Finding God in the unlikeliest of places

Updated 10:02 AM ET, Tue June 22, 2021

(CNN)In times of struggle, people often turn to faith to give them grounding -- and hope. America's students, battling the effects of the pandemic, endeavoring to complete their academics and searching for employment opportunities, are no exception. In the next installment of "Generation Resilient," CNN Opinion asked five students to share the role that religion is playing in their lives right now. The views expressed in this commentary are their own.

College freshman Shemar Powell: Searching for God on Zoom

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My freshman year at Morehouse College was supposed to be a major turning point -- both academically and personally. No longer in Baltimore, I was trying to start over in a new city and at a new school. By attending a historically Black college, I thought I would finally have a chance to thrive in an environment that encouraged and respected young Black men.
So, I was upset when coronavirus forced the college to shut down. It meant that I would be returning to Baltimore to complete my second semester online. It also meant that I would have to find a new part-time job, since I could no longer work at the restaurant in Atlanta where I had been employed. My only option was at a local Amazon warehouse, where I was put on the overnight shift.
I took it, but then began the daunting task of balancing my schoolwork during the daytime and my Amazon work at night. So, how did I find that balance?
By returning to the basics, meaning my Christian faith. Even though the pandemic had challenged my faith in God -- how could a righteous and just God allow for so much pain and suffering -- I still believed it would be critical to weathering this extraordinarily challenging time. Fortunately, my church -- Healthy Choice Ministries -- is still active on Zoom. Bishop Aubrey A. Harley hosts virtual bible study sessions on Wednesday, religious services on Saturday and corporate prayer, when the church comes together to pray for a common goal, on Sunday.
While it's hard to put into words just why those Zoom church sessions mean so much to me, the best I can do is give you an analogy. Imagine you are a small child with an ear infection. As you struggle against the pain, you feel the world is coming to an end. But then your mother approaches you, comforts you and takes you to the doctor where you get the treatment you need to heal. Church is my healing mother -- more so than my school or job or any other mainstay in my life right now.
I continue to battle exhaustion and depression, but I am grateful to have some sort of religious grounding as our country battles yet a second pandemic: racism. As ordinary -- and perhaps extraordinary -- people protest and question systems of government that have repeatedly let down folks like me, I recognize the role that my faith is playing in keeping me from losing all sense of hope.
As my bishop explained, "This isn't a new struggle. We know this, and God knows this. We must put it all in his hands, while remembering that we are his children and we must act as such." In other words, failure is not an option -- we must continue to push forward, just as our ancestors did, and with God as our moral guide.
As America reopens, and as its people call out for racial justice, it is imperative we all do our part to create a new vision for the country -- ideally one more equal, inclusive and kind toward all of its citizens.
Shemar Powell is a freshman at Morehouse college, where he is majoring in marketing and minoring in psychology.

First-year rabbinical student Avigayil Halpern: Judaism kept me from losing focus

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As a person who observes Jewish law, one of the primary contributions my religious practice makes to my life is that it tells me what I should do -- and when I should do it. In quarantine, this has meant that my days are not a formless mass of hours, but instead punctuated by thrice-daily prayer times. I know when the week begins and ends because I observe Shabbat, marking the creation of the world by abstaining from creative labor.
But far more important than structuring my time, Judaism has kept me focused on my obligations.
I am currently studying for my first major rabbinical exam, which I will take in August. Over the past few months, I have found it hard to focus on my studies. Staring at my study partner via Zoom does not compare to analyzing texts together in person, sitting in a room alive with the sounds of other voices studying aloud.
On top of that, the needs of the world have so often felt overwhelming: I've been unable to focus because of stress and fear, forcing me to leave material over for another day when I can rein in my anxieties. But this new reality has also pushed me to expand what my practice of Torah study, or the study of Jewish sacred texts, can encompass.
Torah study during this pandemic is not just the moments when I sit pouring over an ancient or medieval book. Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner, a 20th-century Jewish thinker, teaches that the commandment of Torah study includes things one would never imagine fall into that category: all of the care work that enables someone to study Torah, and all of the care work that Torah, properly understood, pushes one to do for herself and others. Just as I'm devoting my time to textual study, I'm devoting my time to care work: from phone calls with friends who are struggling to cooking food for my family and myself.
My religious obligations lie not only in offering care to my loved ones, but in the profound act of care that is committing myself -- and my community -- to pursuing justice. In this moment, where it is acutely evident that racism is a public health crisis happening alongside, and exacerbated by, a pandemic, Judaism is pushing me to redistribute money to organizations supporting Black life and, in particular, Black trans people. It is pushing me to work within my community to advocate for concrete anti-racist commitments from the Jewish organizations and leaders that are important in my own life.
But my religion has done even more for me than helping me focus on my obligations. It has been a guide for what larger priorities I should orient myself toward in all moments of my life, and it has given me a path for how I can contribute to building a world less ravaged by the injustices that make life so unstable for so many.
Avigayil Halpern is a first-year rabbinical student at Yeshivat Hadar in New York. Follow her on Twitter at @avigayiln.

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