Back to Lockdown
With much of NSW returning to lockdown for the foreseeable future, Uniting Churches in the Synod are finding themselves in a familiar situation.
On 26 June, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced that stay at home orders would be put in place in all of Greater Sydney, including the Blue Mountains, Central Coast, and Woolongong. This new round of lockdown was originally announced to last until Friday, 9 July, but was subsequently extended. At the end of July, the government announced that the lockdown would be extended for a second time.
With churches unable to meet in person, congregations once again find themselves turning to digital services and creative ways of delivering pastoral care. Insights spoke to a number of Uniting Church ministers about their experience during the new round of lockdown.
Rev. Manas Ghosh is the Minister at St John’s Uniting Church in Wahroongha. For Rev. Ghosh, COVID-19 has proven to be more than a frustrating experience of lockdown.
“COVID 19 is not a statistics to me but very personal as I lost my own dear brother just two months ago in COVID 19 in India,” he said.
“I do empathise with all those who are suffering and have lost their loved ones. Also having a frontline health worker at home I understand the stupendous job all the frontline workers are doing. May God bless them with his/her wisdom, strength, courage and protection.”
“St John’s is following the NSW Government and Health Officials restrictions, and the church is closed for onsite worship and having Zoom services only. It creates some degree of disappointment among its members as people love to worshipping in the church. But the members of St john’s are very responsible members of the community and as such they want to set an example before the community to emphasise the importance and absolute necessity to follow the government’s instructions to fight COVID 19.”
“In this time of lockdown and social isolation staying in touch with members of the congregation is our number one priority. Myself, our elders, and our pastoral care teams are extra busy in keeping in touch with ALL members especially those who live alone or those who are unwell. We make sure that every hand we are unable to shake must become a phone call we make, every 1.5 metre distance we put between ourselves and another must become a thought about how we could help that other should the need arise.”
“It is frustrating but is absolute necessity to prevent the outbreak of the new delta strain which is highly contagious. It is also a sobering reality that regardless of our scientific, technological and medical advancement we are still vulnerable, and it’s a great equaliser as prince, prime minister, pauper, and people like us we all are victims of it. It brings us close to one another reminding us of our common humanity, and hopefully our responsibilities to one another.
Matt Kang is the English Pastor of Sydney Cheil Church.
He told Insights that, while it was “a bit of a bummer to be physically separated from our spiritual family,” he thinks the congregation has “transitioned well.”
Sydney Cheil Church are delivering their Sunday services over Zoom. This includes a pre-recorded sermon.
“The pre-record method was intentional on my end,” Mr Kang said.
“We wanted the Sunday Bible preaching to be as clear as possible, and we felt that pre-record was the best way, as it guarantees clarity and quality.”
“Our weekly small groups (‘Lifegroups’) meet over Zoom – where Bible studies, sharing, and prayer takes place.
“Apart from official church gatherings like prayer meetings or Lifegroups, I know that some members are gifting other members with care-packages or food delivery.”
“Our congregation is mainly made up of young adults, so being people who are adept with technology and social media, staying connected with other members has come pretty easy for us. Other examples of the ‘togetherness’ we experience, is sometimes playing online video games together, or gathering friends online for a “virtual watch party” – movies on Netflix, etc.”
Located in the Blue Mountains, Springwood Uniting Church is adapting to lockdown by shifting services online. Rev. Leigh Gardiner said that these included streaming the church’s regular Sunday morning service, offering a Zoom ‘morning tea’ after the service, and a regular online ‘Messy Church’ service. Springwood are coupling these online services with regular phone calls for pastoral care and mailing worship resources to people’s houses.
“When we returned to face to face worship services we kept going with the livestream so that aspect wasn’t a problem for us when we were suddenly thrust into lockdown again,” Rev. Gardiner said.
“We want to encourage a missional focus so we’re about to start incorporating short interviews with local community group representatives to see how they are doing, offer them our prayer, and practical support where feasible/appropriate.”
“While we are online, we are endeavouring to improve our technology, and the flexibility of the technology, for the benefit of all including funeral services.”
In Sydney’s inner west, Newtown Mission has shifted to delivering services online, along with some essential services in person.
The minister at Newtown Mission, Rev Andrew Johnson, told Insights that the lockdown had, “brought out such a variety of responses at Newtown.”
“The pivot to online gatherings was nearly seamless, as the experiences of 2020 and our increased tech capacity were put to good use,” Rev. Johnson said.
“We’ve felt the impact in other areas though.”
Newtown Mission’s Jordan Café has moved to providing free meals from the steps of the church on King St, so as to reduce foot traffic through the Mission buildings.
Second round more difficult?
A few of the ministers Insights spoke to said that the second lockdown had proven to be more difficult than the lockdown that took place in 2020.
Rev. Andrew Johnson said that the lockdown had impacted Newtown Mission’s congregation members.
“The tech questions are easier, but the energy levels are lower,” he said.
“Those of our members without secure housing and jobs, or who live by themselves, are finding this time very, very, tough. Without question everyone is finding the uncertainty hard to deal with. How long will this go? Everyone has a guess, but none of us really know.”
“The other challenge has been to everyone’s mental health. People from all parts of our congregation, and all corners of our community, are finding the struggle to maintain good mental health far tougher than previously.”
Rev. Leigh Gardiner said that this resonated with her too.
“It feels tough,” she said.
“There isn’t the same adrenaline/energy to be doing new things as there was last time.”
“We are aware that members are finding this lockdown harder than the first one.”
On the other hand, Matt Kang said that the experience of the first lockdown meant that Cheil Church could use what they had previously learnt.
“I would much rather preach to a physical congregation than to a camera, and I would much rather pray with someone face to face rather than over the phone,” Mr Kang said.
“Having said that though, the transition into this lockdown has been much easier than the first one last year as most of our workers and university students are used to the “WFH” or “SFH” life,” he said.
Comfort in scripture
A few of the ministers Insights spoke to nominated key passages in scripture that they said they had been reflecting on during the time of extended lockdown.
Rev. Manus Ghosh nominated some of Paul’s words as being helpful for him.
“At this time of pandemic I find comfort, strength and hope in the words of Paul,” he said.
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine [pandemic] or nakedness, or danger or sword?”
“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:35, 37-39).” With God’s help and with everyone’s cooperation we shall overcome.”
Matt Kang pointed to 1 Peter as a text he had drawn from.
“A passage that has been on my mind is 1 Peter 1:24, where the Apostle Peter quotes from Isaiah 40 and says:
“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;
the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.”
“There are many unknowns in life. None of us can claim to know what life in Australia will be like in three weeks, three months, or three years’ time.”
“But what we do know is that God has given us His word, the Bible, and that His word “endures forever.””
I am challenged by the Bible because even though we are in a lockdown, the mission of the Gospel (Matt.28:18-20) continues.
Rev. Andrew Johnson said that the Psalms offered an ancient voice that was spoke to the current situation during lockdown.
“One practice we’re exploring is to return to the Psalms and listen to the voice of those crying out to God from other times and other struggles,” he said.
“We’re not supposed to feel happy all the time, and God wants to hear our cries as much as our gratitude.”
Insights will continue to provide updates on churches’ responses to COVID-19. For updates on restrictions, continue to check official channels, such as the NSW government’s COVID-19 website.
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