Shabbat has also gone virtual, with families picking up ingredients from Leah and her husband’s restaurant, Williamsburg Pizza, to make together. “I grew up in a big family with 40-person dinners,” says Leah. “This feels like that.”
“They saw that we’re human, too. It was more powerful for them.”
Sayra Khadekar and her husband, both physicians in Edmonton, Alberta in Canada, typically visited different mosques near their respective offices for Friday prayer. During the month of Ramadan, they would spend more time in worship with their friends and Muslim community, occasionally bringing their three kids, ages 11, 9, and 6. In the past year, though, prayer and fasting have become a shared family experience. “We were a month into the pandemic when Ramadan began. The thought of doing it without our peer group, without being able to break fast together or have parties at sundown — we went from everything being connected to our community to experiencing it 100 percent as a family,” says Sayra.
She focused on making a prayer area at home with cushions and holiday lights. Her two older children fasted daily with the adults. “They got to experience that for the first time with the social support of having us around. They’d say, ‘Mama, I’m hungry,’ and I could say, ‘I know, kiddo. But we’ve got four more hours. Go take a nap, or let’s read together.’ They saw that we’re human, too. It was more powerful for them,” says Sayra. Now the family still prays five times a day together, getting up before dawn. “It’s one of the foundations of our family closeness,” she says. “Often, after the intense spirituality of Ramadan, there’s a little backsliding, but because we are home, we’ve maintained some of those habits. That’s a positive.”
“It’s not our job as parents to be strong. Being a person of faith is showing my children moments of weakness.”
On Sunday mornings, Hannah Curtis leads a Zoom class for a small group of young children, including her own boys (depending on their attention spans — they’re 6 and 4) through her Episcopal church. She and her family moved to El Paso, Texas, six months before the pandemic began. Hanna’s husband, Lee, is a priest who works for the diocese, and Hannah plays a crucial administrative role in their home church, managing finances and operations — but she also felt called to create community through Sunday School classes and Bible studies.
Her philosophy for Sunday Zooms as well as growing her own children’s faith is to keep standards low. The service is short — Hannah uses Common Prayer for Children and Families — and she leaves a lot of room for questions and prayer requests. With her own family, she focuses on small rituals. “I love to read, but I cannot focus, so I’ve pivoted to poetry,” she says. “As parents and people of faith, we think scripture is the only divine thing, but we need to come down from the mountaintop. We don’t have to create big, heavy moments. Our life of faith is built brick by brick.”
Hannah writes quotes on Post-It notes and sticks them around the house. “That way, I can meditate on those words while I brush my teeth. I put verses above my kids’ beds.” She created a makeshift altar with a scrap of vintage fabric, an olive wood cross, and votive candles. “I don’t have time or space to dedicate to holy moments, but while I do the dishes, I’ll put the altar next to me and light the candles. It keeps me grounded,” she says. And it keeps the conversation flowing between her and her kids, who see faith being lived out not just on Sundays but while cleaning the kitchen. “I need my faith more in these times,” says Hannah. “It’s not our job as parents to be strong. Being a person of faith is showing my children moments of weakness. I want them to know that at our ugliest, we are still fully known and fully loved.”
“This time has encouraged me to do more than I would have otherwise.”
Like many multicultural families, Dhevi Kumar Broecker and her husband, Arndt, who live in Baltimore, offer their kids the opportunity to celebrate multiple faith traditions. During their family’s Diwali celebration in November, there was a Christmas tree in the background and a menorah on the table. But the message of all three is similar: light coming into the darkness. Diwali is the Hindu festival of lights, “symbolizing the triumph of good over evil, the power of lightness over darkness, of knowledge over ignorance,” says Dhevi.
Being home more in the past year, her children, ages 8 and 5, have begun to ask more questions about their parents’ different cultural backgrounds (Dhevi grew up in Memphis; Arndt is from Germany). “It has encouraged me to do more than I would have otherwise. We decorated clay lamps, or diyas, to light up our home. I am making more Indian food. I got over the idea of having to go somewhere to dress up, so I put on the whole sari. New clothes symbolize a fresh start,” says Dhevi. The family also started the day with a German breakfast. Leaning more on those cultural touchstones has been a comfort in the past year, she says. “These expressions of faith absolutely bring a sense of reliability in an otherwise unpredictable year.”
How to Incorporate Small Acts of Faith into Your Life
- Serve food — with your kids. During Eid al-Fitr, the holiday at the end of Ramadan, Sayra and her family normally hop from house to house eating meals and celebrating with family and friends. This past year, they dropped meals off in friends’ driveways. My family made meals for elderly neighbors in our building during the worst of the New York City lockdown in the spring. It’s an easy, thoughtful way to let kids serve those closest to them.
- Include distant relatives. I have a friend who “attends” church with her grandmother in another state every Sunday. My mother was able to watch my kids in our church’s virtual Christmas pageant this year. At B’nai Brooklyn’s first pandemic Shabbat zoom, friends and family in other states joined, and Leah invited a hospice worker who had sung “Feelin’ Groovy” to her uncle when he was sick to sing it as a prayer for their community. “It was a prayer of healing,” says Leah.
- Make traditions more fun. Hallee Altman, a mother of two girls, ages 11 and 8, in Westport, Connecticut, keeps her family’s Passover seder light by letting the kids act out the Bible story of Moses and the Israelites fleeing Egypt. “This year will be special, because my parents are vaccinated and can join us,” she says. “When the kids cross the Red Sea, we eat!”
- Buy the candles. Every family I spoke to mentioned light as setting a mood, whether for remembrance or celebration. Hang the twinkle lights. Light the votives. Hannah loves the colorful prayer candles from Kelly Latimore Icons.
- Don’t worry if you pull away. Zoom church is hard. Grieving and feeling disconnected from a body of believers is normal. “There’s a reason we call it a practice. We’re trying to make it through,” says Hannah. “You have not abandoned your faith. You have not been abandoned by your faith.”