Religious organizations create “community” despite COVID-19

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Claire Redinger
DIGITAL EDITOR

For religious organizations on campus, “community life” is looking a little different this semester. Three student organizations – 8:08 College Community, The St. John Paul II Newman Center and the UNO Muslim Student Association – have planned and implemented new safety measures to either worship together in person again or continue meeting and praying online.

8:08 College Community

Prior to COVID-19, students would pack into tables on Thursday nights. This year, however, tables will consist of three to four students. Photo courtesy of Emily Mitchell.

8:08 College Community, a ministry of Christ Community Church located at 404 S. 108 Street, “exists to multiply college students who are following and becoming like Jesus,” according to the mission statement on their website.

Their ministry includes on-campus outreach, Thursday night gatherings at Christ Community Church beginning at 8:08 p.m. and small Bible studies of five to six students called “Journey groups.”

Travis Eller, who is pursuing his master’s degree as a college resident at Christ Community Church, said that although “everything is confusing and unknown,” he and his team wanted to “make a decision that is wisest” for students.

“When coronavirus hit, we went all online,” Eller said. “We utilized Youtube to put up content. We would gather together on Zoom calls and would watch a video together. That was really cool to see—that God is bigger than just a ministry. And students are seeing that they are Christians regardless of if they are at 8:08 or not, in person or not.”

When semesters started in the past, Eller said that 8:08 members would handout surveys on campus to gauge interest and help students get involved. This year, however, the team used QR codes. And while they were unable to gather together on Thursday nights for months, there are new safety measures in place allowing Thursday night gatherings to resume, Eller said.

“We are going to have three to four students per table, offer face masks and hand sanitizer and minimize contact in and out of doors,” he said. “We are taking as many precautions as we can and are going to continue to listen to authorities—without living in fear.”

After meetings on Thursdays, Eller said students like to stay around and hangout together. To minimize contact, they will try and gather outside as much as possible this semester.

In addition, 8:08 will be offering many materials online for students, including posting audio from Thursday night sessions, continuing to meet with students on Zoom and starting a new podcast.

If cases escalate and it’s no longer safe to meet in-person, Eller said 8:08 is prepared to go all online again.

“Our journey groups are kind of the ‘meat and potatoes’ of our ministry,” Eller said. ”So, if we get to a point where we are unable to meet together in person, we can still meet in groups on Zoom.”

For more information on how to get involved in 8:08, visit their website: ccc.omaha.org/college.

St. John Paul II Newman Center

Kelly Nguyen, Jet Paranoble, Emily Foster and Samantha Lierz welcome students to the Free Chik-fil-A Drive Thru Block Party. This event replaced the annual Welcome Week BBQ. Photo courtesy of Jpii Newman Center.

The St. John Paul II Newman Center is a Catholic dorm and community space for all Omaha area college students. Located at 1221 S 71st Street, Jpii has been both a home and parish since opening its doors in 2016.

When things went all online last spring, Katie Winkler, a campus minister at the Newman Center, said “it was quite an adjustment.”

“I think everyone did a really good job working through it together,” she said. “As hard as things were and are, this has been a great opportunity to grow together, which is what a community is about—learning, growing and navigating together.”

Winkler said that since welcoming students back in August, things like wearing masks and keeping extra distance are “small things to ask” because students are just “so happy” to be together again.

In addition to requiring masks, the Newman Center has implemented safety measures throughout the dorm and in the church. Some of these measures include six feet spacing in church pews, UV light sanitized holy water and implementing social distancing policies for study spaces.

The Newman Center continues to offer mass daily for students at 5:30 p.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, as well as 8:30 p.m. on Thursday nights. Community night is still held on Thursday nights following mass, as well, although activities are conducted outside as much as possible to help with spacing. Details about community night can be found on the Jpii Facebook page. Masses and reflections are also being uploaded and livestreamed from Facebook.

“The normal means for meeting people on campus aren’t quite as commonplace [this semester],” Winkler said. “Technology and social media has been a great help … Zoom small group Bible studies, community events, leadership summits, livestreamed Mass and praise and worship, even Zoom lunches. We are living in a time where we are constantly connected through our cellphones, and I have seen technology used in really important ways over the last six months to keep people connected.”

The Newman Center is currently kicking off small group Bible studies. Winkler said new students can join any time and can reach out if they are looking to take the next step at jpiiomaha.org/member.

UNO Muslim Students Association

The UNO Muslim Student Association is a “tight-knit, fun community,” for both Muslim and non-Muslim students says president Afrah Rasheed. Photo courtesy of Afrah Rasheed.

Afrah Rasheed, the president of the Muslim Student Association at UNO, said MSA aims to “provide a space for Muslim students to find a community on campus and convene,” but the organization is open to all students who want to join and get to know each other. Rasheed added that the organization educates about Islam, has discussions, hosts community events and “celebrates” the various cultures of its members.

“We have a pretty tight-knit, fun community,” Rasheed said. “Students and faculty from all walks of life like to join us in our meetings or check out what we’re doing. We have many students who are Muslim and many who aren’t, and we get to bond with each other and have a lot of fun.”

In traditional semesters, this bonding looks like hosting in-person discussions, running a hijab booth every semester where students can try on headscarves and turbans, running bake sales and throwing Iftaar parties during Ramadan. This semester, everything will be moved online.

While Rasheed said it was difficult to go all online last semester, it gave students a chance to relax and take a break from their busy lives. In addition, online access made it easy for students to stay connected from their homes.

“We use social media and Zoom to stay connected,” Rasheed said. “We’re constantly trying to find new ways to interact [online], whether through games or watching movies or just sitting and talking to each other. The greatest benefit to transitioning to online meetings is that we can sit in our PJs and log on right before the meeting—so that’s pretty convenient!”

Students who are interested in joining MSA or learning more can follow the organization on their social media channels. Find them on Instagram @uno_msa, Twitter @UNOmahaMSA and on Facebook @msachapteruno. To be added to the GroupMe, please email: msa@unomaha.edu to get regular notifications about upcoming events.

In addition, Rasheed said MSA is looking for board members for the next academic year and applications are due on Sept. 12 at 12 p.m. The application can be found at: https://forms.gle/9yh33JAWtiicisr58.

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