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Wisconsin Interfaith Leaders Encourage Social, Not Spiritual Distancing During COVID-19 Pandemic

Mark Kolbe
Getty Images
A closed sign is seen on the door outside the closed St Mary's Cathedral on April 12 in Sydney, Australia. Religious gatherings around the world have moved to different, remote platforms to comply with social distancing guidelines.

April is a significant month for many faiths. Christians recently observed Easter, Passover was celebrated in the Jewish Community, the Sikh’s celebrated Vaisakha, and this week marks the start of Ramadan to be observed by Muslims around the world.

During the coronavirus pandemic, places of worship have been dramatically challenged as they practice their faith in ways that don’t involve physical gatherings. However, some religious institutions around the country have defied social distancing mandates and have still held services, and some states have even included exceptions from the stay-at-home orders for places of worship.

Wisconsin faith leaders have come out in support of Gov. Tony Evers order and have “chosen to demonstrate our love of neighbors by closing our doors during the COVID-19 pandemic," according to a statement from the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee.

>>WUWM & NPR's Latest Coronavirus Coverage

Interfaith’s Executive Director Pardeep Kaleka notes that all faith representatives involved in Interfaith agree that the value of human life and dignity is their highest concern. "This has created a physical, mental and spiritual toll on us all. I think what is coming to the surface really clearly are the inequities that exist and have existed for a very long time," he says. 

"Maybe we shouldn't 'go back to normal' but learn from this and build future generations who will take inequities much more seriously than we took them," he adds. 

In the short-term, Ahmed Quereshi of the Islamic Society Milwaukee says it's important to reassure faith communities that the decisions to close places of worship are based on sound, religious reasons. 

"Our religious leadership has emphasized education about what the teachings are applicable to the situation that we're in," he explains. There's no doubt that the Islamic faith, just like other faiths, has a strong preference to do things like worship and celebrate holidays as a community. But Quereshi says, "These are all sacrifices that the leadership has to ask the community members to understand and to make."

The Jewish community in Milwaukee truly came together, according to Rabbi Hannah Wallick. “For Judaism, the highest commandment is called 'pikuach nefesh,' which is 'saving a life,'" she explains. "So, with COVID-19, it was clear that keeping physical distancing was a way that we could save lives and we were lucky that we were all of one mind.” 

Those in the Jewish community still held Seder meals at home. While people couldn't invite others over for what is typically a communal celebration, Wallick says many households used Zoom to have Seder meals together.

She also notes that the community is reorganizing its normal operations to "serve every aspect of our community, not just the spiritual life." That includes helping provide access to kosher food and financial assistance.

"People of faith know sacrifice, we know suffering, we know compassion and we know kindness." — Pardeep Kaleka, Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee

The Right Rev. Steven Andrew Miller, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee, notes that the decision by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee was made "out of the sense of religious freedom and what is essential for us is that faith is about loving our neighbor first and foremost." 

He says the actions of political leaders across the nation to defy stay-at-home orders for religious services is deeply concerning and endangers the health of everyone. "I think the political leaders need to worry about doing their job in this pandemic and not try and do the job of religious leaders," Miller says.

While it has been difficult for people of faith to not have access to their physical communities, the Interfaith leaders all agree that challenging times remind people of the importance of faith.

The coronavirus pandemic has led to remote services, video prayers, and even virtual coffee hours. Leaders have also seen that more people are now involved compared to the number of people attending services before the pandemic.

"When we get to reopen, I think that these are some ideas that we need to bring forward with us," says Wallick.

Kaleka says, "People of faith know sacrifice, we know suffering, we know compassion and we know kindness. What we can do right now is just to develop a closer bond with one another — and maybe that's what all of this is all about ... bringing us closer when we come out of this so that we can heal." 

During this pandemic, WUWM's Bubbler Talk is focusing on the coronavirus and its impact on the Milwaukee area. If you have a question, submit it below.


Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.