Things Fall Apart: COVID-19 and Religious Assemblies in Qatar

May 14, 2020

 

“A church which ‘goes forth’ is a church whose doors are always open.”

                   Pope Francis

 

 

Introduction: The Lure of Creative Insight

I have borrowed the title of this short reflective piece from one of the works of Chinua Achebe, a patriarch of post-colonial African literature. His literary contributions critically articulated the chaos necessitated by many religious, political, economic, and cultural changes in post-colonial Africa. His musings about the implications of disarray and displacement within a particular context provide the segue for getting into the thrust of the effects of COVID-19 in the world today. Things usually fall apart when an unexpected storm shakes the status quo and destabilizes accepted practices and norms. The wind of change sometimes blows in a sudden and strange manner. Achebe was also an adamant advocate of creativity and contextualization in the midst of cataclysmic changes. He once remarked; “the impatient idealist says: ‘Give me a place to stand and I shall move the earth.’ But such a place does not exist. We all have to stand on the earth itself and go with her at her own pace.”[1] Beyond Archimedes’ haughty declaration, our precarious global landscape calls for deep deliberations and humble meditations on many fronts: environmental degradation, global conflicts, huge socio-economic disparities, and access to health care. It is crucial to discern creative and effective models for addressing some of these issues. Achebe was an adamant advocate for creative autonomy rather than prescriptive imposition or unhinged patrimony during a crisis. Our world, with all its complexities, warrants deep and nuanced reflection to ponder solutions to these issues.  

 

The Cruel Onslaught of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic that is currently ravaging the entire global landscape in 2020 provides a unique opportunity to evaluate our common humanity. The virus that has hit the cosmos like a raging tsunami is a telling testimony to the fact that at a time of global crisis, human beings irrespective of race, class, gender are susceptible to grave danger. A bewildering “wilderness experience” unfolds before our very eyes, and naturally many people have taken cover under the monumental sacred canopy. For all intents and purposes, the global pandemic has made 2020 an annus horribilis on many accounts. It has wreaked havoc on the global economic architecture, shut down commercial travel, paralyzed all global sporting events, suffocated the healthcare industry, left developing countries yearning to breathe free, and shut down educational institutions. The globe has been put on a ventilator and it is grasping for breath and air. As this strange virus persists, communities all over the world scurry for palliatives and a determined deus ex machina. In a surreal and sublime sense, the virus underscores the vicissitudes of life. The poet William Blake wrote:

Man was made for Joy & Woe,
And when this we rightly know,
Thro’ the World we safely go.
Joy & Woe are woven fine,
Clothing for the Soul divine;
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.
 
 

Religious Gatherings in the Midst of a Storm

In a context such as Qatar that is dominated by a large presence of expatriates, religious gatherings provide ample source of community, solidarity, and well-being. Stephen Warner has written about the “settlement function of congregations”[2] for immigrant communities in different cultural contexts. However, in order to curtail the spread of the virus here in Qatar, religious communities that meet at the religious complex were ordered to shut down. In this unusual time, the State of Qatar has been very proactive and agile rather than recklessly rolling the dice in terms of curtailing the spread of the deadly virus. Alas, a space that was bursting with activity, especially on Fridays became empty and devoid of its usual intensity. Currently, in this complex, a pin drop will make a resounding noise. This is an extraordinary time and it calls for decisive decisions. About 200 Christian groups worship in this sprawling complex thanks to the robust and unalloyed generosity of the government of Qatar. The religious organizations affected by the lockdown have been very creative in continuing their fellowship programs. They have created and maintained various virtual platforms that continue to sustain people of faith in this season of tremendous change. The current global reality has necessitated new a meaning and approach to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer has described as the “cost of discipleship” or what René Girard would describe as the “phenomenology of redemption.” The veritable shift in religious assemblies has not dampened the spirit of these various groups and their solemn assemblies. In spite of its melancholic manifestations, the pandemic has provided a great opportunity to deeply reflect the different models and parameters of religious assemblies. Jawaharlal Nehru once remarked: “Crises and deadlocks when they occur have at least this advantage, they force us to think.”[3] In a dark moment such as this, people take shelter in what James Baldwin has described as the “accumulated rock of ages.”[4] The need for the Ultimate Reality holds sway in any situation that people may find themselves. In grim circumstances, sacred alliances generate a dazzling ray of light that beam into an otherwise dark terrain, giving it a semblance of hope.

 

A New Model of the Church

In Models of the Church, Avery Dulles, a Jesuit, and the Laurence J. McGinley  Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University for over two decades developed his classic “Five models of the Church.” These are: (1) the church as institution, (2) as community of the Spirit, (3) as sacrament, (4) as assembly of believers in Jesus Christ, and (5) as community of liberation. Slowly but surely, recent events have engendered a new model: “The Virtual Church.” This is a new dimension in ecclesiological expression and experience. Christians in Qatar and all over the world have modified the injunction of Jesus Christ in a new way: “Where two or three people gather in my name, virtually, there I am.” We have been ushered into a brave new world where people meet, pray, worship, break bread, celebrate the Holy Communion, and proclaim Jesus’s mighty resurrection at Easter virtually. This new form of ecclesia has emerged through innovation and adaptation. Piety in the Time of COVID-19 is evolving. In this unusual period in Qatar, the raison d’être of faith remains strong. In a troubling time, a contextualized faith emerged. The capacity to kindle and also adapt to change is at the very heart of all religious traditions. The historical Buddha, Siddhartha Guatama proclaimed anicca, impermanence as one of the Four Noble Truths. Change is constant. The recognition of the fact that anicca pervades everything is one of the first concrete steps toward enlightenment. Throughout history, religious traditions have adapted to different circumstances and constellations. The currents of religious revitalization still flow in the world today. In Qatar, Christian communities have taken the bold initiatives to remain meaningful to their members and the society. They have created different platforms to proclaim God’s great faithfulness and enduring love in the midst of confusion, pain, and quarantine. Early church Christians   lived during a period of unprecedented upheaval. As time went by, the motto: ecclesia reformata semper reformanda – “The church reformed, always in need of being reformed” became paramount in the historical development of the church. Today, just like Christian, the protagonist in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christians in Qatar continue to move and march in the light of God. The Church of the Epiphany in Qatar under the leadership of a new Rector, the Rev. Canon Paul-Gordon Chandler, who is confident, contextual, and cosmopolitan has developed several activities under the banner of “Epiphany Virtual Virtues.” These activities include: WhatsApp Prayer Group, Spiritual Majlis, Virtual Tea Time, Live-Streamed Worship Services via a YouTube channel, Virtual Church School, Mary and Martha Group, and Virtual Bible Study. The church has also sent out significant care packages to needy and vulnerable people in Qatar. At the beginning of the lockdown, the transition to these new templates was challenging; but people have adjusted to the new forms of fellowship and communion. I have actively participated in some of these activities and I can unequivocally attest to their profound relevance in a world searching and yearning for testimonies of hope. As a pilgrim people, the church must unambiguously embody empathy, support, and mercy. In a season that calls for deep contemplation, religious assemblies in Qatar continue to offer messages of comfort, guidance, and optimism in an unprecedented period.

 

Conclusion: Embracing a New Normal

In our present global situation, it is imperative to keep hope alive and create paradigms that would enable us to catch glimpses of our infinite possibilities. We have to collectively think about novel ways of turning adversity into healthy opportunity. We should understand that “however long the night, the dawn will break.” In the meantime, everyone should stay safe and well. Let us all remain vigilant and supportive of one another as we do our part to slow down the spread of COVID-19. May God Almighty heal our fractured and frightened world. May the Merciful God create in us the capacity and confidence to embrace the post-pandemic world whenever we reach that point, potentially our “new normal.”

 

Article by Akintunde E. Akinade , Professor of Theology at Georgetown University in Qatar.

 

  • Read more about the COVID Project here.

 

Notes

[1] Chinua Achebe, No Longer at Ease (Oxford: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 1987), 151.

[2] See Brian Steensland, “Exploring Religious Diversity and Immigration: A Conversation with Stephen Warner, Regeneration Quartely, 3/2, Spring 1997, 16.

[3] In this vein, I am also reminded of a lyric of a song by the American Rock Ban, Grateful Dead: “Once in a while, you get shown the light in the strangest places, if you look at it right.”

[4] James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (Boston: Beacon Press: 1984), xix. This perspective is analogous to what Johann Baptist Metz has described as “transcendental neediness.” See his Poverty of Spirit (New York: Paulist Press, 1998), 26.