How the Human Spirit Will Prevail: With a Little Faith and Video Calls

An essay by William McKenzie, Senior Editorial Advisor at the George W. Bush Institute

The coronavirus hasn't prevented worship, though it has forced us to adapt— re-enforcing that notion the human spirit will always prevail.

Kids wave homemade palms during the online Palm Sunday service at the First Presbyterian Church of Dallas. (via First Presbyterian Church of Dallas)

The first time I knew we would rise up and defeat this virus — this damn virus — was when my iPad Zoomed in on the children of our church singing hosannas on Palm Sunday — online and from the sanctity of their homes. I knew then that COVID-19 would not eventually win. The human spirit, after all, has a unique way of rising up.

Don’t get me wrong. The coronavirus will continue to cause suffering, wreak havoc, and lead to death. This very real pandemic requires the very best scientific knowledge across the world. Syrupy rah-rahs will not get us through this crisis. 

But the human spirit is the intangible that no virus can defeat. In fact, we have seen how this story will end. We have witnessed the human spirit rise above gulags, tyranny, and oppression. We are now seeing that spirit rise up again, including within the three Abrahamic faiths.

In the case of my church, children were singing in their houses on Palm Sunday, waving faux palm branches, swaying with headphones on, all while being accompanied by the children’s choir director playing the piano from her home. The wonders of technology connected them, allowing their images to pop up outside the walls of a brick-and-mortar institution. 

This phenomenon has been going on in other traditions, too. Where believers once gathered in physical churches, synagogues, and mosques, they have been congregating online to seek solace, strength, and renewal.

Where believers once gathered in physical churches, synagogues, and mosques, they have been congregating online to seek solace, strength, and renewal.

They also have gathered electronically during some of the most holy days on their calendars. Christians have now gone thru Easter. Jews have observed Passover. And Muslims will end Ramadan this month. During each passage, these Abrahamic faiths have kept their practices alive around the world. 

Cantor Leslie Niren at Temple Emanu-El's Passover Festival Service in Dallas, April 9, 2020. (via Temple Emanu-El)

Creative uses of technology certainly have helped make this possible. The modern technological revolution has been a rallying force as all of us, including people of faith, have sought to outfox the virus. Zoom? Never heard of it until the last few years. The internet? Old hat now, but we wouldn’t be seeing each other daily — or witness those children singing — without it.

Rabbi Nancy Kasten,  chief relationship officer of Faith Commons in Dallas, pitched this new reality forward as we discussed the use of technology in adhering to religious traditions. “People who think most creatively will find the modalities of the future,” she said over the phone.

How houses of worship make use of the new online form of community — discovering “how to keep the good stuff,” as Kasten put it — will be one of the most interesting breakthroughs of this pandemic. As my pastor, the Rev. Amos Disasa of the First Presbyterian Church of Dallas, said, “We are finding new ways of hanging our coats. Sometimes online worshiping feels right, like with the children singing. Other times, we struggle to come together. But we are not standing still.” Indeed, religious instructions are searching for a “new normal.”

More immediate, though, they keep figuring out how to care for their most vulnerable members. As an example, board members of Dallas’ Temple Emanu-El, where Kasten’s husband serves as senior rabbi, have divided up the congregation and called members to check in on them. Kasten reports they have heard stories they would not otherwise have heard, and not just about the virus.

Children are high on the list of the most vulnerable. Their schools are disrupted. Their families struggle to keep them occupied and learning. And the virus perhaps threatens their elderly relatives. But with the whole world dislocated, it is easy to overlook the youngest among us.

Here, too, people of faith have been rising up to meet this particular challenge. As we discussed children in need, Dr. Darrell Bock,  executive director of cultural engagement at The Hendricks Center and senior research professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, explained how his center sponsors a Thursday night online session with young people from North Texas churches who want to talk about their faith. Together, they walk through the nature of their beliefs. (Some parents are so jealous, Bock chuckled, they want to join in.)

The availability of time has allowed young people and religious leaders to probe more deeply into their beliefs as well as their doubts. Discussions at confirmation classes with Temple-Emanu-El’s youth are going deeper. After all, no one has a sporting event or some other school function to attend. And Imam Shpendim Nadzuku,   the imam and resident scholar at the Islamic Association of North Texas, observed recently that being not so enslaved to busy-ness has helped his congregation realign worship along priorities of God, family, and neighbors. Instead of focusing on what we’ve lost, he said, we are focusing on what we have gained in a deeper love of God, connection to family, and appreciation of time.

Instead of focusing on what we’ve lost, [Imam Shpendim Nadzuku] said, we are focusing on what we have gained in a deeper love of God, connection to family, and appreciation of time.

When we fully put this moment behind us, we still will face divisive issues. So my paean to the human spirit is not offered as some greeting card sentiment. Cheerleading in a time of crisis is as hollow as a false promise.

But as long as children gather in their rooms to sing, wave home-made palm branches, and sing hosannas; as long as we seek each other out in fellowship and service; and as long as we connect to each other as part of the human race; this virus will not triumph over the human desire to congregate, pool resources, and respond to adversity.

COVID-19 may exact one horrific price, but this virus will meet its match in the perseverance of the human spirit.

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