Just four days after going under coronavirus shutdown, Magna, Utah, was at the epicenter of a 5.7 earthquake on March 18. Greg Schulz, a Magna municipal administrator quipped, “I have a standing order: if we have another Horseman of the Apocalypse ride over the hill, I’m shooting him.”

A sense of humor can be a potent antidote to what ails us. A sense of the sacred can also help.

Heightened uncertainty, anxiety, and fear abound during this global pandemic. There is only so much comfort that can be obtained from an ample supply of food, water, toilet paper, and online entertainment.

With all due respect to Netflix and Disney+, creature comforts fail to fill all the holes in our souls.

Religious gatherings often bring a sense of peace and safety, but in this case religious gatherings can spread the very virus everyone hopes they and their loved ones will avoid. Whether you believe that houses of worship should remain open during this trying time, or that they should close, our research has found that meaningful religious practice at home is both possible and beautiful.

Those for whom regular attendance at religious gatherings is a meaningful part of life may find that the peace, joy, and fellowship typically obtained at religious services is an especially acute vacancy or loss. Many find that gathering with fellow adherents to sing, pray, worship, and celebrate is a meaningful contribution to mental and social health—that also serves as a source for help regarding problems and concerns, including COVID-19.

During COVID spring, we all are facing a powerful invisible enemy that strikes without regard, except that it seems that it preys on some of our most vulnerable.

One counter to this invisible enemy is faith. Indeed, there now exists a large and growing body of empirical evidence that has demonstrated that faith in God and meaningful engagement in a faith community both provide tangible, measurable benefits to mental, relational, and physical health—including years of longevity.

For nearly 20 years, as part of the American Families of Faith project, we have been fortunate to hear the stories of more than 600 Americans who take their faith seriously. Those we have interviewed are from 33 states, and more than 20 denominations of Abrahamic faiths (Christian, Jewish, Muslim). About half are from racial or ethnic minorities and nearly 20 percent are first generation Americans. Many described home-based religious practices that were profoundly meaningful to them during very difficult times.

A large body of research has shown that meaningful rituals help individuals and families cope with stress, change, and anxiety. Recent studies show that a healthy combination of regular religious practice and functional family relationships may be ideal.

The diverse families of faith we have interviewed practiced a wide range of religious rituals and activities at home. These practices reportedly deepened their faith in God and strengthened their sense of connection with their family members. Such patterns of home-based worship take on pointed relevance in our current COVID-19 context where houses of worship have been closed.

Some practices reported by the families we have interviewed may provide inspiration or spark ideas for home-based worship. We have been inspired by many specific examples including Catholic families praying the Rosary, Novenas, or other prayers; or Evangelical Christian families holding Bible study (sometimes combined with Christian rock jam sessions).

We think of observant Jewish families who reverently welcome in the Shabbat (Sabbath) together each Friday evening—and share a familial experience one Jewish mother described as helping you “feel a connection across generations.” 

We think of a Muslim father who calls his family for salat (prayer), telling them that it is time to “turn off the TV” in order to turn to the sacred.

We think of a teenage Latter-day Saint daughter who told us that her family’s ritual of doing weekly Family Home Evenings “brings you away from all of the stuff of the world” and “gives you a chance to realize that they’re your family.”

Prayer, studying scripture, singing hymns, lighting candles, discussing spiritual topics, storytelling, a shared meal—all of these can be elements of family worship. And service to others in the human family comprises yet another form of family worship.

One of the more memorable accounts shared with us during our interviews was from a Mainline Protestant who explained that her husband and son go each Saturday morning to serve together at a local soup kitchen.

Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic offers a unique service opportunity for many of us, regardless of faith, to similarly reach out to provide shopping assistance and food provision for the elderly and needy within our circle of influence. (See www.justserve.org and “Meals on Wheels” for local opportunities).

Further, a number of parents that we interviewed mentioned the importance of being authentic in their faith. This includes building authentically warm relationships with family members and acting in authentic ways while engaging in family religious practices such as family prayer that reportedly builds feelings of unity and love.

In the fight against the coronavirus, small actions such as wisely washing hands and surfaces well and often can make a big difference. Likewise, in bringing the benefits of a faithful family home, small means can bring about great things. Significant blessings and benefits can occur from small but sincere actions such as gathering regularly for prayer; spending just a few minutes reading from and discussing sacred texts each day; listening to each other’s thoughts, feelings, and concerns with an open mind and a compassionate heart; and serving others.

In the present extremities, we have an unprecedented opportunity to draw closer and to literally come home to faith and family.

And, if you happen to see another Horseman of the Apocalypse, fear not, he is probably just looking for some toilet paper.

The authors’ views are their own.

David C. Dollahite

David C. Dollahite, PhD, is Camilla Eyring Kimball Professor of Family Life at Brigham Young University and co-director of the American Families of Faith project.

Loren D. Marks, PhD, is Professor of Family Life at Brigham Young University and co-director of the American Families of Faith project.