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How to pray on Zoom: Religious and spiritual student groups move online

In mid-April, Room 27 at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Engineering building was abnormally empty. No prayers were uttered. No discussions initiated; no jokes told. Instead of meeting in this campus lecture hall as they did every other Thursday evening during the semester, the members of Cru, a nondenominational Christian organization, were logged on to Zoom.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, when UMBC’s physical campus closed, religious and spiritual student organizations have had to move their activities online, or cancel previously scheduled events. 

The UMBC chapter of Cru has partnered with Cru chapters on other campuses in the Baltimore area to host their weekly Thursday night meetings virtually. On April 24th, a total of 57 individuals from Maryland Metro Cru participated in the meeting via Zoom. 

Cru has been using Zoom and Google Hangouts to host daily devotion, weekly Bible studies, officer meetings, Thursday night meetings, and social events, according to Karyn Cruz, the president of the organization. 

At least two of the bible studies have had higher attendance than usual, said Cruz, due to the ease of logging onto the online platform. Prior to the campus closure, bible studies were held in a classroom during free hour or in the evening, Cruz said.

As a result of the pandemic and subsequent campus closure,  “a lot of people have been more intentional with one another in our community, just because they recognize it would be easy to get disconnected,” said Cruz.

Nonetheless, UMBC students’ attendance at the Thursday night meetings has declined since the campus closure, said Collin Brown, the treasurer of Cru. While Cru’s in-person meetings had an average attendance of between 60 to 85 people, Brown said, 30 to 40 fewer UMBC students are likely participating in the virtual weekly meetings.

He attributes this reduction in attendance to “a combination of [students being] sick of having to attend classes online and staring at a screen all day and you’re just not getting the in-person contact that you would have gotten on campus.”

Sam Dove, a bible study leader in Cru, has still been able to attend the Thursday night weekly meetings. Yet he agrees that not being able to meet in-person poses a challenge.

“I don’t think that having a bible study or worshiping online can fully replace doing it in-person. I think there’s something that’s lost there,” Dove said.

Jared Richard, the president of Catholic Retrievers, feels that the lack of in-person interaction has also contributed to the decline in engagement he has seen in his organization.

The men’s group in Catholic Retrievers was doing a Lenten challenge from February 26th to April 11th. This required them to alter their activities and what they ate or drank, every day except for Sundays. 

“That kind of fell apart when we went off campus because we couldn’t see each other anymore and all we could do was video chat,” Richard said, “it’s hard to bring everybody in when it’s video chatting and people are all with their families.”

The campus closure has also had a significant impact on the Muslim Student Association (MSA), according to Yusra Ahmed, the organization’s president. The Muslim holiday of Ramadan, which involves daily fasting from sunrise to sundown, starts on April 24th and continues until either May 22nd or 23rd

“We were fully funded for Ramadan by SGA [the Student Government Association] this year. So that means that every single night we would have been funded for iftars, which are the breaking of the fast,” Ahmed said. 

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Muslim students are unable to gather together in the Interfaith Center to break their fast, which they have done in years past.

Ahmed is also concerned about how the campus closure will impact the general body members of MSA. 

“My concern is that because of this, [the] general body will die down a little bit, just because they weren’t able to end off on a good note, so there isn’t really anything to look forward to when they come back,” Ahmed said.

The organization had to cancel several events planned for the month of April, as well as an annual end-of-semester potluck where they announce newly elected cabinet members.

Brown, the treasurer and incoming president of Cru, shares Ahmed’s concerns about the impact of the pandemic on next year’s membership. Cru elects officers, but also has a self-elected leadership team for their bible studies and worship.

“Not having the rest of the spring to kind of see some of the younger, the [underclassmen] kinda grow up and mature and just kinda see what their leadership skills are” has an impact on how the organization runs, Brown said. “We’re definitely [going to] have to cut down on the size of the team for next year.”

Brown is especially concerned that a prolonged campus closure could have a lasting impact on the membership of Cru.

“Especially if we come back in the Fall and we’re still online, there’s a big concern for trying to reach incoming freshmen,” he said. 

Written by Madeline Ross, Political Science major, Class of 2020