All religious leaders believe their church, mosque or temple is more than a building, and that it’s the people who fill it and the community work they do that defines it.
And that has perhaps never been more prevalent than in 2020 when places of worship were forced to close their doors and halt home visits on masse at the start of lockdown in March.
Most have since reopened their doors, albeit to limited numbers, but much of the groups’ vital community work remains a long way from the norm for now, meaning their festive offerings and support is taking a very different form.
From organising Christmas takeaway boxes, to phoning around isolated members of their congregations or moving mediation online, the groups are doing all they can to keep people connected.
Interfaith Aberdeen chairwoman Patricia Findlay said lockdown has changed the way its members meet, but perhaps for the better.
“We have 10 different faiths and beliefs represented on our committee and we’ve actually been able to hold 13 meetings on Zoom since April, which means we’ve had much more contact than usual due to lockdown”, she said. “We’ve been able to welcome groups from Orkney and Skye and even Dumfries and Galloway too, which we couldn’t do before.
“Our mailing list is up from 40 to more than 100 and our committee meetings have been less heavy-handed and more of a sharing platform than a rigid agenda.”
Vital work being carried out to tackle isolation
The Aberdeen Muslim and Islamic Centre is supporting a variety projects across the north financially, while Aberdeen Multi-Cultural Centre has been working to deliver food parcels across the city and carrying out phone calls to check on those living alone. Hindu leader Rama Khmaris has taken meditation sessions online to bring people together at home.
The Holy Family Sisters of the Needy, based at St Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Aberdeen, meanwhile, have been feeding around 70 homeless people weekly in a multi-belief effort involving Sikh, Buddhist, Morman and Hindu followers.
“We have been helping a team of four nuns to cook for the homeless every week,” Mrs Findlay added. “On Tuesday we’ll be giving people their Christmas dinner in a box to take away, seeing we can’t have them in the hall at the moment, and that’ll include a bag of goodies and Baklava for their pudding.”
Meanwhile Ajahm Suhan, a monk at Varapunya Meditation Centre, near Kingswells, has taken his meditation sessions online via YouTube.
“People have been joining his mindful and meditation classes from across the world so his connections have really grown,” Mrs Findlay added. “It shows people are looking for that connection and something spiritually to help them cope.”
Support available year-round – not just for Christmas
The Aberdeen and Shetland Church of Scotland presbytery, is also reaping the benefits of a move online when it comes to uniting its most vulnerable and isolated members.
Moderator Rev Hutton Steel said: “The congregations of the Church of Scotland work all-year round to help and befriend those living on their own through church activities and by visitation from district elders and parish ministers.
“During this past year that has been very difficult due to the restrictions placed upon us due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, phone calls, zoom meetings, and visiting, when permissible, have all been undertaken to ensure folk on their own are coping as well as possible and are receiving food supplies if there is no-one already helping in this way.”
In May the first service of the newly-formed Presbytery Aberdeen and Shetland was streamed online, celebrating the new partnership of churches in Aberdeen and the islands and attracting more than 300 people to the first of many live streams.
“Church services have also begun once again, albeit on a limited basis, and many folk living on their own have attended these services,” Mr Steel added. “Some churches are also live streaming their services so that those who cannot leave their homes can still take part online.
“Loneliness is experienced by many folk with some coping perfectly well whilst others struggle at times. Christmas can be an especially difficult time for those living on their own.”
For that reason, he’s backing the Press and Journal’s Connect at Christmas campaign and offering his own promise as part of our appeal.
“I would say that personally, as a parish minister, I would pledge to continue on the paths that are part and parcel of our normal work and witness as a parish church,” he said. “I am also certain that the other congregations in the Presbytery of Aberdeen and Shetland would also continue in the same way.”