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  1. Opinion

Here’s how Tampa Bay faith leaders say we should get through coronavirus

Spiritual leaders across Tampa Bay offer solace and hope in these troubled times.

As anxious Americans contemplate another holiday without family, postpone weddings and funerals, don homemade masks and meet and worship in virtual communities, spiritual leaders are attempting to offer solace and hope.

We’ve turned to several faith leaders in the Tampa Bay area — Christians, Jews, Bahá’ís, Muslims, Hindus and New Thought — to offer words of wisdom for a time such as this. For Christians, it is the Easter season. Jews are celebrating Passover. And the Holy Month of Ramadan will begin for Muslims on April 23. Each observance is an embrace of God, family and community.

The reflections follow:

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8, NIV)

The Rev. Jacqueline Jones-Smith [The Rev. Jacqueline Jones-Smith, Senior Pastor]

“Easter will not be the same; we can’t do the things we’ve always done!” I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been hearing statements like this. Most of us like and count on holiday traditions. Behavioral experts remind us that in the midst of life stresses and uncertainties holiday traditions provide a sense of security, structure, and comfort. In the throes of this pandemic, we lament that Easter 2020 will be different because we will not be able to engage in favorite traditions – worship together in one place, Easter egg hunts, special meals with family and friends and more.

However, Christ is risen! The empty tomb underscores the cosmic fact that death could not hold Jesus. As a result, no matter what we encounter in life, nothing prevents us from experiencing new life made possible through the resurrection. Life’s circumstances change but not Jesus whose love and faithfulness stays the same through the ages. The pandemic may change the activities we engage in, but it does not change Jesus who loves us. Today is more than a “holiday;” it’s a “holy-day” that defines who we are and Whose we are – beloved children of God through Jesus Christ. Today is an opportunity to celebrate and experience Jesus’ love anew, uncluttered by tradition. Today may we be changed with a deeper understanding of Jesus, who never changes. Happy Resurrection!

The Rev. Jacqueline Jones-Smith, Senior Pastor, Christ United Methodist Church, St. Petersburg.

ROMANS 8:38-39: “For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Corey Abney, Ph.D. [Corey Abney, Ph.D., Lead Pastor, Bell Shoals Baptist Church, Brandon (there are five campuses)]

We are in the midst of a unique and challenging situation unlike anything our generation has experienced. Few, if any of us, foresaw a time when we would self-quarantine, shelter at home, and be required to stand at least six feet away from other human beings. These are difficult days, to be sure, and they are unprecedented for many in the world today. The question is, how do we move forward with hope and confidence in the midst of such hardship?

Easter is the answer. You see, there’s a reason our world is broken and in desperate need of repair. There’s a reason we have incurable diseases, natural disasters, and global pandemics. The reason goes back to our rejection of God’s plan and purposes for our lives. We have all fallen short of God’s righteousness, holiness, and perfect love; therefore, we now live in a broken world that reflects the tragedy of sin. But thankfully, God did not leave us without hope. He sent Jesus to die for our sins, and three days later, He raised Jesus from the dead, ensuring a final and eternal victory over the tragedy of sin, disease, and ultimately, death itself. So look to Jesus on this special day of celebration, and you will find eternal hope in the midst of every hardship, no matter how unprecedented it may be.

Corey Abney, Ph.D., Lead Pastor, Bell Shoals Baptist Church, Brandon (There are five campuses)

"Man is made by his belief. As he believes, so he is.” The Bhagavad Gita

Hindu priest Radhakrishnan Namboothiri [Hindu priest Radhakrishnan Namboothiri]

Hindu priest Radhakrishnan Namboothiri encourages everyone to remain positive, have faith, pray and believe that things will be fine soon. Worrying weakens our immunity, he says.

“In every generation, we must see ourselves as if we personally came out of Egypt” - From the Passover Haggadah

Rabbi Danielle Upbin [Rabbi Danielle Upbin]

Passover Seder is the most commonly observed Jewish ritual. Period. No other observance comes close to the popularity of Seder. And yet, in all the years that we have asked: “How is this night different from all other nights?”, we never could have imagined just how different Seder 2020 would be. Large gatherings of family and friends sharing the “Feast of Freedom” with cherished recipes and endless conversation simply won’t happen this year — at least not in person. While quarantine will restrict our ability to gather physically, it will not extinguish our spiritual resilience.

The Jewish people have always known how to adapt in times of crisis. This year, through the combination of creativity, technology, and virtual connection, the Seder will still find its meaningful place. Many will still be able to gather, albeit differently, and expound upon the themes of the night. Others will be alone or only with immediate family members. But even when there are no children to ask the “Four Questions”, an adult asks them. The show must go on.

Connecting our lived-experience to the Exodus narrative feels very real this year. Every aspect of the Haggadah can be meaningfully refracted through the lens of the coronavirus: The ten plagues, the symbolic foods, even our songs of gratitude. Just as God heard the prayers of our ancestors and redeemed them from Egyptian toil, this year, we pray that God redeem us from the clutches of the virus, speedily restoring us to the freedom of good health and vigor.

Rabbi Danielle Upbin is the Associate Rabbi, Congregation Beth Shalom, Clearwater

This is a very different time indeed.

Swami Ishtananda [PICASA | Swami Ishtananda]

People all over the world are facing the unprecedented existential crisis for which they were unprepared. They are scared, and afraid. Many have fallen sick, and even have died. There is suffering everywhere with chaos and economic pandemonium.

Two different kinds of the human nature are there. One seeks pleasure of the body and mind in all possible ways. This man is strongly rooted in created universe. He thinks himself as a part of this creation. He values only the world that is perceptible through five senses and mind. He identifies himself with one of those myriad created things – just another creature – nothing else. This man is destined to live in unending experiences of pleasure, pain, fear, anxiety, suffering and death.

The other kind of man longs for his Divine root. Intuitively he seeks God, within and without. He yearns to find out the eternal source of limitless bliss, peace, and life. Finding whom he shall transcend all worries, anxieties, and sufferings. He shall quit the rat race of temporary pleasure hunt. He seeks to unite with the eternal presence of the Divine.

The present crisis has opened before us an unprecedented opportunity: Do we prefer the continuity of this troublesome creature existence, or do we desire to find out our Divine roots? God’s advice in the Holy Bhagavad Gita is clear: ‘Having been blessed to receive a human body use this opportunity fully to worship Me with loving devotion without any further delay.’

Swami Ishtananda, Vedanta Center of St. Petersburg

Easter is a time of hope! That is the most important message we can rely upon in this very difficult time.

Rev. Robert J. Schneider [Rev. Robert J. Schneider]

While it may not be a safe time to gather together in a church building, we can be people of the church in the safety of our homes.

We must pray and stay at home as much as possible. Pope Francis, in his Urbi et Orbi blessing, reminded us of the scripture passage where Jesus was in a boat with his disciples when a storm arose. The disciples panicked, but Jesus calmed the storm and gave them reassurance.

We are all in the same boat. Our faith can calm our fears and give us and our loved ones reassurance.

Let our hearts be open in generosity and love this Easter day. May our prayers and love for each other guide and teach us.

We pray for all who have died in this pandemic. The promise of eternal life is theirs. May that same promise of eternal life through the resurrection of Jesus be ours as well.

May all of us have peace in our hearts as we look to a brighter future in the days ahead. Easter is a time of hope!

The Rev. Robert J. Schneider, St. Cecelia Catholic Church, Clearwater

Easter carries with it vivid images: the glories of spring, festival brass, family photos with flower draped crosses, bonnets and twirly dresses.

The Rev. Elizabeth H. Shannon [The Rev. Elizabeth H. Shannon]

Yet this year we find ourselves without these experiences, without the extravagant joy and energy of packed churches.

For most of us this Easter feels particularly weighty, particularly grief-filled and I can’t help but remind myself that the first Easter also carried particular weight and particular grief. The women went to the tomb to complete their essential task and did so overwhelmed with sadness; their whole world had been turned upside down and nothing felt right. But Mary’s experience with the risen Christ didn’t evaporate her grief, rather it complicated it. Her rushing back to tell her story to the socially distant disciples didn’t suddenly make everything okay. Coming to terms with resurrection, for Mary and for us, still requires the processing of grief and recognition that our whole world has changed. Just as Mary and the disciples could not go back to the way things were, neither can we.

In the midst of this global health crisis, in which we are all facing our mortality, in more stark ways than ever, we find new ways to experience life, new ways to experience the miracle of this season, new ways to experience community and the promise of good news. Our grief is real, but so is our call to proclaim hope in the midst of despair; Easter in the midst of quarantine. It’s what Mary would have done.

The Rev. Elizabeth H. Shannon, Associate Presbyter for Emerging Ministries, Presbytery of Tampa Bay

Enough of worrying about tomorrow! Let tomorrow take care of itself. Today has troubles enough of its own.” (Matthew 6:34)

Rev. Andy Oliver [CORTNEY LESOVOY | Special to t]

Easter isn’t cancelled because Easter doesn’t happen in a building — it is an action now embodied by people radically loving those at the margins. The first Easter reminds us that nothing can separate us from God’s love — not state sponsored terrorism via a cross, not a large stone blocking a tomb, not even death itself.

The first Easter didn’t happen in a packed sanctuary; the disciples were hiding in self isolation behind locked doors fearful for their lives. Easter found them in quarantine and spoke “do not fear, I am with you, death has lost its sting!” The Easter movement would have stopped right there if they had been silent.

Today, we have the same responsibility to be Easter by loving our neighbors with a love stronger than death, stronger than isolation, and certainly stronger than COVID-19.

The Rev. Andy Oliver, Allendale United Methodist Church, St. Petersburg.

“Praying towards the east or west is not manifest proof of righteousness. Righteousness is manifested by freely sharing one’s resources with relatives, orphans, the impoverished, wayfarers, and those who you know need help. True righteousness is attained by being steadfast in faith, prayer and acts of kindness during times of suffering, adversity and near panic.” The Noble Qur’an Sura 2 ayat 177 (Al Baqarah, paraphrased):

Imam Askia Muhammad Aquil [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]

"True religious atmosphere is an atmosphere of intelligence, compassion, respect for one's self, and respect for each other…” ~Imam W. Deen Mohammed (1933-2008); chosen in 1975 to lead the Nation of Islam after the death of his father the Honorable Elijah Mohammed.

During this time of global pandemic, Abrahamic spiritual descendants are reminded of our common origin in this season of Holy Week, Passover, and Ramadan. We are reminded that esoteric religious rites and pious expressions do not alone offer security nor constitute true righteousness before God. Instead, we should:

1. Hold fast to the basic tenets of our faith and belief systems without blindly adhering to ritualistic practices that imperil us by making us enemies;

2. Demonstrate love and compassion for all human beings (in all situations) by being kind, charitable, just and equitable; by being trustees who work for the sustainability of the earth we share.

3. Stand together as one nation under God promoting peace and justice as fellow citizens and healthy inhabitants of our households, communities, and world, remembering none of us are islands unto ourselves.

Imam Askia Muhammad Aquil, St. Petersburg

In the 20th chapter of St. John’s gospel (vs. 11-18), Mary Magdalene encounters the resurrected Christ. She does not recognize him. She thinks he is the gardener. And she wonders if this “stranger” or someone he knows stole the body of Jesus crucified.

The Rev. John Tapp [The Rev. John Tapp, Pastor]

Jesus calls her by name. Can’t you hear the gentle, “Mary,” he utters? Mary recognizes him at once. She calls him “Rabbouni” or teacher. But to my ears, and in this context, we can understand her saying: “my dear teacher; my dearest friend!”

In just a few verses, this scene conveys Mary’s heartbreak, confusion, astonishment, and the sense that things are not the same. To that end, Jesus even tells her, “stop holding on to me.” In this COVID-19 age, we are experiencing these same emotions. Who among us can’t identify with the heartbreak of a loved one getting sick; the confusion of trying to keep our family safe, nourished, educated, and patient – all at once; as well as the worry that things are not the same? Nevertheless, and through it all, our God is present to us. He is with us and calls us by name. He gives us a share in his everlasting life – here and now, and in the life to come.

While studying theology many years ago, I recall hearing the phrase “already and not yet” when exploring the reality of salvation. Jesus brings salvation to a broken world through his life, death, and resurrection. Yet, our human condition seems to hold us back somewhat from experiencing the fullness of that reality.

For sure, our feet are settled in both the already and not yet reality of salvation. At Easter and always, Jesus walks us from the not yet to the already – just as he did with Mary. May we do the same for and with each other. (And, yes, that is possible with social distancing!) Perhaps the easiest way to do that would be to live in these times as St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta did in her time. As she stated and modeled for us: let us do ordinary things with extraordinary love. Indeed, it was love that reigned on that first Easter morning. It is love that conquered despair, hatred, and sin. And so, let us reflect the resurrected Christ in our hope, in our laughter, in our service, and in the way we love extraordinarily – in these days and always.

The Rev. John Tapp, Pastor, Nativity Catholic Church, Brandon

A couple of weeks ago, the Universal House of Justice—the governing body of the worldwide Bahá’í community—wrote a letter to every individual Bahá’í regarding how we should respond to the pandemic that has presently engulfed the world and afflicted our lives, individually and collectively.

John S. Hatcher [John S. Hatcher]

The opening paragraph of that letter observes the following: “As you will be all too aware, over recent weeks and months, an apprehensive world has been coming to terms with a rapidly evolving health crisis affecting the people in many countries, the consequences of which for society cannot yet be estimated with any certainty. We are sure that you, like us, have felt great concern for the well-being of humanity, especially for those who are most vulnerable.” It continues, “Seldom has it been more evident that society’s collective strength is dependent on the unity it can manifest in action, from the international stage to the grassroots, and we know that you are giving your support to the essential efforts being made in this regard to protect the health and welfare of all.”

The objective of Bahá’í communities throughout the world is helping to establish and foster vibrant and spiritually motivated neighborhoods—whether in great cities or remote villages. And this crisis has not deterred that spirit—Bahá’ís are in constant communication via social media to share prayers, to reflect on inspirational passages from the sacred texts, and to provide whatever encouragement is possible in spite of our physical separation.

It is our fondest hope to emerge from this crisis more determined than ever to promulgate world unity and appreciate more fully and joyfully the privilege of sharing the company, both of our fellow believers and of all our friends and neighbors. Like people of every faith, we pray the cessation of this tribulation be hastened by our prayers, and that when it arrives, may never forget the lessons we will have learned from regarding one another as members of a unified and loving human family.

John S. Hatcher, Professor Emeritus, University of South Florida, Baha’i scholar and member of the Baha’i community

This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Psalms 118:24 NRSV

The Rev. Dr. Russell L. Meyer [Rev. Dr. Russell L. Meyer]

At dawn Mary of Magdala went to the tomb to finish washing the bloodied body of Jesus for final burial. But Jesus greeted her and sent her to tell the others he was risen. Peter and John rushed in disbelief to see for themselves, as men like to do. Though Jesus was gone, a messenger told them to return to Galilee to meet him there.

The resurrection reverses the direction we are headed. It changes death into life, grief into excitement, sadness into joy, disbelief into faith, despair into hope.

We need, we want a new direction now. The novel coronavirus infects, kills, and wreaks havoc on everything human. It takes our breath away and brings us to a standstill. It’s a toxic piece of coded protein that went global because we crisscrossed the world with trade and travel. Yet look in the tomb and see wonderful new commitments to empathy and compassion. Love is everywhere, love that risks self for the wellbeing of others. We’re not at war. We’re becoming a better interconnected world. We’re learning to care more deeply about everyone.

The resurrection led Mary to establish a healing ministry for the poorest of the poor. Peter went to Rome and organized slaves to become the body of Christ. John shepherded an inclusive community in Ephesus.

This is God’s pattern in the universe, the pattern of life, of the inert learning to interact successfully with its surroundings, bearing children who become more deeply connected to everything around them. May God’s Spirit encourage us to keep the love growing. Then, indeed, we can sing, “This is the day God has made!”

The Rev. Dr. Russell L. Meyer, executive director, Florida Council of Churches and missional pastor at the Lutheran Urban Parish of Tampa.

The situation that we are experiencing now reminds us of several biblical scenarios.

The Rev. Manuel Sykes

First, the Passover when the Jews were delivered from Egyptian rule. The night of the last plague, the families of the Jews were instructed to remain in the house and to mark the lentil and doorposts with lamb’s blood to signal God’s protection. Likewise, we have been ordered to remain at home so that this pandemic will “pass over” us. Those who complied were saved from death. A similar fate possibly awaits those who take unnecessary risks.

Additionally, for those who feel alone and abandoned in this time and are questioning the reality of God’s love and connection to HIS people, we are reminded of the words of Paul, who said, “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39.

Pastor Manuel Sykes, Bethel Community Baptist Church, St. Petersburg

Jeremiah 31:1-6 : At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people…because I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. Again, I will build you, and you shall be built, O Israel! Again, you shall take your tambourines, and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers. Again, you shall plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria; the planters shall plant and shall enjoy the fruit. For there shall be a day when sentinels will call in the hill country of Ephraim: “Come, let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God.”

The Rev. Georgene “Gigi” Conner [The Rev. Georgene “Gigi” Conner, Priest-in-Charge]

This Easter for people the world over, and in my lifetime, is unlike any other Easter celebrated. Many of us in denominations that follow liturgical practices, can easily picture celebrating through our traditional, intellectual and liturgical ways (even if only through Zoom or posted PDFs). These traditions celebrate the refusal to let evil and death have the last and lasting word about Jesus of Nazareth.

Today, there are two distinct images that come to my mind out of the Scripture readings: Mary Magdalene’s encounter in the garden with Jesus and God’s message through the Prophet Jeremiah as to what new life for Israel will bring.

If the Easter story were literally happening today, when Mary recognizes Jesus, wants to rush to him, touch him, make sure he is alive, it would be like us and how we feel about the people we love and have been praying for: Those who live alone in retirement communities, those alone in the hospital struggling to survive, those putting their lives on the line in order that others might live, those giving of themselves to provide needed supplies. But out of love for Mary and the disciples, out of love for us, the response from Christ would be, “Don’t touch me now. Save your joy for the first moment you are able to touch the ones you love- those most in need- those who need rest from the work they have done on your behalf. Our time will come later.”

Another image is that of the Israelites, who after surviving years of oppression, fear, and death, finally escape to live and create a new life. As they flee Egypt they cross a sea of water — and when the last person is pulled onto the shore, freed from captivity- they get out their tambourines and play, singing and dancing with unbounded joy and thankfulness to God who is loving them into new life.

When we celebrate the birthing of new life that will surely come when the world emerges out of this health crises in which we have been entombed, when we experience the absolute joy for the first instant we can actually touch those we love — those most in need — those who need rest from work from what they have done on our behalf, then we will be like the Israelites singing and dancing with unbounded joy in our hearts, minds and bodies.

Through this celebration, sisters and brothers, we will understand resurrection in an entirely new way and be eternally grateful to God in Christ, who says to us now — with deepest love for humankind — “Don’t touch me now. That joy is yet to come and when it does my embrace will be the first touch you encounter.”

The Rev. Georgene “Gigi” Conner, Priest-in-Charge, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, St. Pete Beach

By now everyone is familiar with the refrain, stay home, save lives. Thank G-d it seems to be working.

Rabbi Levi Hodakov [Rabbi Levi Hodakov]

Last Sunday was the birthday of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson of righteous memory. I often turn to his teachings and writings for inspiration and guidance.

One of the The Rebbe’s directives for those celebrating a birthday was, “On his birthday, one should spend time in seclusion. He should recall his experiences and think deeply into them. He should then repent and correct those (of his past deeds) that need correction and repentance.”

That got me thinking, that as hard as quarantining has been on hundreds of millions around the globe, we must take advantage of the opportunity. There is a clear lesson to be learned from being in isolation, that we all know to be true, but so often overlook. There’s no place like home.

The current pandemic should have us all doing some soul searching regardless of whether we have or will be celebrating a birthday anytime soon.

Perhaps G-d’s giving us an opportunity to focus and remember that there are more important things in life that He’d like us to be busy with and spend time on. Take a break and tell your spouse, your children, friends and neighbors that you love them, appreciate them and that your life is all the better because of them.

If we use our current time wisely, we will be sure to come out of our quarantine all the wiser.

Rabbi Levi Hodakov, Chabad of Clearwater

Sister Thea Bowman OSF, a Franciscan Sister, was a source of encouragement.

The Rev. Stephan Brown [T]

She is a candidate for sainthood. In the final year of her life, she addressed the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and these words ring true today. As we celebrate Easter in the midst of a pandemic, barriers of race, class, creed, gender, are are greatly impacted. Her address to the bishops in 1989 speak to us, “Today we are called to walk together in a new way as we celebrate who we are and whose we are.” I believe we are intrinsically woven together and united in a new way with my sister or brother who is sick around the world. Our lives are impacted profoundly. The choices we make today can greatly impact the world we live in.

The Rev. Stephan Brown, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, St. Petersburg

There are traditions across the world which celebrate Easter and the joy of Christ being risen.

The Rev. Temple Hayes [The Rev. Temple Hayes]

Storytelling is one of the most ancient natural medicines we have for the healing of our hearts and our soul. The Easter story is so powerful yet it deepens who we are in our humanity when we allow the story to be personal for ourselves. How can we allow the Christ consciousness to be born within us?

During these unpredictable and uncertain times we are living in, we are all called to rise up. We have a profound, once in a lifetime moment, to seize this window of a universal time-out to quiet the noise in our minds and allow a greater connection of God to be experienced in our lives.

This amazing time-out not only keeps us at home; it allows us the opportunity to resurrect to our more natural selves. A homecoming of how we are really meant to be. We can celebrate allowing the old parts of ourselves to die so the new can rise up. Major unexpected events give us the gift to stop, search our hearts and connect with what really matters on this human journey. This time is no different. We can remember this time when we look back in our history as a defining moment when we transcended from greed and arrogance, being self centered rather than centered in self and we grew to a new level of connection. We allowed ourselves to rise up.

We can learn to embrace our families, our children, our community and all sentient beings in a heartfelt way not driven by underlying falsehoods of relevance.

My greatest hope for our country and our communities is we will not go back to our old ways of doing things but capture the impact which stillness has had upon us and see how we move forward in a more compassionate way.

The celebration of Easter requires us to see beyond just an event that we do one time a year. It is an ongoing relationship with ourselves and God and how we can allow what we no longer need to die so the Christ within us shall shine brightly in all areas of our lives.

The Rev. Temple Hayes, CEO and spiritual leader, First Unity Spiritual Campus, St. Petersburg

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