Faith communities have important roles to play in helping out other members in society during the Covid-19 pandemic, said community and religious leaders from the NWT in the virtual Annual World Religions Conference held on Friday.
Organized by the Calgary branch of Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at Canada, Friday’s event was the 13th NWT-focused conference since 2007. This year’s conference moved online due to the pandemic, after all previous World Religions Conferences in the NWT were held in-person in Hay River and Yellowknife.
Speakers representing Christian, Islamic and Dene spiritual traditions shared their perspectives on how faith communities can serve society in the current difficult times.
Hay River mayor Kandis Jameson moderated the event, and Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty briefly spoke to the Zoom gathering.
Alty said one of the hardest things about the pandemic is that people tend to want to come together in tough times but Covid-19 makes that difficult.
“It’s an important time to check in on how people are doing by phone calls or virtual chats, and seeing how we can provide support for each other. I encourage everyone to keep an eye on sharing positive messages with one another,” she said.
Chief public health officer Dr. Kami Kandola said she’s a woman of both faith and science, and told the conference that as a member of the Yellowknife Church of Christ her faith community is deeply important to her and central to her identity.
But Kandola added there is a lot that faith communities can do during the holiday season to reduce the risk of spreading Covid.
“Public health measures don’t single out faith-based communities,” she said. “But many traditional practices generate risk, such as mass gatherings in confined spaces. Typically 100 or more people (in faith communities) meet in a confined space, which makes physical distancing difficult. Sharing refreshments is also risky. Singing worship songs also risk transmitting the virus. Some places of worship are in older buildings with limited bathroom facilities and crowded nooks and crannies.”
“The holiday season is a time of worship for many traditions but this year we must celebrate differently,” she said, explaining that faith communities can lead by example through following the mitigation rules in place since the pandemic began in the NWT in March.
Religious gatherings can reduce risks by wearing masks, keeping crowds small, staying at least six feet apart, and avoid sharing food and dishes.
Paul Andrew, a Dene Elder, former CBC journalist and musician offered words of wisdom from a Dene spiritual perspective.
Despite the many difficulties people are facing because of Covid-19, Elders have always advised that people should try to find humour in all situations, Andrew said.
“It pulls people back into the circle. Any time someone leaves that circle, our job as members of the circle is to bring the individual back. Humour is one way.”
Andrew said it’s important to think of the present instead of focusing too much on the future.
“We should think of today. Yes, we might find a vaccine and beat (Covid-19), but we should think about today and the old people, the ones who are lonely. It’s tough for me that I can’t go into nursing homes now and sing with the Elders.”
For his part, Andrew said that he tries to turn a negative situation into a positive one through music and Dene songs.
“(Singing) lifts my heart. I try to see if I can make a little child smile, or give an Elder hope.”
Father Jon Hansen, Bishop of the Roman Catholic diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith said that in the Covid-19 pandemic the protection of life must “supersede all other considerations.”
However, he said the implications of that aren’t completely clear cut, adding that the disruption of normal life due to the pandemic has exacerbated other social ills such as domestic abuse, depression and suicide.
“As faith leaders we’re the ones to encourage our congregations to reach out to those facing desperate times. We’ll look after the food banks, we’ll call the house-bound, we’ll do grocery runs for those in isolation, we’ll pray for the sick and we’ll bury the dead. These are the corporal works of mercy.”
Amidst those difficulties and as the world waits for a vaccine to arrive, people should set aside their egos and pride and do their best to follow the health care directives set out by medical professionals, Hansen said.
Overall, the virtual conference went well and the speakers presented useful perspectives, said Kalim Ahmed, a volunteer organizer with Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at Canada.
Well over 500 people tuned into the conference through Zoom and YouTube, he said.
Ahmed hopes NWT residents appreciate that all faiths can present solutions to persevering through the pandemic.
“Faith communities are connected to their grassroots members. When the authorities ask citizens to stay at home or socially distance, some people say ‘you can’t stop us from meeting in worship places.’ But faith leaders should listen to authorities and elected officials to help make the message more effective.”