Pandemic Reflections From Across Devon’s Church Community
On March 23 2020, the day after Mothering Sunday, Boris Johnson announced the first coronavirus lockdown in a televised address which many of us will remember watching.
The lockdown included the closure of schools, church buildings and workplaces and the suspension of much of life as we knew it.
Here eight people from churches across Devon reflect on their experiences and how their faith has been impacted over the last 12 months:
Jon Devereux is a curate in Plymouth. He was training for ordination when the lockdown was announced and says “At the time I was quite nervous, I’d been watching other countries around us going into lockdown and was anticipating it happening to us.
“As a result, I’d already chatted with a family I am close with in Plymouth about moving in with them for a bit as I lived on my own at the time and I didn’t fancy being trapped at home alone. I moved in with that family on the Sunday and the lockdown happened on the Monday!
“I am so grateful to Jesus for prompting me to act quickly, it wouldn’t have very fun to have spent all that by myself and I really feel for those who have experienced that first-hand.
Jon says that, for someone who likes planning, all the uncertainty of the past year has been difficult “Change has been the only constant and that has proven to be quite stressful.
“That being said, it has brought a lot of meaning to St Paul’s words that we “live by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). Trusting in God has been essential (as it always is) but I have felt more reliance on Him as a result. That doesn’t mean I haven’t had wobbly days though, sometimes it’s simply been enough to stand.”
Simon Harrison is the Lead Healthcare Chaplain at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital and President of the College of Healthcare Chaplains, he says before lockdown “Preparations in the hospital and the initial planning of the Nightingale hospital were very much pointing towards a massive challenge, and it was going to need a radical response to keep us safe.
“Although it was not pleasant at the time, I do look back on the early days when I was shielding from family and friends and recognise that this time apart both enabled me to do some of the things I needed to get done and also gave me time and space to reflect perhaps more deeply than I had for a while, which was important in finding my spiritual equilibrium as the world shifted around me.
Simon says he will remember “the privilege and intensity of working in Chaplaincy at this time. Working across the UK with the Nightingale plans and then leading chaplaincy provision here in Exeter was a very unique and (I hope) a once in a lifetime challenge.”
His colleague, Rev’d Sheila Swarbrick says “The role of chaplains in the hospital has been valued and integrated into patient care and staff support more widely than before.
She said out of work she had enjoyed an online poetry writing course run by her church and “more conversations with neighbours and our Easter Sunday 2020 morning hymn sing.”
Rev’d Helen Sherlock is a curate at Unlimited, a church in Exeter with a particular focus on teenagers and students. She says when the lockdown was announced she felt “a mixture of panic and fear mixed with excitement…. it felt like there was a national response and we were all being asked to play our part, it felt quite unifying in our fear and uncertainty and that is something that can sometimes be lost in this country.
“The biggest challenge has definitely been technology and the lack of face to face interaction. Zoom meetings do not give you energy and I love being around people, being able to read body language etc.
“Our young congregation and those we reach out to in Exeter College were hard to engage with online, some young people said that they felt as though all the adults had invaded their safe space, online was a place which they felt they owned and all of a sudden it had been invaded by the older world. Engaging with them was very difficult which came as a real shock as they are a tech generation.
Helen said she turned to the good old-fashioned telephone to keep in touch with her young congregation: “The ability to pick up the phone and call for pastoral care has been a real blessing and something I wouldn’t really have done much before, and the young people have loved receiving a phone call, again, quite a surprise.
“Also socials on line like Bake Off and games have been really good for keeping in touch, our weekend away which turned into a weekend at home meant that there was no financial cost so more people got involved with that.”
Mary Mann, a Communications Officer with the Diocese of Exeter, was a final year Journalism student at Kingston University when the country went into lockdown.
“Academically, I was lucky that I no longer had lectures to attend; all that lay ahead was a final project and a 10,000 word dissertation,” she says,
“But one day in March I dropped my housemate off at the train station to go home for the weekend and it has now been over a year since I last saw her. That has been heart-breaking.
“I was very fortunate that I was able to stay with my family over the lockdowns but there were many non-Covid related landmarks during 2020 and the beginning of 2021 to celebrate which have been missed. This includes my graduation ceremony.
“I am most looking forward to eventually being with my friends to throw our caps in the air. Not having the freedom of seeing loved ones has had an impact on my mental health. In these times I thank God for technology and pray for a safe end to the restrictions.”
Rev’d Elizabeth Burke is Rector of Holsworthy Mission Community. She says she has missed opportunities to gather, like coffee mornings, but has met new people walking her dog.
She also started a Covid-19 Mutual Aid Group with a few others and says “Due to funding from many different sources we’ve been able to provide over 750 food parcels and we are about to give out another 250-300.
“These included ‘bake-off’ parcels with the ingredients and recipes to make cupcakes, bread, scones and pasties. The pictures on Facebook of the families cooking together were amazing.
“About 1000 Easter eggs were given out last Easter and we will do the same this year.
“At Christmas all the primary school children were given a pebble painted with baby Jesus and challenged to make the rest of the Nativity without buying anything.
“Another project was giving every household sunflower seeds.
“None of this could have been possible without all the amazing volunteers. How the communities have come together to support one another has been a real blessing.”
“Helping to make things easier for people at such a difficult time was amazing and I won’t forget the look on the many children’s faces.”
Dr Jon Curtis is the Lay Discipleship Advisor for the Diocese of Exeter and wrote the current Lent course “These Are Our Stories: Lent in a Pandemic Year”. He says “I think I’ve found the unknowingness really hard…I always try to have a hopeful outlook and there weren’t any clear positive future events that I could attach my optimism to.
“In addition, I’ve really missed my parents who I’ve hardly seen, and I’m just desperate now to be able to do some normal things, go to the football, watch some bands, enter a running race, even browse in a record shop.
“Despite what I’ve just said, a diary that’s empty of evening and weekend bookings has been a huge relief on some levels. I’ve loved spending time with my family.
“On a wider level, it’s a joy to see less cars on the road, and people able to walk and cycle much more safely. I hope that the resetting we’ve all been involved in is an opportunity we take, to make bold decisions for the sake of our churches, communities and world.
Jon says the five people he interviewed about their pandemic stories for the Lent course “were so insightful, and they all really calmed me down and reminded me of the good things we all still have, and the perspective to be gained. I’ve been able to see (and have time and space to look for) God in this mess.
In Torquay, Rev’d Nathan Kiyaga has been busy as Chaplain of St Cuthbert Mayne secondary school, as well as co-ordinating a lot of the local Covid community response.
He says that last March “My heart was at the time with the year 11s and Year 13s.
“I had this feeling that this would be the last time with some of them if not all of them and this has turned out to be the case for the majority.
“Not being able to fully engage with students who were struggling before the pandemic has been challenging.
“The teamwork and collaboration has been a blessing and we want to continue that going forward (Food parcels, testing teams, teaching teams and much more).
Nathan says he has valued being able to spend quality time with his family and walking, running and cycling.
He says what he will remember from this time is:
“A year when we were not able to show our smiles to others.
A year when we turned our homes into chapels.
A year when I used more water washing my hands than drinking it.
A year when partnerships were formed that will shape the course of the next decade
A year when I was reminded of the value of connection and the privilege friends and family are especially when we can still see them.
A year when the postman/woman knew the front door of my house more than anyone else.
A year when gratitude became a value to live by.”
Rev’d Nathan Kiyaga
Jon Curtis says “I think I’ll remember the weirdness the most.
“Some of it already seems like a different life. ‘Remember when we couldn’t sit on benches’, I’ll say. And they’ll roll their eyes and think I’m exaggerating.