Chinese ministry finds hope in community, prayer amidst coronavirus outbreak
Dozens of people in China had been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus— and two had died—when St. George on Yonge, a Toronto parish with a strong Mandarin ministry program, held a special prayer service on the evening of Jan. 17.
At the time, the coronavirus outbreak was largely centred around the Chinese city of Wuhan. The Rev. James Liu, assistant curate at the Cathedral Church of St. James who oversees much Chinese ministry in the diocese of Toronto and attended the service, says that some Toronto residents suspected all Asian people of being potential carriers of the virus.
When parishioners gathered at St. George, Liu recalls, “We prayed together, ‘Now I’m Wuhan as well. You are Wuhan as well.’ We held hands together and we prayed and we blessed each other.” Some of those present began to cry. Liu describes the scene as deeply moving.“I’m not from Wuhan,” he says. “But at that moment, we were all family. We were all together.”
Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is no longer a problem exclusive to China. On March 11, the World Health Organization recognized COVID-19 as a pandemic, one which has now spread around the world. As of March 18, hundreds of thousands had been infected in more than 100 countries and thousands had died.
For people of Chinese background in Canada, the spreading of the virus to North America may feel especially familiar.
“I think to our community, Chinese people…they have been whacked twice,” says the Rev. Morning Wang, assistant curate and associate of Mandarin ministry at St. George on Yonge.
“Initially, they were affected greatly in China and all their relatives—they were so afraid [of] the possible spreading of coronavirus,” she says of the period after the lockdown of Wuhan.
During that time, attendance at Chinese-language services at St. James and St. George on Yonge began to drop. Later, attendance climbed back up again, as public health officials in North America repeatedly said the risk of infection was low.
“That was the impression our parishioners got,” Wang says. “So they gradually came back…. [Now] it’s like every day, there is bad news. If we look at the breaking news, it’s either all about COVID-19 or COVID-19-related. So the attendance dropped significantly again.”
In January, many Chinese residents in Toronto began to wear face masks. Wang recalls someone asking her why Asian people were suddenly wearing them.
Wang reports Chinese people in Toronto experiencing language and gestures from others suggesting that they were “to be avoided.”
“They were wearing face masks as instructed by the Chinese government,” Wang says. “That is a way to protect themselves as well as the rest of people. But they were treated as if they were the source of the plague.”
Yet there were also stories at this time which underscored how much of an impact the church’s Chinese ministry has had.
Liu recalls one member of the St. James choir whose hometown is Wuhan. The woman had planned to fly back to China Jan. 19 to celebrate Chinese New Year with family. The congregation held a small party beforehand to say goodbye. “We cried a lot,” Liu says.
The next day, the choir member said to the church that she would not be returning to Wuhan after all, but would stay so she could be baptized into the Anglican church during Holy Week—returning to Wuhan only after her baptism.
“The only reason she stayed is because [of] the church, our fellowship,” Liu says.
After Chinese New Year, many people from China flew back to Canada and immediately went into self-quarantine for two weeks. A number were Anglican parishioners in Toronto.
“Through all that time, we prayed as a collective community,” Wang says. “We prayed for people in China and here, and we brought all the updates to people.”
One parishioner was on the phone with her husband in China, who was preparing to fly to Canada. Unbeknownst to them at the time, the plane he took would be the very last Air Canada flight back from China.
When her husband expressed concern about staying in a hotel near the airport, Wang says, the parishioner told him not to worry: “Father James and Mother Morning are praying for you. Our whole church is praying for you. I don’t know how you’re going to handle it, but I believe in Jesus and he’s going to take care of you. Just go.”
After arriving in Canada, her husband spent three weeks in quarantine. Upon being cleared, he came into church and thanked the congregation for praying for his family.
“She brought her faith into her husband’s life,” Wang says.
“Our ministry is still a mission-based ministry, which means we share the gospel [with these parishioners],” she adds. “Their faith is still very tender, very new. During this [outbreak], they have experienced God’s faithfulness. Our faith has been growing in this very difficult time.”
While the number of new COVID-19 cases was on the decline in China at the time this article was being written, it was expanding rapidly in Canada.
Anglicans wondering how to pray might take guidance from Chinese members of their church. At the peak of the outbreak in Wuhan, Chinese parishioners in Toronto experienced negative emotions such as anger and fear. To take their minds in another direction, Liu and Wang led purposefully designed prayer meetings that used prayer books and biblical texts such as Psalm 91.
“My personal suggestion is, open the prayer book…in your home, and reflect on it,” Liu says.
In this moment, Wang says, “prayer is still our most powerful weapon.”