The chaplaincy role in a school community is multifaceted at any ordinary time. During a global pandemic and lockdown, the complexity grows exponentially. As educational professionals have been frantically upskilling, I’ve been impressed how our schools have risen to this latest challenge. Here’s a snippet of my journey in Chaplaincy of sharing and embodying God who is Love.
Consumer marketing and holiday planning are normally huge cues to remind us of the approach of Christmas and Easter. This year was so different for our students: without access to the Easter egg displays at the shops, Easter community events, social gifting of chocolate eggs or school holiday travel, it was hard to even know that it was Easter time at all. My aim as Chaplain for my school community was to remind all that Easter was not cancelled. A quick crash course in iMovie and YouTube led to my production of a daily Holy Week Reflection from Palm Sunday to Easter Day.
Each short video invited students and families to prepare their homes and hearts to get ready for Easter with activities such as palm arrangements, rock sculptures (remembering Luke 19:40 reference to stones crying out), significant family meals (as we remembered the last supper), and lighting the Easter vigil candle. What I found most exciting about this period was the democratising of priestly leadership – children became the ones in their families retelling the stories of Holy Week and creating rituals to remember and honour the risen Easter Christ. My role as Chaplain morphed to be one who equipped families to create and lead their own Easter spiritual experiences, rather than be passive consumers of religion. Our whole school Easter service drew our community online together simultaneously on the last day of term, with contributions from our music ensembles, primary and secondary captaincy, staff members, executive, and with reflections led by local clergy.
As Term 2 progresses, Chapel services continue online as well as in small groups on campus. I’ve discovered that short attention spans mean that reflections are best kept succinct and creative. Primary students have enthusiastically recorded selfie prayers that we’ve been able to include. Gratitudes and written prayers are collected weekly from the staff and student community to share widely. A collaboration with other school chaplains led to a beautiful shared compilation illustrating Psalm 23. The new online presence of Chapel services seems to now reach further into the community, with parents now participating in a way they previously could not access. The lunchtime student bible study fellowship group smoothly transitioned to online gatherings.
My vision of Chaplaincy is to be one who embodies the love of God and the support that faith offers, and this is core to wellbeing and pastoral support in our College. Staff have had varied experiences during the lockdown period. A core of staff continued on campus, with many more working from home. Similarly with students, a small group of students continued schooling on campus with most moving to remote learning. We needed to be creative in the ways our community reached out and continued to care for the wellbeing of all. The Chaplaincy team prioritised reaching out to staff on and off campus. Bi-weekly online wellbeing check-in meetings took place for small groups of support staff, replacing the usual staff room conversations with an opportunity to chat online about what’s been happening in their life. Having an opportunity for a quick smile and chat supported those feeling isolated, whether in their office at work or at home. Student wellbeing was supported with regular check-ins by tutors and teachers, resourced by the Chaplains, Counsellors and Director of Student Wellbeing.
Creative expressions of love
My role in the school executive management team has aimed to serve as a reminder of Christian faith, values and ethics in all our management decisions. Many staff were redeployed and re-tasked. The ‘BDC Bus’ travelled far and wide, making home deliveries to every school family with a wellbeing pack (seeds, games, fun challenges, tea) and remote learning resources. Canteen staff cooked meals to send home to staff and school families, including fresh hot cross buns for staff for the last day of term.
As restrictions eased, students were welcomed back on campus with live musical performances, an inflatable waving man, flags, a bubble machine, and fresh cookies and fruit for morning tea. We celebrated this return to in person relationship and learning. Through all of this, the message of care and connection was paramount, a way of expressing our faith in the God who is love.
I have had challenges. Working from home with my three primary-aged children remote learning next to me at the same time has been tricky. More than once my online meetings were interrupted by my five-year-old climbing onto my lap and pulling off my headset or sibling disagreements needing parental support. My most effective work time ended up being 9pm-12am, so my days were long, and extra cooking and cleaning added to the load shared by all. I had to practice what I preached, actively engaging mindfulness activities for myself and my family in order to balance the new stresses.
And there have been blessings. Seeing how our Creator God works slowly in the growing of seeds, the rising of sourdough, being held by the gentle waves and seeing the sunset on the beach – all these have humbled me. I have regularly returned to daily gratitudes and slow breathing in my time of prayer. Refocusing on the simplicity of my family gathered for meal, with intentional conversation and savouring of good food, has been a blessing for me in the midst of tricky times.
Throughout all of this, I have been grateful that Chaplaincy is a team ministry at Bishop Druitt College. Being able to draw upon the priestly ministry of my colleagues at the College, The Reverend David Morgan and The Reverend Nic Hagon, has been an incredible source of strength. We have worked together in supporting online Chapel services, remote religious education and pastoral care, as well as supporting those remaining on campus.
By The Reverend Naomi Cooke, Chaplain | Bishop Druitt College, NSW