Travelling out of your designated zones has remained questionable and ill-advised, despite everyone gathering to dawn the new year with the hopes of achieving some normalcy. However, this hasn’t stopped most people from taking a trip Down South, up north, or even just an hour to Negombo via the highway.
As we have now come to realise, we must live our lives coupled with precaution and safety, and for many of us, an integral part of the lives we lead is our faith – the source of strength we draw from our beliefs and respective religions. Even if you are not particularly religious yourself, it is most likely that your parents are, in which case dragging your agnostic or semi-believer self to a religious institution has become a staple of your new year celebrations.
Despite the power Asian parents hold over their children, this year they simply were not able to convince you into pretending to be whatever religion your birth certificate says you belong to. However, especially when it comes to those who truly look forward to visiting their church, mosque, temple, or kovil, it is unlikely that most were able to visit those respective places of worship due to social distancing requirements.
Negombo: A place of faith
We took a trip to Negombo in the first week of January, where this inability to practise one’s faith with the freedom they were used to was heavily felt. The people of Negombo, who are a community that places great importance in celebrating life and living it to the fullest, shared their thoughts on how the largely Catholic community was unable to go to church on New Year’s Eve and had to take turns for the Sunday service.
We spoke to a number of grocery stores set up on the main road in Negombo city, on Porutota Road, and a number of them shared that they had to make some changes in their daily and weekly family gatherings because they were all centred on getting together to go to church.
M.B. Wijewardana, who runs a store and was just closing up when we approached him, shared with us: “I am not particularly religious myself, but I usually look forward to going to church on Sunday because afterwards, we have a small family gathering where my mother cooks for everyone and the kids get to spend time with their grandparents and cousins. So it is a good time. As for New Year’s Eve, they limited the number of people who came for the service, so we missed that.”
The new normal in worship
This is, of course, not happening only in Negombo, and nor is it limited to one religion or just New Year’s Eve; every Sri Lankan is experiencing this in one way or another, and while it has lent itself to difficult times, thankfully it is widely understood that these are necessary precautions.
Speaking to The Sunday Morning Brunch, Church of St. Francis of Assisi, Mount Lavinia Vicar Rev. Fr. Malinda De Mel shared that in Mount Lavinia, “we too are currently limiting attendance to 25 people per mass and are attempting to come up with effective methods to allow as many people as possible to have the opportunity to go to church”. He shared that at present, he is conducting four sessions of 25 people for Sundays, and they are making efforts to ensure there is no repetition of participants the next Sunday so that more people get to visit church at least twice a month.
Fr. De Mel also said that they have taken other precautions in areas where people come to take communion; he does not allow them to kneel – as almost all would – and place their hands on the step. Also, he uses gloves when offering communion in order to ensure there is no threat of contamination in any way.
Speaking to Ezra Jacobs about his experience with the church having to limit the number of visitors, he said: “My parents were extremely excited when they managed to get registered in time for the New Year’s Eve midnight mass, which was quite sad to see because they were not able to go to church these past few months as regularly as they would have liked. But they are happy to do it because they know the risks involved in uncontrolled crowds getting together.”
Attorney-at-Law Ayesh Huda from Wellawatte also shared his experience with worship in the new normal, stating that his family has been going to the mosque every Friday for Jumma, and that they have continued to carry out their daily prayers. However, he said there have been complications because they have to visit the mosque’s website to register or call the mosque, and sometimes if they miss a slot, they have to go for later sessions or go where it is too crowded, which can be a risk for the older members of the family.
Rajagopal, Iyer of the Siri Veera Maha Kaliamman Temple on Sea Street, shared that they too have taken steps to limit the number of people coming in at any given time. “It is a shame, however, that during these turbulent times, the freedom to practise one’s religion in a space where they feel safe and accepted has been restricted,” said the Iyer of the temple.
He added that he is hopeful that things would soon go back to normal. The priest senses how many people are deeply affected by these changes and the inability to rely on human comfort is making things worse for them than it may actually be.
Bosewana Viharaya, Maradana Chief Incumbent Ven. Godapitiye Indananda Thera shared that currently they have closed the main gates to the temple and do not allow anyone inside; however, if anyone wishes to enter, they are at liberty to kindly request in the morning hours to take a stroll inside the temple, and for purposes of worship, the entrance space is still accessible if one wishes to do a pooja.
Ven. Indananda Thera further shared: “We do not currently accept any alms as well for our meals; we have adapted to preparing our own meals inside the temple and those in the community would deliver dry rations necessary for meals.” It was noted that while Buddhists around the area have expressed interest in holding various bodhi pooja and almsgiving, the temple has discouraged any and all public gatherings, hoping to stay distanced for as long as it is required, allowing in only a couple of people at a time and only when it is absolutely necessary.
Sharing her experience with the new normal, university student Ishara Mahawithawa said that things are a little difficult, particularly due to her elderly grandmother. “We are Buddhist and my grandmother, who is 84, has been begging for us to take her to the temple for the past six months or so, and my mother has been too scared to take her out. We are quite terrified that in her current state, she may not be able to handle it if she is to somehow contract the virus.
“I have to say that my family may be being a little overprotective, but we would regret it if we were to take a chance. We don’t want to take the risk. The temple we go to in Nawala is not closed and people visit normally. However, they have stopped having all of the meditation programmes and almsgiving which used to happen regularly.”
Shiva Balachandran, who was recently laid off from the hospitality industry, also shared that while he was not a religious person, whenever the new year and other religious festivals came around, his family sometimes went to the Kovil. He said his father fasts every Friday, and on the anniversary of Shiva’s grandfather, his father makes it a point to go to the Kovil, visit the Iyer, and carry out a puja. He said that all of these have not continued since the pandemic spiked in late October, and since then, they have not gone to the temple.
A sense of community lost?
Considering that most religions operate on a sense of community, it is unsurprising that the inability to gather has greatly affected the way people are able to express their faith.
Umar Yoosuf, Imam from Dehiwala, who preaches in several mosques in and around Colombo including the Bagathale Mosque in Kollupitiya, shared: “The Islamic faith is deeply tied up with the community. It is community-centric, but despite the importance of congregation, we place higher value on life and not causing harm to another person, and during this pandemic, if you are to congregate, then you will be risking lives.”
Imam Yoosuf shared that those of the Islamic faith pray five times a day and they are obligated to gather at the mosque every Friday for special prayers. At these gatherings, attendance easily surpasses 200-300 people under one roof; however, this is no longer allowed. They have found ways to carry out their religious obligations by praying at home, and on Fridays, he said in the case of his mosque, they carry out five half-hour sermons which allow for a roster to rotate those who attend.
Much like what Imam Yoosuf shared about the obligation to life people have, Rev. Fr. De Mel too added to this, saying that while it is understood that it is best to be safe than sorry, there are people – particularly those who have dedicated their lives to the church and who wish to come to their place of worship – who are feeling the effects of these restrictions the most. To them, he said, much like the time when Jesus was resurrected when the Romans were hunting down his disciples who were then forced to go into hiding for the greater good and for their own protection, we too must take stock of the state of the world and wait for our time.
Images by Lalith Perera and Eshan Dasanayaka