Chaplaincy in a pandemic

‘It is during times like this that people turn to God.’ Words my principal spoke to me at the beginning of this crisis. A true insight. The reverse can be stated as well, that in times like this God turns to us, or more correctly, that we remember that God has already turned to us in the sufferings of Christ.

It is tempting to write an article about how the crisis has opened new spiritual opportunities in this ministry, but I want to avoid capitalising on the sufferings caused by this crisis because it is in these sufferings that God himself shares, as we share the sufferings of Christ (Philippians 3:10). Instead my aim is to highlight how God has turned to us at Christ Church Grammar School during this period.

Like most, when I first heard of coronavirus, I had thought it was a problem ‘over there’. Something like SARS or Swine flu which would never arrive here, or which would quickly fizzle out. I remember thinking that the restrictions China had placed on their population was the kind of thing a democratic government would never do. Within days, I realised how naïve I had been.

The arrival of the reality that coronavirus was here and that restrictions were to be the new norm caused sudden changes in how chaplaincy looked at Christ Church Grammar. Student attendance dropped drastically and suddenly. Lesson plans were abandoned mid-class and conversations about the future took their place. I was busier pastorally than I had ever been, particularly with staff who were wrestling with worry about their jobs, their loved ones who they could no longer visit, and their own health concerns.

My daily step count took a large upswing as I found that what was needed more than ever, was simply walking around the school to be available for the hallway conversation, frequently accompanied by tears. And yet, in these moments I noticed God turning to us. The staff drew closer during this time. I felt more capable of offering an echo of God’s love and calm during the tumult.

Just as quickly as the news of the virus’ arrival came, chapels and assemblies were removed from the school structures. Chaplains around the country responded immediately by embracing the ‘video chapel’, buying equipment, sharing setup ideas, sets and services with each other. I quickly discovered video editing software the school had been subscribing to, but I had never had the motivation to learn.

I have often said that a chaplain is at times an amalgam of professions: preacher, teacher, priest, counsellor, coach, charity worker, wedding coordinator, tour guide operator, and to that I will now add video editor. I was struck by how simple this was, and how a good quality, fully edited video, with background music, slides, embedded videos and songs could come together so efficiently.

Similarly, as our classes moved to remote learning at the back end of Term 1, I found myself fulfilling a life-long dream of being a Play School presenter (of sorts), preparing Easter videos for the younger years, complete with dinosaur waterplay, craft and stories.

Like all chaplains, I often wonder at the level of engagement and interest in my chapel talks. Preparing an Easter video message for the Senior School that was optional meant I could get data on how many had watched the video. I had as many clicks as there are students in the school. Perhaps this is a sign in a small way, of people turning to God, or more likely God turning to us.

In the midst of the anxiety of students, families and staff, I have been reminded of God being our strength and refuge, and the need to ‘be still’ (Psalm 46). That God is our fortress gives us reason to be calm in the midst of the chaos, and the effect of this calm is being felt at school as I write.

God has a habit of bringing good out of evil and light out of darkness, and this event will be no different. Already I can see that the pastoral experiences I have had will open more doors in the future. The skills I have gained in video creation and editing will certainly be used when chapels return to normal – and I know video segments will be a regular feature of services, and my communication with the school in the future.

While I have seen no spiritual revival of people turning to God due to the present calamity, I know that God has turned to us since Christ first came, and has certainly turned to us in our present moment.

By The Reverend Nicholas Russell, Chaplain | Christ Church Grammar School, WA