Turning to prayer during the pandemic

By | April 17, 2020

Photos of health care providers in prayerful stances are being shared on the web. From nurses on helipads at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, to ER teams at Jackson South Medical Center, people have been photographed on their knees, arms outstretched, and heads bowed. In Atlanta, doctors and nurses went up to the roof of Cartersville Hospital to join a prayer service as worship music played outside.

Stories like these provoke the question, are more people turning to prayer amidst this pandemic, including medical professionals and those who do not usually identify as religious?

The numbers may suggest this. Polling 11,537 U.S. adults throughout March 2020, a recent Pew Research Center study investigated how individuals across America are responding to COVID-19, including how the virus has impacted religious behaviors. The survey revealed more than half of U.S. adults (55%) have said they “prayed for an end to the spread of coronavirus.” Even those who have said they “seldom or never pray,” and individuals describing their religion as “nothing in particular,” have responded that they have prayed for an end to the pandemic (15% and 36%, respectively). Six percent of self-identifying atheists or agnostics said they have prayed for an end as well.

Chaplains have seen an uptick, too. The call for spiritual care has been increasing “more frequently, and desperately, than ever before,” reported an article. Administrators at California Hospital Medical Center in LA even asked a chaplain to pray for the ICU staff at morning check-in; a prayer that read, “May healing be upon all those who are suffering through this season,” was handed out.

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In the past, people have turned to prayer amidst large-scale crises. After 9/11, a survey published by NEJM found 90% of people turning to religion. Prayer was seen to be a common means of coping, and young adults were more likely to report an increased frequency of prayer in the month following the attacks. Decades ago, more than 70% of American soldiers on the frontlines of World War II reported an increase in praying, particularly in intense combat.

Some may argue this “return to prayer” trend is tenuous and likely would downtrend when society returns to a pre-crisis atmosphere. This religious habit can also mean various things for one person to the next and thus is difficult to measure. Still, although churches have closed down and pews remain empty, it seems many are still turning to prayer amidst this global health crisis, or at least asking about the subject online.

Preliminary data gathered and put forth by Jeanet Bentzen, a professor at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, reported that internet searches on the topic of prayer significantly rose last month in March as the pandemic escalated. For every 80,000 new cases of COVID-19, the search doubles. Bentzen attributes this mounting topic of interest as religious coping. “We pray to cope with adversity,” she writes. Other researchers caution that the jump in searches may reflect questions on accessing religious resources and services online.

In my own circles, I’ve seen people praying more. Within my medical school community, a group of students virtually pray on Zoom every Friday at noon; we pray for issues specifically related to the pandemic, including an increase in PPE for health care workers, a vaccine, and healing for patients. After an extended relative passed away from COVID complications, we came together as a family by reading scripture and praying.

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Surveying my peers, many said they are “definitely praying more now.” Even a pediatric emergency medicine doctor at my institution says he now has “more time to reflect and pray … less time for all the world’s distractions because everything is closed.” In times like these, he continues, “I feel like people are more accepting of the concept of prayer.” Even if agnostic colleagues are not engaging in prayer, they understand that prayer is an important part of many peers’ and patients’ lives. Meanwhile, another physician commented on how this pandemic may be revealing an “underlying spiritual pandemic of loneliness, anxiety, and fear.”

Elizabeth Dias of The New York Times recently interviewed Dr. Kate Bowler of Duke Divinity School on how to live in the face of fear. Dias acknowledges we live in an “increasingly secular America.” “What if you are someone right now who doesn’t pray?” In response, Dr. Bowler reveals she does not follow a particular formula for prayer, nor assumes how it will work; however, she hopes that every individual, whether religious or not, can feel allowed to say, “I’m at the edge of what I know.”

That sense of “I’m at the edge of what I know” is pervading our world right now. We feel as though we no longer possess any semblance of control. What was once touted as secure and reliable is no more; the American health care system is crumbling, and government has revealed more of its flaws. Where can we go? Whom can we trust? Hitting a point of desperation, people turn to something they have never tried before.

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Last month in Israel, a photo was snapped of an emergency medical team taking a break by praying; Avraham Mintz, 43, turned toward Jerusalem, while Zoher Abu Jama, 39, knelt toward Mecca. Mr. Mintz said he asked God for protection for his mother and to let him see the end of this pandemic. Why did the photo go viral and strike the hearts of many? In life and death situations, people are willing to let out cries for help, pleas, and prayer. At the heart of it is a search for meaning and hope. It’s human nature to wrestle with uncertainty and grapple with grief. We wonder, when will this pandemic end? Can these patients be healed? What will happen to my loved ones? We are humans with limitations, but maybe that’s why people are turning to this spiritual practice. Prayer is one of many ways where we can stand in the midst of all our questions, contemplating life here and beyond, mournful and hopeful, yearning for a better tomorrow.

Anna Delamerced is a medical student.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com