COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus that has swept the globe, is not the first pandemic I have experienced. If you count AIDS in the mid to late 1980s and maybe H1N1 in 2009, then I’ve seen at least three. Of course, I need to mention the 2003 outbreak of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), but that disease was simply an epidemic.
Our current pandemic brings vivid memories back to me. Over the past 35 years of my ministry as a chaplain and as co-ordinator of chaplaincy services for the diocese of Toronto, it seems to be a familiar and at times recurring nightmare. The fear, the anxiety, the unknowing of how the disease will move amongst us. The manifestation of the disease, the horror of AIDS, the universal precautions against SARS infection, the global scope of the H1N1 influenza, and of course, COVID-19.
I recall my first experiences of AIDS. The fear I felt as I encountered those who were infected. Would I, could I become likewise infected? Why didn’t I simply walk away?
SARS was different. I was given one hour to close my office and leave the hospital. As chaplain I was declared non-essential and sent home. When more was known about transmission, I was allowed back to provide pastoral support to patients trapped within SARS-quarantined hospital wards. And I felt the fear of contagion all over again. I recall trying to be spiritually present to others while garbed in latex, knowing I was—at best—failing.
All the while Toronto was dealing with fear and spreading quarantines.
And then H1N1 would impact Canada harder than any country outside of Asia. Forty-four Canadians died, several hundred became ill and in the Greater Toronto Area over 25,000 were quarantined.
Once again we are facing familiar yet new fears. Another pandemic. Thousands infected and far too many deaths. Health resources tasked to the maximum, cities locked down, travel increasingly restricted and the search for a vaccine.
Throughout all of this, both past and present, I struggled to see and feel where God is in all of this—to answer the endless questions asked of me within my ministry by those seeking meaning and purpose. Why must the elderly, the young, the middle aged, parents, children, husbands and partners become ill and even die?
Such questions rarely have clear answers. Experience teaches me that answers, or meaning, are often found within the struggle, within the “not knowing” of what awaits all of us.
However, as we brace ourselves to meet this new and fearful challenge of COVID-19, I believe my past experiences have taught me the following:
I have been challenged to trust in others as never before. When answers are lacking, and science seems to be lagging behind unfolding events, we need to trust in one another—to trust clinicians, scientists, public health-care providers and the countless others who are deeply involved in front-line care. We need to trust that information is correct and current, to trust that following precautions as suggested by professionals is not only common sense but deeply wise. We need to turn away from those who spread misinformation and those who promote fear. We need to become truth tellers.
I learned that I needed to acknowledge and give voice to my fears. Fears need to be expressed and channeled into concern for the well-being of self, families and neighbours. I found comfort in sharing my fears with others. Often, when fears are shared, strength is found which can overcome the unknown.
Once trust is established and fear acknowledged, the ability to care for others becomes doable. To respond to the fear others are experiencing is only doable when one is able to address and bear witness to one’s own fear while trusting in the knowledge which can truly set one free while tending to the needs of others.
Finally, faith. In all my years of ministry I often said a simple prayer before I went to meet another who was living with AIDS, SARS or another life-limiting illness. That prayer? May I find God already there. May I see, or feel, or know the presence of God, who is already there. And I came to learn that every time, God was there waiting for me.
COVID-19 will require that faith communities change their worship, liturgical and gathering practices. “Church” will need to be done in ways which will feel disquieting. But while change will be the new norm for now, faith will remain constant.
We will know, as I have learned, that God is already here with us, amongst us. Faithful witness, regardless of its shape or form, will bring comfort and empowerment to us all. And in this regard we will, as we have before, persevere.
Canon Douglas Graydon is the former coordinator of chaplaincy services in the diocese of Toronto. He previously served as a spiritual care provider at Casey House, Canada’s first and only stand-alone hospital for people with HIV/AIDS, and as chaplain at Princess Margaret Cancer Care Palliative Care in Toronto. He is currently retired and worships at St. Andrew by-the-Lake, Toronto Islands.