USC religious groups continue to build close-knit community online

How religious organizations at USC help students connect during social distancing.

As USC transitions to online and remote courses, religious groups on campus also moved their discussion groups and events online to build a supportive community amid a divided period.

Annenberg Media spoke with three religious organizations at USC about how their normal activities are impacted by COVID-19.

Rabbi Dov Wagner, the director of Chabad, said that the Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center at USC moved most of its activities online, but continued offering help to students in need.

“We’re trying to stay in touch with people through zoom, through Facebook, through messages, through phone calls, and just being there for our students in every way we can,” Wagner said in a phone interview.

Chabad helps students and their families connect to Jewish life through events like shabbat services and a steak and scotch purim feast, according to its website. These will be done through pickup this year as the pandemic persists, although Wagner worries that students may gradually lose sense of their community.

“There’s also the danger of USC students over time looking less for connections to either USC communities and switching more to finding outside connections, which is great too but will lead to a bit of a loss of community as people are dispersed for longer periods of time,” Wagner said.

The potential of losing connections during the pandemic is common for many religious groups. For USC Christian Challenge - a local campus ministry - its core is close connections. But now the group must move weekly meetings online, from large group meetings on Thursday nights, to Bible study groups and freshman get-togethers.

“A lot of the backbone of our ministry is really individual relationships and small groups,” said Jeremy Walker, a staff member at USC Christian Challenge. “We’re still continuing to mentor students and to encourage them, to talk with them and do life with them through phone calls, zoom chats, through FaceTime and just texting and staying caught up with them.”

Walker said the transition to online sessions is quite “smooth” for Christian Challenge, since most of the members are familiar with the technology. He added that online sessions may not be the best option for group discussion, but they are the best in the current situation.

“You do lose a little bit when you're not getting to be physically present with people,” Walker said. “But I think this is probably the best thing for now.”

Mato Standing Soldier, the former president of Native American Student Union, told Annenberg Media that the group has also moved its weekly meeting of about 20 members online. The number of attendees remains the same as before, he said, because NASU means “family” to members.

“Since there’s not a large population of us where we have to look out for one another, we support [each other] what we’re doing and give advice and provide mentorship for some of the younger members,” he said.

Soldier said the biggest impact that COVID-19 has given to Native American communities is a greater sense of responsibility to take care of elderly people in their families, who are more susceptible to COVID-19.

“Within a lot of native and indigenous communities, obviously family is very important,” he said. “I think a lot of Native people at USC and in the nation at large feel that way in terms of an urgency to look after the older people in our communities.”

These religious groups also shared their advice about how to cope with the challenge of COVID-19 to the USC community in the interviews with Annenberg Media.

Wagner said people should keep positive during COVID-19 and reach out to others in need to maintain a supportive community.

“We're going to be there when it all ends,” he said. “ It’s just up to us to make sure that everywhere possible we add a little bit of light, a little bit of positivity to the way in which we react to it.”

Soldier said the pandemic provides people a chance to halt and reflect on the important things in life.

“It offered a lot of younger people a good gauge on what priorities are, because I think in a university setting, it's really easy to get stressed out by every little integer of campus,” Soldier said.

Walker mentioned that the leaders of Christian Challenge are praying for not only students involved in the organization but also all USC students in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We really want to be of help in any way we can to them,” Walker said. “We’re really encouraging our students to really continue to trust and walk with God.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Mato Standing Soldier as Matu Standing Soldiers. It also misspelled Native American Student Union as Native American Students Union. These were both corrected. Annenberg Media apologizes for this error.