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Local faith leaders find meaning, silver linings in challenging times
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Local faith leaders find meaning, silver linings in challenging times

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Imam Brian Shaheed

Brian Shaheed, the Imam of Masjid Al-Rahman in Kelso, recites the adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, in the Kelso mosque Friday morning.

The COVID-19 stay-home order came at an especially hard time for the Kelso-Longview area’s small Islamic community, as it overlapped with Ramadan, the month of fasting, prayer, reflection and community.

But local Imam Brian Shaheed is staying positive for the Masjid Al-Rahman, the only mosque in Cowlitz County. Only about 15 to 20 regularly visit the mosque for Friday services, Shaheed said, though travelers on the freeway occasionally stop by.

For now, members of the mosque are praying at home and keeping in touch by email, Shaheed said. There’s no safe way to practice social-distancing prayer in the small West Kelso mosque, and Shaheed doesn’t want to resume in-person prayer until it’s absolutely safe to do so under the governor’s order.

“Outlined explicitly in our faith, we’re very anti-social distancing,” Shaheed said with a laugh. “In our prayer, you stand feet-to-feet, shoulder-to-shoulder.”

Masjid Al-Rahman is just one of more than 150 local faith groups adjusting to a new world of worship. They’ve struggled with the loss of seeing each other in person and performing important rites. But for some, it’s been a chance to find new ways to reach their congregation. And for many, keeping the faith becomes more meaningful in times of hardship.

Praying together, in person, is essential to their service, Shaheed said. So there’s no real way to hold services online.

And the pandemic coincides with the end of the month of Ramadan and the celebration of Eid al Fitr this weekend, when Muslims end their fast.

“We have huge banquets where we get together. Family members see each other. We travel oftentimes. We share gifts.”

So, unable to gather and celebrate, the congregation has been understanding but dismayed, Shaheed said: “It’s kind of like canceling Christmas.”

Shaheed converted to Islam in 1996 at the age of 19. He’s lived in the area since 2002 and graduated from Lower Columbia College and Whitman College in Walla Walla, where he studied religion. Since then, he’s worked as a Muslim chaplain for inmates at state penitentiaries. He’s also a stay-at-home dad for two disabled children and does web design and computer maintenance work on the side.

The community set up the mosque around 2011. There have been Muslims in the area since at least the seventies, Shaheed said, but they used to visit Vancouver or Portland for services.

“We don’t have a neon sign saying ‘Muslims are here’ right outside our mosque,” he said with a laugh. “We’ve just wanted to be like any other community member.”

“There was apprehension” in starting a mosque in such a small, primarily Christian community, Shaheed acknowledged. He’s received death and bomb threats at an interfaith religious gathering in Vancouver and been told to “Go back to your country.”

“I’m from California,” he said. “I know it seems like another country.”

But “the community has been incredibly supportive” locally, Shaheed said. Kelso PD reached out to them in the aftermath of the 2019 New Zealand Christchurch mosque shootings. They’re part of an interfaith community with other local groups. And in the only troubling incident they’ve had — a drunk man who shouted “terrorists” one evening — that man came back about a week and a half later to apologize and shake hands, Shaheed said.

The shutdown is a situation Shaheed has never experienced in his faith, but it’s not an unprecedented challenge in Islam’s history.

“We view it as a very difficult trial from God," Shaheed said. “Will we give up, turn our backs, fall into despair? Or will we become better from this and actually increase our faith? That’s the test for us.”

Before the virus, Kelso’s First Baptist Church had never held a video service, and the best recordings it had were on cassette tapes. But the last few months have warranted a technology upgrade, Pastor Bill Hale said.

Over the last three months, they’ve gone from using an iPhone to installing new video equipment. They’re now recording services to the church website, Facebook and Youtube, and are even looking at going live.

“This is a big step for this church,” Hale said.

Father Bryan Ochs, the pastor of St. Rose and several other Catholic churches in the area, said the church now holds English and Spanish Facebook live streams every Sunday. Around 120 to 160 households tune into the English Mass and roughly 40 to 70 tune into Spanish Mass, Ochs said.

But virtual services can’t replace everything.

“Obviously, you miss the people,” Hale said. “You miss being able to banter with them. One gentlemen comes in, has a couple of jokes … (or) the hugs from some of the little old ladies that grab hold and won’t let go.”

Parishioners can’t fully receive Communion over a screen, Ochs said.

“That’s the biggest setback to watching a live stream or Mass on video,” Ochs said. “It’s huge. It’s sort of the most important aspect of Catholic worship, and since they can’t receive Communion, that’s the big difference. We offer a prayer called the act of spiritual Communion, but ... it falls beneath the actual experience of receiving Communion. There’s really no substitute for that.”

But social distance might produce spiritual hunger for the real deal, Ochs said.

“When we are able to return to in-person Masses, I believe people’s desire for Communion will be stronger. I think their participation in the Mass will be, for many people, stronger than it was before the pandemic,” he said.

Online turnout is only about a quarter of the Kelso First Baptist Church’s regular attendance, Hale said, partially because it’s an older congregation that isn’t as technologically connected as younger generations. But curiously, they’re getting far more views, and from a wide range of ages, on Youtube.

Hale said that indicates there may be more people tuning in who wouldn’t otherwise have stepped into church before.

“We’re a little congregation,” he said. “It’s not a secret that the younger generation coming up now has ... kind of a general distrust of organized religion. They are tuning in from living rooms, or wherever they’re isolating or watching, but they would have never ever stepped foot into our church. ... There’s not that stigma of ‘Gee, I don’t fit in here.’ “

Both Ochs and Hale said they plan to continue live-streaming services even after the pandemic subsides. They’re looking forward to in-person services but will be patient and wait until it’s safe and legal under the governor’s order to do so.

“We’re convinced that we would follow whatever the state rules mandate,” Hale said. “I would feel real bad if the church tried to jump the gun or ignored them, and you were the cause of an outbreak.”

He anticipated they might open sometime in June, and may add a second service in order to keep the congregations from being too crowded.

And Ochs, Hale and Shaheed all said their finances have not withered under the strain of the disease and the governor’s order.

“People have been really generous,” Ochs said. “Some people have let us know that they’re not able to give like they used to, but we’ve gotten some bigger than normal gifts too, so we’re holding steady in terms of our giving.”

A member of the Masjid Al-Rahman congregation owns the mosque building, and they have only modest utility costs, Shaheed said.

Kelso First Baptist started the year with donations down slightly, but their giving doubled in the first month of COVID-19 restrictions, Hale said, and has remained high.

“So we were greatly, greatly appreciative and feel blessed,” He said. “Giving waxes and wanes. ... We started the year off low, and when COVID hit, I thought, boy, we were going be in trouble. … (But) people stepped in.”

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