I clearly recall the last time that I prayed in the main circular room of the Roundhouse Faith Centre at the University of Surrey. I felt that it was going to be the last time for a while as lockdown was fast approaching and I uttered that ancient of Hebrew prayers Aneinu ‘Answer us… for we are in great distress’. The call to close the centre would come hours later and with it I made the last remaining calls to a couple of societies still using our facilities with social distancing. The call was the last to over 20 societies, shutting down 100 hours of faith and belief activities across campus that my team had built up over the last year.
We had prepared for this moment. As I closed the door on the centre I knew that a new chapter was about to begin, one that we had prepared for a month before and one that my team of Chaplains had bought into.
A month before, I had been sitting in the office of my boss. Laura is the head of wellbeing, a registered nurse and completed her final year dissertation on pandemics. She presented the facts: the impact of the pandemic, estimated fatalities and expected patterns. That night I wrote a 12 month plan on how Chaplaincy would change: we would continue to support our staff and students through this crisis: online, offline and when everything returned to normal.
There were some flaws in the plan: we needed to transfer everything online and had a month to do it. We wanted to partner with a media provider and had a Fortnight of discussions with the BBC. It proved too complicated. It was at that time the Student Union Chief Executive and President threw us a lifeline. Alan and Gemma shared our vision of maintain community during the crisis. They offered to give us their Facebook platform with 30,000 followers. At the same time, a friend of mine from the world of tech and Silicon Valley texted me to say she wanted to link me up with a Facebook Director in California. Before I knew it, I was on a group of famous American rabbis. I am grateful to Facebook for helping us to set up.
Originally, it was conceived we would be able to enter a sealed studio and deliver sermons or prayers to cameras. I did so twice before that was closed.
With the studio closed, students from our university tv studio helped us set up remotely. Since then, we have been broadcasting non-stop: Passover, Easter, Vaikshi, Wesak Day, Ramadan and non-religious humanist material. We run 18 shows a week with the one aim to replicate the activity in the Roundhouse. Over 10,000 students a week tune in. For my first Shabbat Reflections, 3000 watched. It is moving to watch our team working together: producing each other’s show.
Online is great but students have needs offline. I and my colleagues have spent hours a day phoning around to students and staff: bereavement, isolation and furlough have been issues. We have tried to work with our catering department to supply international students remaining on campus with home foods. Our biggest catering project was ‘grab and go’ iftar. Over 1500 meals were delivered to Muslim students on campus. For a few seconds each evening students would line up 2 metres apart and take their food back to their room to share with a permanent prayer buddy.
I have never felt prouder of leading a team, a diverse team from different faiths and none at all. It sounds like a beginning of a joke but it’s just a shared sense of community for in my world a vicar, an imam and a rabbi go into a livestream together every day…