April 30’s Congregational Leaders’ Call did not start in the usual way, as featured speaker Yassine Daoud was just getting off his shift at the Wilmer Eye Institute. As an ophthalmologist specializing in cataract and refractive surgery, Daoud continues to see patients most in need of ongoing treatment. Even as Daoud prepared to share with other congregational leaders how he is thinking about theology and preaching in the midst of a pandemic, the willingness of leaders to come together and share with one another under so many varied circumstances is a testament in and of itself to “Congregational Creativity in a Time of Crisis.”
In addition to his “day job,” Daoud is a lay leader / preacher in various Baltimore area- Muslim communities. As he explains it, in “normal times,” jumʿah would be held at a mosque or other communal gathering place at noon on Fridays, and consist of prayer and a short sermon. With no “clergy,” per se, in Islam, the sermon often is given by an imam or those, like Daoud, who are considered learned and in possession of an upright moral character. The message is to contain two parts: (1) a reminder of God’s bounty and forgiveness and our covenant with God; and (2) a treatment of current affairs with a theological perspective.
Daoud noted that the move from a physical to virtual presence has been most felt during this holy month of Ramadan. While most of the year requires only the weekly Friday communal prayers, Ramadan is filled with nightly prayer gatherings, in which 1/30 of the Qu’ran is recited each night so that by the end of the month, the entire scripture has been studied. For Muslims living as religious minorities within the United States who don’t experience the cultural bolstering of their faith that occurs in majority-Muslim areas, Daoud reflected on how Ramadan’s social nature provides a particular time of recharge for the Muslim community.
In this time of moving gatherings online, Daoud finds himself in good company with most other congregational leaders who have shared over the past weeks that the demands on their time have only increased. With a proliferation of talks, study circles, and more, Daoud now finds himself busier than usual, with a speaking or preaching commitment almost every day.
It is particularly in the “current affairs” portion of his talks that Daoud notes a difference in theological reflection, finding himself focusing more on topics around patience, dealing with anxiety, and the notions of trials and tribulations and their roles in potential growth. He is also aware of the need to “help the helpers,” who often are feeling powerless, themselves. To this end, Daoud spoke to his practice of being sure to read his audience and see what points are resonating with them so he is responsive to the needs of his hearers.
Finally, Daoud touched on the ways in which his medical and theological identities intersect, noting that, for him, they are one and the same. In Islam, there is a saying that God has revealed two books: an open book and a written book. The written book is the Qu’ran, as we know it; while the universe is open to explore, explain, and discover. [For a fuller reflection, see Daoud’s recent video on, “Religion and Science: Are They Compatible?”]
Instead of religion versus science, then, the two are needed in tandem. Western medicine, for instance, is good at diagnosing and treating disease, but it is not always good at treating the patient and the ways in which sickness affects the spirit and one’s larger life and outlook. Instead, Daoud asserted, that is where the religious part comes in with compassion, understanding of the other, and a willingness to help.
Daoud’s emphasis on the anxiety and stress of congregants also resonated with Derrick C. DeWitt, pastor of First Mount Calvary Baptist Church, whose church is continuing to keep up its social services to meet the needs of Sandtown residents. Adjustments have been made so the soup kitchen is now a “grab-and-go,” and coordination with the national guard has been necessary to ensure social distancing and the safety of all involved.
ICJS Executive Director and Roman Catholic Scholar Heather Miller Rubens noted the thread she was hearing about the urgent need for pastoral care around physical and mental health needs, and queried to what extent the balancing claim of prophetic voice and exhortation had yet been claimed.
Daoud noted that those in comfortable surroundings don’t generally deal with existential questions. For many living in the United States, mortality is often bracketed and pushed to the margins of our awareness. At a time when death and suffering are more present to people than usual, the questions of “Who am I?” and “What are my priorities?” – the questions of life that our religious traditions speak to – are getting serious consideration.
The next ICJS-hosted congregational leaders’ call will be held Thursday, May 7, at 1:00 p.m. . Please email firstname.lastname@example.org to request an invitation to join the conversation.