When Sacramento State University classes went online because of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, 19 year-old Nicole Oneto moved back in with her parents about an hour south of Fresno.
“I was brought back into this bubble again,” said Oneto about feeling isolated in her rural hometown of Woodlake. She lives on 10 acres and doesn’t share some of the worldviews as her neighbors.
So earlier this year, she decided to start logging into the Sunday church services at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento, where her grandparents attend.
“It’s helped break out of that feeling of being so stuck,” Oneto said.
One of the Unitarian church’s ministers, Rev. Roger Jones, says Oneto is just one of the young adults that has been attending their services more regularly during the pandemic.
While the congregation’s overall membership is about the same as before COVID-19, people have been more engaged with the church, attending more small group sessions and weeknight prayer services.
“This sort of slowed down pace of life … has enabled people to sort of check out places where they can explore the depth of their own souls and where they can connect with other people and affirm values that are deeply important to them,” Jones said.
Andrew Nixon / CapRadio
The strong activity at the Unitarian church, albeit online, may be indicative of a more widespread religious feeling among Americans during the pandemic.
In a Pew Research Center poll conducted over the summer, nearly three in 10 Americans said the pandemic has strengthened their faith.
People who were already very religious were most likely to say they were feeling more spiritual during the pandemic, according to the survey.
Forty-five percent of people whose faith was already important to them said they were feeling more religious, the poll showed, versus 11% of people for whom religion has traditionally been less important.
Overall, about 4% of Americans polled said their faith was weaker because of the virus.
At the Unitarian Church, all services have been online since March 2020.
On a recent Tuesday night service via Zoom, about three dozen people were logged-in, listening to hymns led by pre-recorded videos and a pianist from her home.
The mid-week service didn’t exist a year ago, and Jones said when everything was in person, no more than 12 people would typically show up.
“If we had a weeknight service that you had to drive to and you had to drive home in the dark from, we wouldn't have thirty five people,” he said. He added that they have more small group gatherings online than they did in person pre-pandemic.
Jones has noticed that young adults like Nicole Oneto have been attending more regularly.
“The aspect of community care, that’s what really drew me in,” said Oneto, who said she wasn’t raised with religion, but was always curious about it.
“Being at home … has been a time of reflection. … I feel like I’m a very different person than the day I came home from school. Definitely for the better,” she said.
Amr Dabour, an Imam at the Salam Islamic Center in Sacramento, says he has also noticed more participation and interest from young adults during the pandemic.
“I have seen a lot of people coming back to God in a way,” he said about the people who have reached out to him over the past year to help explain COVID-19.
“They are trying to make sense of ... this hidden enemy there that is sweeping the whole world,” Dabour said. Congregants asked him if the virus is a message from God. “It’s anxiety that’s mixed with calmness.”
Spending more time alone, and pondering mortality, has brought Ras Siddiqui into a more spiritual space. The lifelong Muslim says faith helped him cope with the death of his mother during the past year. But he says one person’s stronger faith is not necessarily something that’s visible to others.
“It’s what the heart and mind processes, not necessarily what the body shows,” Siddiqui said. “Some people become more dogmatic, and they’re into the rituals. And that’s fine. I think belief is deeper.”
Historically, people have turned to religion in times of crisis, says Catherine Brekus, a professor at Harvard Divinity School. The Great Depression, World War 2 and 9/11 are just a few examples, she said.
“In most of those cases the interest did not continue. So these tend to be sort of short lived moments of more intense religiosity that then fade away,” Brekus said.
But Nicole Oneto’s spiritual path is becoming clearer. She’s joining the Unitarian church as one of its newest members.
”I’m really jumping in head first,” she said.
When the threat of COVID-19 lifts, she plans to attend services in person.
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