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How faith can help you process a painful anniversary

Many churches will mark the COVID-19 pandemic’s one-year anniversary with worship services this month

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Parishioners pray during an Ash Wednesday service at the St. Aloysius Catholic Church on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021, in Detroit. March 11 marks the one-year anniversary of the World Health Organization declaring COVID-19 to be a pandemic.

Carlos Osorio, Associated Press

The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas kept things pretty simple during a recent worship service marking one year since COVID-19 disrupted her church’s routines.

There was music, poetry, prayer and, most importantly, an acknowledgement of her community’s pain.

“I wanted people to feel like their grief had been acknowledged in a meaningful way and in a beautiful way and to give them a sense of comfort,” said the Rev. Thomas, rector of All Saints Episcopal Parish in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Before the service, she’d invited Hoboken residents to submit the names of loved ones they lost to the pandemic. During the event, she read those names aloud, subtly reminding participants to lean on each other as they continue processing their pain.

“It’s a human need to express grief and loss. Once you’ve done that, you feel like you’re not alone,” the Rev. Thomas said.

In the month ahead, houses of worship and religious organizations across the country, from the National Association of Evangelicals to a prominent Catholic magazine, will host similar events, inviting worshippers to reflect on how their life and faith has changed in the past year.

Such gatherings, even when they’re virtual, offer important opportunities for people to mourn their losses and find the strength to keep going, said Jamie Aten, executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.

“There’s something incredibly powerful about going through difficult times with others even if it’s at a distance,” he said.

That’s become clear to him over the years as he’s worked with survivors of other disasters, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Formally recognizing difficult anniversaries helps people find meaning and hope and feel less isolated, Aten said.

Memorial services “provide us with tangible ways to express our grief and help us to pause and reflect,” he said.

Aten’s organization will host a virtual COVID-19 memorial service Thursday afternoon. He and his co-hosts want to do their part to help the whole nation heal.

“I hope it’s a cathartic experience and that it creates meaning so that people can ... think about what’s ahead and be hopeful,” said Kent Annan, the director of humanitarian and disaster leadership at Wheaton.

The Humanitarian Disaster Institute has also put together resources for people who can’t attend memorial events or aren’t quite ready to share their pain with others.

By starting a daily devotional this month or taking on a new volunteer project, people can access the benefits of attending an event commemorating a painful anniversary, Aten said.

It’s important for everyone to figure out what’s best for them, said the Rev. Thomas, noting that she doesn’t hold anything against members of her congregation who avoided the recent COVID-19 memorial service.

“Everybody’s gotta do what they gotta do. I don’t judge anyone, particularly when it comes to matters of grief and loss,” she said.

Aten also sympathizes with people who prefer to spend as little time as possible thinking about the pandemic. But he still believes that taking time in the month ahead to prayerfully reflect on the pandemic could pay off in big ways.

“I understand why people may not want to focus on this day, but ... I do encourage people to take time to mark this anniversary. Such activities can remind us that we’re not alone,” he said.

Opportunities to mark the pandemic’s one-year anniversary with worship:

These events were publicized through press releases sent to the Deseret News.

  • The Humanitarian Disaster Institute’s online COVID-19 Memorial Service, which is co-hosted by the National Association of Evangelicals, will take place on Thursday, March 11, at 5 p.m. EST. Speakers include Aten, Annan, the Rev. Rick Warren and Francis C. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. To receive the video link, fill out the event’s registration form.
  • America Magazine, a Catholic publication, will remember the more than 2.5 million people who have died worldwide of COVID-19 during a virtual prayer service on Friday, March 12, at noon EST. You can inscribe the name of a lost loved one in the organization’s Book of Remembrance.
  • The Episcopal Diocese of Newark, New Jersey, will hold an online service of remembrance and gratitude to remember lives lost to COVID-19 and honor the hard work of faith communities over the past year on Saturday, March 13, at 10 a.m. EST. The service will be streaming on the diocese’s YouTube channel.
  • Tree of Life Congregation, a synagogue in Pittsburgh, is hosting a virtual interfaith COVID-19 memorial service on Thursday, March 18, at 8 p.m. EDT. Speakers include Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders.