Coronavirus in Europe: The challenge of serving in a context of uncertainty
Christians in various countries mention the loneliness in times of confinement and the needs of the elderly, as priorities to be addressed in the coming weeks of crisis.
Citizens in all European countries are coming to terms with the drastic measures implemented by the governments in their efforts to stop the expansion of the Covid-19 virus. On Thursday 19 March, more than 85,000 cases of coronavirus had been diagnosed in Europe, and over 4,000 had died as a consequence of the virus. A few days ago, Evangelical Focus asked several people in Europe about how evangelical churches were reacting to the crisis. More testimonies were sent to us in the last hours.
Loneliness, an Increasingly Important Issue
“The mood is bleak but not panicked, at least so far”, says Miikka Niiranen, a journalist from Finland. In the supermarkets, for example, he saw “a combination of extra seriousness and politeness”. There is a sense of “calm before the storm moment”, as the authorities expect the country will be hit with the peak of the epidemic in a few weeks time. Christians seem to be facing the coming crisis with more hope, but need to adapt their activities to the new context. “The first reaction is to move everything online as the rest of the society”, including Christians conferences. Schools, churches and “all meetings involving more than 10 people” have been stopped. The Christian magazine Areiopagi has published online materials aimed at young people in Secondary School age explains Niiranen. University students are “testing online meetings and seeing how they work”. Charity work will be of “utmost need” in the coming weeks. “Loneliness is perhaps the most common issue we need to start taking seriously. After that, probably buying food and other goods for those who are in quarantine or sick”.
The Challenge of Being “People of Hope”
In Belgium, people have reacted to the sequence of events with very diverse reactions, says Don Zeeman, leader of the Evangelical Alliance of Flanders. There is “a mix of disbelief, panic, indifference, anxiety, insubordination and defeatism. The fact that the (near) future is suddenly very unpredictable, makes many people worry”. How are Christians reacting? “Since worship services (and other gatherings) are forbidden, believers are looking for alternatives, like livestream services etc”. “The Evangelical Alliance is working on a national day of prayer”, and both Catholic and evangelical churches made calls to seek God. “Hopefully, church members will also engage in initiatives that help the vulnerable people in society”. Many in Belgium put their trust in “medical science and politics”, which often are “unable to offer answers and solutions”, says Zeeman. “If the result of this crisis is that people start to look for real certainties in life, we could say that something good comes out of the turbulent events. It is the prayer of many Christians that we can be people of real hope”.
Opportunities to Care About Others
In the Czech Republic, as in many other countries, the initial incredulity of many has lead to an increasing awareness of the seriousness of the situation, explains Nelleke Wolters, a Christian living in Prague. Christians, Wolters believes, should be able to act “with faith and common sense”. [Two weeks ago], two homes of members of the church plant she belongs to, opened up for a last small church service. “I think that was very meaningful. We had a meeting with eight, worshiped through song and communion (with more precautions, like having the bread cut in advance and only little cups of wine and juice) and were together for one last time, just before next day the total quarantine was announced”. The ministry serving homeless people in the city has also struggled. “A few people continue, trying to provide food every week, while responsibly following the government’s regulations”. Wolters also points to the issue of loneliness. “We still need each other, especially for the singles this is going to be a hard time when they are housebound all by themselves”. Another challenge will be to help children cope with the confinement: “Kids have to go a long way now without seeing anyone their own age”.
“Churches are Well Positioned to Respond”
In the United Kingdom, there has been a debate about how to respond to the crisis, explains Dave Burke, a retired evangelical pastor. There is “deep uncertainly about the future”, especially in what has to do with the loss of jobs; there is “cynicism”, with some “passing around conspiracy theories”. But most face the crisis with “stoicism and positivity – people are getting on with life as best they can and a positive community spirit is developing”. In the UK, “we are just beginning to get our heads around this”, says Burke. “Most churches have cancelled meetings, and moved to other means of communication or supporting people”. But churches are often “ahead of the game in supporting one another and their wider communities”. Burke gives an example: “In the last few hours I’ve had emails from people organising support for isolated asylum seekers and refugees, poor and vulnerable people in our community. It is early days but I think the churches are well positioned to respond well; this is one thing I find personally very encouraging”.
A Test for Inward-Looking Churches
“I have the feeling that the churches that were more dynamic outside their four walls and less focused only on their Sunday service are those who are adapting better to this new situation”, says José Luis Fernández, working a pharmacy cooperative in Spain. Working in the field of health, and in a context in which pharmacies are of the few businsesses that remain open, he sees “much work and collaboration” despite the “tension” with which the workers involved in the fight against the coronavirus are faced every day. The new technologies are a “blessing” through which believers in different parts of the country can encourage each other. “On Sunday, a much loved family sent me a poem by Dietrich Bonhoffer, translated into Spanish – an excellent acknowledgement of God in times of difficulty and darkness”. The reflections of the German theologian who was imprisoned during World War II gives a “beautiful hope founded on the resurrection of Christ”, says José Luis.
Volunteering and Praying for Revival
“We have been on lockdown now in Tirana for over [three] week[s]”, writes Ylli Doci, President of the Albania Evangelical Alliance. “[Several weeks ago] we gathered over Zoom, a social media platform, for a prayer meeting and somebody pointed out that we usually did not have so many people when we gathered for prayer with church members weekly in our building. It was wonderful to see each other and it was sweet to express to each other the love Christ has put in our midst and our longing to be together”. In Albania, Christians [were holding] a three-day fast which [ended] on Friday, March 20. “We are praying that God will use this special time of disruption to focus and renew our commitment to proclaim Christ as the only one worthy of worship; the Truth, the Way and the Life for every human being”. Meanwhile, churches and volunteers have been “engaged providing help even for hospitals with some supplies we had gathered in the efforts of the response to the devastating earthquakes of the fall last year”. Other believers are “providing food and other supplies for the elderly or the poor in some areas”. The Mayor of Tirana has “acknowledged again how we, Evangelicals, are those who they can rely on for service in the community”, shares Doci. “There is a sense of expectation among our believers that God will cause us as Evangelicals to come even closer together and be revived in a new way as one body to rise to the challenge of providing spiritual leadership and hope for our people at a difficult time”.
Realising “How Vulnerable We are”
“I live in Italy, more precisely in the area of Modena, one of the cities that is getting hit more and more by Covid-19”, says Alessandro Picirillo. The region experienced a “rather rapid lock-down since the outbreak of the virus”. In the last weeks, there has been “a reviving of national pride” and “a shared hope among the people that ‘all will be well’ (in the end), as framed in the hashtag #andràtuttobene”. But this might be “an instinctive yet light reaction to a situation that is hard to decipher and to contain”, a “great uncertainty of global proportions” which will make many understand, “perhaps for the first time, how vulnerable we are”. In the country that is going through the worst coronavirus outbreak so far in Europe […], forced changes in church life are helping believers realise “how much we still depend on surrogate gods instead of believing in the Gospel and living for the true God”. Christians have a responsibility of witnessing to others and “helping those in need or those who are helping the sick”. Many churches and mission agencies have joined for a National Day of Prayer on Sunday 22 March.
Name of the author: Joel Forster, Evangelical Focus