Book Review: Coronaspection: World Religious Leaders Reflect on COVID-19

In mid-March 2020, the world came to a halt. Businesses, stores, restaurants, global commerce, travel, and “life” as we knew it ceased. We had no clue of what was in store for us as the COVID-19 global pandemic took hold. There were challenges because of poverty, lack of access to adequate healthcare and supplies, deliberate misinformation on the virus itself, and isolation. The “before times” seem like a blur, a distant memory. We have just marked an ominous anniversary – a full year of “social distancing”… and in the United States over 525,600 deaths. One for every minute in a year.

Houses of worship were likewise affected by lockdowns. Churches, synagogues, mosques, and assembly halls closed to prevent spreading the virus. Two weeks before the lockdown, a church choir rehearsal turned into a superspreader as 52 people from a church in Mount Vernon, Washington were infected. In late February, a rector at Christ Church in Washington, DC unwittingly exposed his congregation due to his pre-symptomatic infection with COVID-19. And dozens of other congregations found themselves in the epicenter of waves of infections.

We were all struggling with what was safe, what was smart, and yet, how could we assemble to worship and pray. In the midst of a global pandemic, there was a lot of fear. Religious leaders all grappled with how to bring hope and inspiration into the middle of a deadly outbreak. While the congregations turned to zoom and video-streaming to the faithful, the unanswered questions were unsettling…

What does this all mean? Where is the Divine? What can we learn? How do we care for each other? And how does our faith help us to cope in this crisis?

Elijah Goshen-Gottstein, founder of the Elijah Interfaith Institute, brought together leaders of major world religions for a dialogue on the impact of COVID-19. He sought to discover what spiritual and personal challenges they held in common, and how each faith’s perspective shaped their responses. The book is a compilation of a variety of answers that were posed to these individuals, analyzed and condensed into a book format. The original content, a set of 39 videos, contains hours of interviews. (A trailer can be viewed here.) 40 world leaders from 15 countries represented 7 major faith groups.

Elijah used a set of seven questions for the interviews. The responses were then distilled into sets of reflections from hours of content. He wrote: “…each religious leader frames, understands, lives, and expresses his or her religious life in slightly different ways. These draw on the sub-tradition to which he or she belongs. But even more so, these draw on the particular spiritual profile, the soul and religious feeling, of the individual religious leader whom I engaged. Holding these conversations was there a journey to discovering the spiritual heart and soul of the individuals I met or interviewed on this journey.” (p. 7)

Watching the videos can provide some depth of understanding, but is not essential. The book stands alone. I watched two in their entirety, and then segments of several others. At this point in Coronatide, I don’t have the time to listen to all of them. But I think it is a worthy goal!

The casual American reader may not recognize a single name in this volume. Western Christianity tends to obsessively highlight our own celebrity clergy, after all. But for students of world religions, there are many voices who are familiar. The wisdom of rabbis, swamis, imams, archbishops, patriarchs, and elders offers a multi-faith path to our recovery, collaboration and resilience. The contemplations from Catholic, Baha’i, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Islam, and Christian leaders are so much more unified than the broad theological frameworks they represent.

Fifty years from now, religious historians will ponder what the religious communities did well, and where we failed. Where interfaith efforts to feed, clothe and comfort the sick and dying have consumed us in the last year, how can we build on it? A quote by Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Rev. Justin Welby offers a fitting point of contemplation:

“The Challenge is, can we transform interconnectivity to a connectivity of compassion?”

Coronaspection: World Religious Leaders Reflection on COVID-19. Alon Goshen-Gottstein. (c) 2020. Cascade Books (Wipf and Stock imprint), Eugene, Oregon.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher for review purposes. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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