Hardly any part of Swedish society is unaffected by the situation with the corona virus - including the faith communities
Enormous burdens on healthcare. Bankruptcies and layoffs on the labour market. Closed universities and colleges. Thousands of people in home quarantine. No one could have foreseen that the year of 2020 would be as it was.
For faith communities the situation means drastic changes and great strain. How to reach out to all those who depend on the support and activities of the churches? What does it mean to be without visitors' collective contributions for several months? How do you celebrate major holidays - such as Easter and Ramadan - when it is forbidden to gather people?
These are questions that the faith communities wrestle under 2020 and 2021. The situation becomes extra difficult because many of those who both receive care and get involved in communities belong to society's older groups.
At the same time as the crisis entails new challenges, religious communities have also been an important resource for society - on different levels. It has been about many things: from service to the elderly and sick to support calls by phone. A concrete and local example is the Pentecostal Church in Örnsköldsvik, which has made five of its employees available to the municipality to arrange food and medicine purchases for people in risk groups.
- In addition, we have also made a list of everyone in our church who is over 70 years old. It is about 270 people, says Helena Jakobsson to Örnsköldsviks Allehanda. She says that the idea is for the church to call the elderly in the next few weeks to check how they are feeling and hear if they need help.
- We want to give them the message of hope, says Helena Jakobsson to the newspaper.
More parishes and and faith communities have also get involved. The Muslim aid organization Islamic Relief has organized with deliveries of food packages to households, distributed information in different languages and arranged a special helpline for relieving and supporting conversations.
Similar initiatives have been launched in many of the Church of Sweden's congregations where volunteers and employees from the congregations help people who cannot get home the food or pharmacy goods they need. The Church's national telephone line, "priest on duty", has been very busy during the pandemic.
In addition to local relief work, faith communities at the national level have played an important role as a channel for information during the corona crisis. Since the beginning of March, weekly meetings have been held for consultations with officials at the Swedish Agency for Support for Faith Communities and the The Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) to reach out with important information to the faith communities - which could then be passed on to Sweden through the communities' various channels.
Many different issues have been addressed. Among other things, it has concerned the handling of the deceased due to COVID-19 and questions about how to deal with larger and smaller crowds. The faith communities, for their part, have also had the opportunity to convey reports from different parts of the country to the authorities and have been able to ask questions that have arisen during the past weeks. Örjan Wallin is an desk officer for crisis management at Swedish Agency for Support for Faith Communities and thinks that the cooperation with the religious communities has worked very effectively during the spring:
- Before the crisis started, several authorities, regions and municipalities did not fully understand what resource the religious communities can be as an information channel - but they are now. Our cooperation with religious communities has made it possible for other public institutions to reach out quickly and easily with important messages. The faith communities reach far in their networks and have a high level of trust also among the groups in Sweden who for various reasons do not have such well-established contact with - or trust in - authorities.
To reach out with correct information about the new coronavirus and to communicate the seriousness of the situation is something that has become clear as the crisis has progressed. For example in the Stockholm area, where the spread of infection has been very wide, there are many different linguistic, cultural and religious minority groups that are not always reached by the information that comes from the information channels of the authorities and the established media.
Due to this, the State Agencies asked the religious communities if they could help record information films about COVID-19. The result was fifteen short films in ten different languages. In the films, religious community leaders from different religions talk about the situation in Sweden and the world and clarify the importance of listening to the information that authorities convey. Hasnain Govani at SST is one of those who worked on producing the films. He points out the importance of reaching out in different minority languages - but also that it can be a foregone conclusion
- From what I can see, we have come a long way. The feedback we receive from the representatives of the faith communities says that we reach far and that many are grateful for the message, says Hasnain Govani to the newspaper Dagen.
As the crisis has worsened and more people have fallen ill, many congregations have had to reschedule - and cancel - their worship activities during the spring. Of course, the various meeting restrictions introduced by the government, which first applied to 500 people (March 11) and then tightened to apply to collections with more than 50 personal links to another website, have opened in a new window (March 25).
However, denominations and their congregations have usually acted before the bans came into force, out of concern for their participants and members. For example, the Jewish congregations in Sverigelänk to another website, opens in a new window has canceled all activities since the end of March.
United Islamic associations in Sweden link to another website, opens in new window has made an official statement where it says that it is a religious duty to avoid joint prayer meetings such as Friday prayer if you judge that there is a high probability that you can be infected with the coronavirus. The congregation urges its congregations to suspend all activities for the time being and only be open about the five daily prayers.
Several churches have also chosen to cancel major services - including the large and important Easter celebration - to avoid the spread of infection. The Catholic Church in Sweden links to another website, opens in a new window decided on March 29 to cancel all public services and to only keep their churches open for prayer and individual devotion. The three holy days of Easter will be celebrated by the priests of the Church without the congregation present.
What do you do instead - when you can not gather as usual? The answer is: you adapt according to the situation. When it is no longer possible to gather in churches, mosques and temples, the alternative is to - to the best of our ability - try to gather their relatives around services on television and radio, lectures on the web, chat rooms and other distance activities. Smaller collections can sometimes be made outdoors.
In Västerås diocese (Church of Sweden), under the slogan "we do not cancel, we reset" has begun to build a knowledge bank with suggestions on how to continue to be a church during the time with corona. In addition to webcast devotionals, services, concerts and lectures, here are tips on virtual confirmation teaching, singing sessions via Facebook and streamed reading of the Children's Bible - to name a few examples.
In an interview in the newspaper Dagen, Amanda Lind, Minister of Democracy with responsibility for religious communities, summarizes the situation in the spring of 2020 in the following way.
- It is important that the faith communities are here in this difficult time, but it can happen in many different ways.
Text: Max Stockman