As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Office for Religious Life has been working to maintain a sense of strength and spiritual connection among the Stanford community. That effort, in turn, has inspired new approaches and revealed new insights, according to the Rev. Dr. Tiffany Steinwert, dean for religious life.

Tiffany L. Steinwert, dean for religious life at Stanford University. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Community members are sheltering in place and practicing social distancing. They are now living and working alone or in small groups, most of them far from campus. Canceled public worship services and campus faith communities unable to gather in person have become the norm.

Steinwert discusses what’s involved in ministering to a campus community in times of uncertainty and in helping faculty, staff and students maintain their resolve and optimism.

As you began your time at Stanford a year ago, you expressed a desire to help people “navigate life at Stanford amidst the highs and lows that inevitably come.” How has a pandemic that has dispersed the campus community affected your work?

In the midst of this challenging and unprecedented situation, we have experienced both highs and lows. Within a very short span of time, we’ve been forced to change not only the way in which we go about our daily lives, but also the very fabric of our community.

I think particularly about our students. Life and time are measured by class schedules, assignments, co-curricular activities, shared meals and gatherings with friends. The routine of the quarter, both in and out of class, creates a structure – a framework – that helps make sense of the world and our place in it. In the last three weeks, all of those structures have disappeared and, under the shelter-in-place order, our community has dispersed. Many undergraduates have had to leave campus and the communities that support and sustain them – seniors even forgoing their final spring quarter. Graduate students have made tremendous adjustments, sheltering-in-place and putting research on hold.

Of course, the student experience is not that much different from staff and faculty. Not only have we all had to work longer and harder in the midst of crisis, but we have had to do so under exceedingly difficult circumstances.

We are all grappling with this strange new normal in which the world as we knew it has been upended. As we try to continue our work in an unfamiliar and unpredictable global landscape, we can feel unsettled, unmoored and uneasy, to say the least. This is an exceedingly hard time, a proverbial valley.

Yet, we have seen our community rise to extraordinary heights in the ways in which they have responded. Immediately, students began to organize creative ways to support one another. Networks of organizations, departments and friend groups crafted mutual aid societies. Spreadsheets went out across campus inviting all to add what resources they could offer – housing, transportation and financial assistance, but also self-care strategies, counseling, and emotional and spiritual support. A community-generated resource hub appeared for helping students navigate finances, academics, advising, and updates and alerts from the county and university. Staff and faculty alike joined these efforts of collective generosity, and we witnessed a great outpouring of compassion and solidarity as we all rose to meet this challenge together.

If anything, this crisis has taught us how very much we need one another. They say a person or community is best measured by how they react under crisis and challenge. If this is true, our outpouring of love and care for one another has revealed how strong, committed and generous our Stanford community can be.

It is important as we travel this difficult road together to notice these mountaintop highs in our communal life. In my language, I would call these glimpses of grace that offer us hope for the journey.

The Stanford community reflects an array of faith traditions and no faith traditions. How can insights from diverse religious and spiritual traditions bring people together in times like these?

While there is great diversity among faith traditions, some common themes can help guide us all, religious and non-religious alike. Compassion weaves a common tapestry in our world faith traditions.

In Tibetan Buddhism, compassion is a foundational commitment and practice. Loving-kindness, or metta, meditations drawn from Buddhist practice orient us toward a compassionate way of seeing and engaging with others. In a similar way, compassion is an essential practice and noble virtue in Hindu dharma. It is a fundamental teaching known as dayau in the Sikh tradition. In Islam, it is traditional to begin all things with the invocation, Bismillāh ar-Raḥmān ar-Raḥīm, “In the name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful” – a divine address that appears at the beginning of virtually every chapter of the Quran and calls attention to compassion as a central attribute of God. In Judaism and Christianity alike, love of God and love of neighbor are inextricably interconnected.

Strategies for containing and flattening the curve depend on our collective compassion, our ability to sacrifice ourselves and our ways of living to ensure the safety of others. For many of us, contracting the virus may not pose a significant threat. But for those who are vulnerable, the threat is very real. We must think about our own actions, not necessarily for our own individual benefit, but rather for the benefit of our global community. Stopping just one new case of COVID-19 today can over time stop thousands of new infections. This is compassion in action and a call to all of us, religious and non-religious alike.

There are two beautiful teachings, one from the Talmud in the Jewish tradition, the other from the Quran in the Islamic tradition, that speak to the power of our compassion to transform the world: When you save one life, it is as if you have saved an entire world. Rabbi Evelyn Baz from Hillel at Stanford wrote a beautiful reflection on this teaching. I keep it next to my desk as a reminder of my own call in these days.

As we continue to adjust our way of living, it helps to remind ourselves of this common commitment to the care and welfare of others. When we think about our own actions in light of the impact on others, we can find not just solace and comfort, but also meaning, purpose and hope – a hope that together we can and will get through this.

What do you say to people who want to be strong and optimistic during a time of fear and uncertainty?

I think the essential thing for all of us is to find balance in the midst of the chaos. One of my favorite poems, “Go to the Limits of Your Longing” by Rainer Maria Rilke, names the human experience as one marked by beauty and terror. In these first few days of spring, in the midst of a pandemic, these words seem ever more true.

Look out the window. It’s springtime. The flowers don’t know there’s a pandemic. They are blossoming and blooming, and their sweet scent fills the air. All around is the possibility for new life. Were we to only look to the sky, we would see nothing but beauty all around. And, yet, our daily lives tell us otherwise. Our lives are marked by both beauty and terror, and we are called to courageously wade into both.

If we lean too much on “life is beautiful,” we become careless and harm others. If all we can think about are the devastating consequences, we cannot get up in the morning and put our feet on the floor and continue in our day, let alone help anyone else. Rilke goes on to write, “Just keep going. No feeling is final.” Indeed, we simply must keep going.

These days will surely come to an end and we will find ourselves in a new place where the isolation is over, the danger receded, handholding no longer forbidden and communities united again. We can be sure of that, as sure as the buds opening to the sun right now, as sure as the green grass rising upward, growing stronger, as sure as the laughter of children that still spills out into the quiet streets.

The reality is that we know what to do. It’s just really hard. And so in the midst of all this, we must have the faith that what we’re doing – the sacrifices we’re making in our daily lives – is making a difference, not just for us, but for our global community.