Thursday, as I sat down to a board meeting for the Micah Mission, a restorative justice organization in Saskatoon, I got the news that the Juno Awards show was being cancelled in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. For months I’d been hearing the Junos hyped on CBC Radio 2 and seeing advertisements on billboards around town, where the shows were to be broadcast from. The Juno organizers made a costly—and wise—decision to try to get ahead of this pandemic.
Minutes later, a text message let me know that Mennonite Church Saskatchewan’s annual delegate sessions were also being postponed. I heartily affirm the regional church leaders’ decision to seek to slow down transmissions that could overwhelm the health system (#flattenthecurve).
I paused to fire off a quick email to the members of a course I’m teaching to remind them that they were welcome to attend class that night virtually via Zoom.
Then I turned my attention back to the work of restorative justice on the Prairies: supporting Micah’s staff, hearing reports on Circles of Support and Accountability, Indigenous Awareness programming, and Person2Person visitation.
But it all felt a bit surreal with the threat of pandemic looming over us.
Thursdays are my long day: early morning breakfast with university students, mid-day meetings and then teaching an evening course. When I got home last night I turned to the book I’ve been reading to unwind: Alan Kreider’s The Patient Ferment of the Early Church.
I found my bookmark in a section entitled “Religion in response to crisis.” It begins: “In ancient society [and into the early modern world] a plague, although often dormant, loomed in the fears of people.” Kreider goes on to describe how “Christians and pagans gave different answers” to the presence and the threat of plague.
What answer are we giving?
In the last weeks, as first news and then fears about the coronavirus have spread, I’ve been concerned about many things: elderly and otherwise vulnerable friends, school cancellations and funerals.
I’ve sought to pray for the suffering of people far away, although, if I’m honest, I know my prayers have been vitiated by my own selfishness, lazy empathy and latent white supremacy. A friend called me out on how I only really start to worry when it’s the lives of people “like me” who are being affected.
Most of all—perhaps due to my vocation—I’ve wondered about how congregations and Christians should respond. I’ve appreciated the best practices offered by Mennonite Church Canada’s Pandemic Preparedness Guide and the information provided by websites like flattenthecurve.com.
I’ve watched congregations in Canada and the United States post responses and make alterations to their worship: projectors instead of hymnbooks, elbow bumps instead of handshakes, livestreams instead of physical gatherings.
Cyprian’s theological response
Alongside this very good and needed information, however, is there a place for a theological response to COVID-19? Is there something uniquely Christian about how we live in our time of plague?
Kreider describes how Christians in the North African city of Carthage responded to a pandemic in A.D. 251. He writes: “It was a crisis for the entire urban community of Carthage. How should the church respond?” The bishop Cyprian summoned believers there to live in a way “marked by courage and patience.”
The ancient Christian tradition of mutual aid was alive in Carthage. Christians refused to “leave their suffering fellow believers to die without bread and water,” Kreider writes. Cyprian, however, urged his congregation beyond traditional mutual care, what they might have called congregational best practices for times of plague.
Instead, he asked them to welcome their pagan neighbours, too, into this habit of caring for one another in extremis: “[V]isit them, too; encourage them; provide bread and water for them.”
Kreider concludes: “Cyprian responded to the crisis of the plague by urging the people to live lives marked by the habitus of patience—trusting God, living without being able to control the outcome, living unhurriedly, living unconventionally, loving their enemies.”
We do not live in the ancient world. We’re thankful for that. We’re thankful for health-care institutions, anti-inflammatory drugs, germ theory. We’re thankful we know the value of hand washing. We’re thankful for the distance and development that separate our 21st-century plague from Cyprian’s plague in the third century.
But I sense that Cyprian and his church have something I want—something I need—now that I’m facing my own plague: courage, patience and love.
I woke Friday morning to a flood of voices weighing in on how the church should respond to COVID-19. Most rehashed the very good advice to do what health authorities say. A few, however, spoke to something more. They echoed that courage, that patience, that hope, peace, and love I need.
Edric Sng pastors a church in Singapore, a nation held up as a model of how to flatten the curve. This has meant stringent proactive measures of social distancing and quarantine. This has meant significant changes for congregations there. But Sng finds a different meaning in these events. He writes: “For the past month, local churches . . . have been forced into an extended period of self-examination, reflection and action.” Pandemic has become the context for spiritual discipline.
Sng’s Christianity Today article, “7 lessons from Singapore’s churches for when coronavirus reaches yours” begins with notes on tech solves and copyright negotiations for churches choosing to livestream worship gatherings rather than congregate in person.
But these logistical concerns are accompanied by the “historic bells . . . at St Andrew’s Cathedral in the heart of Singapore’s civic district” and “phone alarms go[ing] off across the island.” These are a daily midday call to “all believers . . . to stop whatever they are doing for a moment of united prayer in the face of the COVID-19 threat.”
LoveSingapore, another local Christian group, explains: “We need every believer to arise and seek God together for Singapore. A prophetic act, just like the ringing of church bells, summoning the faithful to action when their village or town is threatened.”
In a season that reveals my propensity to curve in on concerns of my own health, my own pandemic preparedness and my own inconvenience, I need to hear stories from sisters and brothers around the globe. Churches in Singapore are standing in solidarity with, and materially supporting, migrant workers, taxi drivers and others forced out of work through public fear, ethnic prejudice and cancelled projects. I need to hear this. (See saltandlight.sg/coronavirus for more stories.)
A good friend’s post also showed up in my social media feed Friday morning. Fred Liggin is a pastor in Williamsburg, Va. He also leads 3e Restoration, a nonprofit organization focused on accompanying neighbours living through homelessness and social displacement. I’ve learned a lot from Fred over the years. His post begins: “Let’s remember that courage doesn’t mean we are fearless, but that we will choose to not let fear control our lives and push us away from our neighbour who reflects the image of our God.”
For me, this is the spiritual tension posed by COVID-19. My holy desire to care for my neighbour becomes an accomplice to my every impulse toward self-absorption, isolation and suspicion. Fear—of the person handing me my coffee in the drive-thru, of my neighbour chatting in the driveway, of my runny-nosed kids and the germs they bring home from school—dresses itself up as social concern. Instead of the image of God, all I see in the other person is a vector for contagion. All I see is a pandemic threat to our precarious human vulnerability.
My impure compassion might not matter much for my socially secure neighbours. But Fred reminds me that all vulnerabilities are not equal. He urges: “As people of faith, let’s pray for the vulnerable among us. Let us less-vulnerable people be willing to serve and be present with them and for their families.”
Fred’s context, in part, is persons living in homelessness. A few days earlier, he posted: “Where do you go if you have nowhere to wash your hands regularly? Where do you go if your immune system is already compromised due to the wear and tear of chronic stress and trauma? Where do you go if you are already deemed disposable, where ‘social distancing’ is society’s preferred option for your life?”
The more-vulnerable folks in my world are international students as well as elderly widows living far from family, temporary foreign workers who can’t call in or work from home, the guys who lean on their CoSA groups for emotional and material support. My impure compassion becomes an easy justification to carry on distancing myself from those I already ignore.
What does true compassion look like?
How are we to live with courage and patience?
There are some wonderful ideas out there. Easy ones, like “pandemic pals,” who you check in with regularly. Easy ones, like phoning your neighbours when you can’t or shouldn’t meet them at coffee row. And there are beautiful ones, like the videos of quarantined neighbours in Italy singing together on their balconies.
But we also need the harder solutions, the more costly, the more prophetic. Text messages, social media and Netflix won’t save all of us from what Vox writer Ezra Klein describes as an impending “loneliness epidemic.” We need church bells and prayer. We need less-vulnerable folks who strategically make in-person visits, who comfort the anxious or grieving in ways impossible when mediated by a screen or a telephone wire. We need holy home-care workers who will change bandages and help folks put on their compression stockings. We need to figure out how to do funerals well when we all need to stay two metres apart.
Patience and courage mean more than best practices. Love in the time of COVID-19 means more than social distancing—even while we seek to #flattenthecurve. For churches, for Christians, this pandemic is more than catastrophe. It’s an opportunity for “self-examination, reflection and action.” It’s an opportunity to walk—with one another, with our neighbours—deeper into the heart of God.
Josh Wallace is Mennonite Church Saskatchewan’s interim church engagement minister.
1. What was the moment when you realized that the COVID-19 pandemic was real and would profoundly impact your life? What were your immediate concerns? What stories from the past or scripture passages have you found to be reassuring?
2. How has your congregation been responding to the pandemic? What is the biggest challenge? How have you been experiencing spiritual sustenance? Are there satisfactory ways for a congregation to gather in a virtual way rather than physically?
3. Josh Wallace encourages Christians to live with patience and courage in this time of crisis. What can we learn from the church in earlier times? Where do we most need courage and patience today?
4. Have you been experiencing loneliness in the midst of social distancing? What are some ways that we can reach out each other while keeping a safe distance? What might be some creative ways to handle a funeral or a wedding during this time of crisis?
5. Who are the vulnerable people in your community? How might you be able to support them in a safe way?
—By Barb Draper
In a time of uncertainty
Heading home early
The church has left the building
Mennonite organizations cancelling events, making adjustments in response to COVID-19
MC Canada offers pandemic preparedness web resources for congregations