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How The Pandemic Has Affected The Ways People Worship

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Holy days spent apart, religious services moved to Zoom - the pandemic has changed the way people worship this year, and that includes how people communicate with their higher power, the way they pray. NPR's Lee Hale has more.

LEE HALE, BYLINE: Back in April, chaplain Peggy O'Neil Files was making her rounds at South Shores Hospital (ph) in Weymouth, Mass.

PEGGY O'NEIL FILES: Just checking in with people and seeing if there's any needs or how we might be supportive.

HALE: These were the early days of the pandemic. And everyone, patients and medical staff, were particularly anxious. She made her way to the emergency department.

O'NEIL FILES: And there were two nurses aides who, as I walked by, they just sort of looked at each other and looked at me and said, will you pray with us? I mean, that just doesn't generally happen on a daily basis as a chaplain.

HALE: They found a relatively quiet corner, as quiet as an emergency room can be, and huddled together.

O'NEIL FILES: In the days of COVID, I pray to be surrounded by good care, to have our anxieties lifted and our burdens carried, you know, by, in my case, I would say God.

HALE: While that kind of impromptu plea from a colleague was a bit out of the ordinary, this year, O'Neil Files says it's becoming more the norm.

O'NEIL FILES: That's one of the ways that the COVID virus has affected us. People are asking a little more readily to be able to talk about or share, you know, their spiritual needs.

HALE: And this isn't just happening in hospitals. Worldwide, people are searching more for prayer, like literally searching the word prayer on Google.

JEANET BENTZEN: So the most Googled-for term was coronavirus prayer.

HALE: Jeanet Bentzen is an economics professor at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, and she keeps a close watch for any mention of the word prayer on Google Analytics.

BENTZEN: This spike in prayers is the largest the world has ever seen.

HALE: In March, Bentzen says prayer searches were 60% higher than usual compared to the past four years. And still, this fall, it was hovering around 20% higher.

BENTZEN: So before the coronavirus, the largest spike every year was the Ramadan.

HALE: The pandemic isn't the only reason some people are feeling more motivated to pray.

PAIGE WESTBERG: Praying for justice, right? - like in the case of, like, Breonna Taylor, like, you know, praying for justice for her.

HALE: Paige Westberg lives in Savannah, Ga. And as a Christian, she's not just praying more this year. But what she's praying for has changed. The growing movement for racial justice inspired her to both ask for help and work for it.

WESTBERG: I'm going to pray, but I'm also going to, like, march, you know? And that's - those are important things to actually affect change.

HALE: Others, rather than looking upward this year, have decided to look inward.

KAREN BOEDER: At the end of the day, it's on me. You know, I can't either blame God or give him credit for the things I do.

HALE: Karen Boeder in Santa Clarita, Calif., says 2020 has made her more solidly agnostic. Due to the pandemic, she and her husband, who travels for work, were apart for six months. And for some of that time, their daughter was away working at a summer camp.

BOEDER: For the first time in 25 years, I was literally alone in my space.

HALE: Every day, Boeder would do yoga as both an exercise and also a mindfulness practice, a kind of meditation. She used that time to examine her life without factoring in the judgment of anyone else.

BOEDER: And it is always a moment to myself where I meet myself on the mat and see where I am today. And every day is different.

JONATHAN MAKRANSKY: It's really a process of learning to just open up into this sense of spacious and compassionate awareness.

HALE: Jonathan Makransky in Washington, D.C., who was raised Buddhist, has also turned to a mindfulness practice to help him through this year. He calls it the handshake.

MAKRANSKY: When a friend is angry or sad or really suffering, you sit there quietly, and you're present with that friend. And so I tried to do that with difficult emotions in times like these.

HALE: Rather than struggle with or ignore feelings of fear or worry, he tries to acknowledge these emotions and shake their hand, so to speak. But that's not always easy.

MAKRANSKY: I ended up testing positive for COVID back in July. In that moment, it was a bit harder than it often is, I would say.

HALE: Makransky was fortunately asymptomatic, but he was also living with friends. And he started to worry; maybe he'd gotten them sick. Maybe he'd gotten his partner sick. Maybe he'd exposed others.

MAKRANSKY: I'm spiraling right now. I know this isn't productive, but here it is. And yeah, so it was kind of that give and take, mentally speaking.

HALE: That's the handshake, something he often reminds himself to do; treating his anxiety like an old acquaintance. Recognize it. Acknowledge it, and then move on.

Lee Hale, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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