The Rev. Jeremy Nickel, an ordained Unitarian Universalist who is based in Colorado and calls himself a VR evangelist, also saw the potential to build community and “get away from the brick and mortar” when he founded SacredVR in 2017.
Inspired by time spent in Nepal with Tibetan Buddhists and his alternative practices studies at seminary, Nickel began with secular meditations with the aim of being inclusive for all comers. But some religiously unaffiliated members of the community were put off by the name, he noticed, so he changed it to EvolVR and more people joined.
It wasn’t until the pandemic, however, that attendance soared from a few dozen to the hundreds who now attend dharma talks and meditation sessions via their chosen avatars, at times meeting at a virtual incarnation of a Tibetan Buddhist temple high in the mountains or floating weightlessly looking down at the Earth.
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“One of the reasons we’ve become so popular is you get the meditation that you need, but you get the community also,” Nickel said. “We have deep relationships, hundreds of people from around the world who know each other and wonder, ‘Is your dog, OK? How’s your wife?’”
The anonymity of virtual reality can help people feel more confident about sharing deeply personal issues, said Bill Willenbrock, who leads a Christian fellowship on the social platform VRChat with worship and counseling services for a flock of mostly teens and early 20-somethings.
“I can’t even count the number of times that I’ve heard, ‘I’m considering suicide. … It’s helpful that we’re in VR,’” said Willenbrock, a hospital chaplain and longtime Lutheran pastor who recently converted to Eastern Orthodoxy and calls himself a “digital missionary.”
On a recent Sunday, he preached at a cavernous virtual cathedral, its long halls illuminated by light from stained-glass windows. A colorful assembly of avatars listened to the sermon: A giant banana sitting in the first pew next to another of a man in a shirt and tie, plus a mushroom, a fox, armored knights.
At the end they took turns sharing why they came to the virtual community. Some saw it as something to complement, not replace, in-person gatherings.
A person with the username Biff Tannen, said it was convenient: “For example here in Scotland it’s cold, it’s wet, it’s not very nice outside, but here I am sitting in this beautiful church with my heating on.”
Another, represented by a robotlike avatar and the username UncleTuskle, said that “as a person with social phobia, it’s easier for me to be here” than in a physical church.
Virtual reality can allow people to meet without judgement regardless of physical ability or appearance, said Paul Raushenbush, who is senior advisor for public affairs and innovation at the nonprofit Interfaith Youth Core and who hosted a VR talk show last month with religious leaders who use the technology.
“What I love about it is that it’s taking … whatever technological opportunities are being offered and they’re leveraging it to gather people together for positive encounters,” Raushenbush said. “And they’re changing lives.”