Navigating spiritual life during COVID

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BYU student Amy Ottinger studies her scriptures. Through faith, Amy was able to find peace during the pandemic. (Marissa Lundeen)

When Amy and Kim Ottinger moved to Provo in 2021, their expectations of the college experience were promptly dashed by the reality of COVID-19.

Masking, social distancing and periods of isolation weren’t exactly what these two sisters hoped for during their first semester at BYU. Originally from Bakersfield, California, Amy and Kim relocated to Provo in 2021 to attend BYU.

Amy, an animation major and an effervescent ball of energy and ideas, and Kim, an art major with an abundance of intuitive creativity and goodness, had to learn to find peace from within themselves as they adjusted to living in a new city and attending a new school during a pandemic.

As Amy and Kim navigated this time of unique challenges, they found their faith in Jesus Christ to be an anchor during the tumultuous storm of COVID-19.

College is never easy, but when you throw in a worldwide pandemic to boot? Forget about it. It’s a surefire recipe for hardship. Unmet expectations, social isolation and plans cast askew led to feelings of fear and hopelessness for many. However, Kim, Amy and many other people of faith like them were able to find hope through God during this period of sometimes overwhelming darkness.

For BYU students, the darkness of COVID-19 came knocking on our front door in March 2020, when the sky started falling. BYU announced on Thursday, March 12 that classes were canceled for the rest of the week and would resume the following Monday through remote instruction. Slowly all of campus, then all of Provo, and eventually the whole world, followed suit, adopting social distancing, mask mandates, and other safety precautions to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

Grocery shopping as we knew it, connecting with friends as we knew it, and church as we knew it were all gone and replaced with pandemic-friendly solutions. During this time when solid ground and peace and stability seemed to be disappearing by the second, many people found solace in their faith.

“Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden,” Jesus said. “I will give you rest.” The people came running.

Four university professors published an article in 2022 explaining how spirituality may have affected the outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic for individuals. BYU professors David C. Dollahite, Spencer James and Loren D. Marks, and Utah State University professor Heather H. Kelley, discovered significant associations between the frequency of engaging in spiritual practices and relational well-being.

They discovered those who engaged in spiritual practices, whether it be prayer, meditation, scripture study, or practicing mindfulness, had increased emotional closeness and were more likely to report a positive lasting effect of the pandemic on family relationships.

While faith may not be a cure-all for the world’s woes, the scholars’ article published in Marriage and Family Review documented how spirituality helped individuals find hope and meaning even in
the most trying of times.

Amy and Kim, like many BYU students, spent the beginning of the pandemic at home with their family prior to coming to Provo. This time of togetherness was especially meaningful for Amy as their family studied “Come, Follow Me” together and conducted their own sacrament meetings at home.

“Church became so much more intimate, and it meant more to me because it took more discipline from us. My mom emphasized that this difficult time was a time of growth. Keeping my faith kindled definitely helped me maintain hope during the pandemic,” Amy said.

When the local missionaries reached out to Amy and encouraged her to share her testimony on social media, she eagerly accepted their invitation. A recently returned missionary herself, Amy felt happy to share the gospel during a time when peace was so elusive.

It allowed her the perfect opportunity to not only share her testimony but also connect with others. Being able to share her faith with friends and family via social media helped her maintain purpose and excitement while so many other opportunities were put on hold.

“I had just gotten back from my mission when the pandemic started,” Amy explained. “It was supposed to be this time of dating and socializing, and I felt like I was robbed of that. Trusting in the Lord that everything would be OK was the thing that helped me get through the pandemic, especially in moments when I was a little bitter,” Amy said.

When Amy and Kim made their way to Provo in the fall of 2021, their BYU experience was nothing like they had imagined it would be. “Provo was sad,” Amy explained. “I felt like I didn’t belong here until I was able to talk to people more.”

One thing that helped Amy maintain hope was her religion class. Required scripture readings and spiritual assignments kept her motivated to stay close to God.

“I really needed direction during that time because everything was so monotonous. Having structure in my gospel study was really nice,” Amy said.

Kim’s experience was unique from her sister’s. Transitioning to living at home during the pandemic was difficult after experiencing the freedom of college living, and although she loved being with her family, she missed her found family in Rexburg.

“Because I was dealing with a lot of things emotionally, I had to come to God. That was the only way I could get through it,” Kim said. “Not just because He helps but also because I know my Savior has gone through the same exact things I have gone through. He is someone I don’t have to justify or explain myself to. He gets it, and that was comforting.”

Like Amy, Kim was excited about the prospect of having a community of peers again once she moved to Provo. However, she was disappointed when the reality of her BYU experience fell short of her dream.

“I need human interaction; it feeds my soul and keeps me going. I need to feel like I can serve and love people, but if I’m not interacting with people then I don’t know where I need to be and I’m not sure what my purpose is,” Kim said.

As she was struggling to find her purpose in pandemic-era Provo, Kim’s connection to the Savior became a lifeline. Reading Church leaders’ talks, journal writing and taking time to sit in stillness and listen to the voice of the spirit were some ways she was able to stay connected to the Divine.

“I love General Conference talks. They are modern revelation and speak easily to me. During the pandemic, I listened to and read a lot of talks and had a lot of reflection time. I always knew that my Savior was with me — the Spirit was there,” Kim said.

Art was another spiritual exercise that kept both Amy and Kim busy during the pandemic. Being immersed in various art classes required them to continue developing their skills and reminded them that there was a life outside of COVID-19, and that life was full of beauty, color and hope.

The pandemic rocked the world in more ways than we can probably understand as of this
moment, and many are still reeling from its repercussions. However, research has shown that individuals who incorporated spiritual practices into their lives during the pandemic were able to
find comfort and relational well-being during an incredibly difficult time. Just as Amy and Kim were able to find hope and peace through their connection with God, many people of faith turned to their spiritual practices to find peace when it could not be found anywhere else. And so, it would appear as if the data backs up the Savior’s promise found in Matthew 11. “Come unto me … and I will give you rest.”

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