It's been a while. My last Moments of Grace was almost a year ago from the coast of Labrador. I decided then that after five years of writing these reflections I would take a break and work on other things. More about that in a moment. At the time, I wasn't sure I would resume these snapshots of life in our church, but recent events have made me reconsider. Those recent events have changed just about everything. My church and my community have changed overnight, and I need to reflect upon that.
It was already a difficult winter for many of us with an abundance of snow that required extra effort to clear, forced many people indoors, and also kept worshippers away from church some Sundays. I was humbled to see the efforts that were made to reach out to one another and care for those particularly challenged by this winter. And then Covid-19 came like another storm. We now face a challenge of another magnitude entirely with great risks for all of us, especially for those who are elderly or otherwise ill. “Social distancing” has become the norm and our familiar world has been turned upside down. Whether we find ourselves today in some form of isolation at home or out there working for the good of the whole community all of us are in this together.
And all of us are learning to do old things differently and learning to do new things for the first time. I am humbled to see our church and community rising to the challenge. Faith communities are providing much needed pastoral care and support to so many. Many of us are streaming worship services on Sundays, and during the week we are turning to the telephones to call each other and connect in important ways. Clergy are dividing up their parish lists and calling so many parishioners every week, spending hours on the telephone some days. This past Sunday 35 out of our 39 parishes offered services and prayers on the internet and thousands of us joined in from our pews at home. I am told that our diocesan service last week at the Cathedral has drawn over 20,000 views.
In this midst of this trial we are finding news ways of being the church in the world and discovering strengths and abilities many of us didn’t know we had and never imagined we would ever need. There are more home prayers taking place today with families gathered in person and online than we have known in a generation. Some of us are even offering full interactive Sunday School programs and “children’s church” online. As our physical distance from each other has become greater, our spiritual and emotional distance to one another has become smaller. All things are being made new in the midst of this uncertainty.
It’s amazing how our priorities of just a month ago have been totally replaced by new priorities. It’s enough right now just to know that our loved ones are safe and well and cared for, with enough to eat.
Before this all happened, I took the months of January and February for a time of study and contemplation during the stillness of winter. During my time apart I completed a history of the Church of England Orphanage in Newfoundland from 1855 to 1969. I took on this project a couple of years ago at the request of my dear friends, Derrick Barbour and Adrian Heffernan who stayed there as children in the 1950’s. It is a poignant and compelling story of our church caring for nearly 2000 children, beginning with 8 orphans and one widow from the cholera outbreak of 1854 in St. John’s that killed about 500 people. Last May I suspended Moments of Grace so that I could focus more fully on this task. I believe it is important for us to document our history as a community of faith and it is essential to know where we have come from if we are ever to understand where we are going.
Today I find myself reflecting deeply upon a stark parallel between the story of an orphanage just written and the reality I see before me. Both begin with a public health emergency changing everything almost overnight. And both would bring about lasting changes long after the crisis is over. I suspect that some of the practices and safeguards put in place recently will remain with us into the future. I also believe that the enhanced care and contact we are witnessing for one another and especially for our seniors and most vulnerable citizens will transform the ways we look out for each other.
It happened before.
The Cholera outbreak of 1854 led to improvements in sanitation and waste disposal in St. John’s. Greater care was taken in the growing and delivery of food and clean water and there was an awareness that in order to prevent another such catastrophe things must be different in the future. The social welfare of our people was enhanced as the colonial government took on a greater interest in the care of all its citizens. A great change happened among our churches who worked faithfully to ensure that those whose lives were profoundly altered by the loss of loved ones would not be left alone.
Our church’s response was to offer Queen’s College as a hospital and in 1855 at the Cathedral to form The Newfoundland Church of England Asylum for Widows and Orphans, later becoming the Church of England Orphanage. In addition to the nearly 2000 children who stayed there at some point in their young lives, for most of its history widows were also welcomed and many spent their final years among the children of the orphanage. Bishop Feild, who began it all, felt that two of the most vulnerable groups in society were widows and orphans and committed to care for both. In the years that followed many compassionate associations formed like the Orphanaid Club and the Sunday School Orphanage League, enabling thousands of people across Newfoundland and Labrador to assist the Church of England Orphanage. And even when the orphanage closed in 1969 its assets were invested so that its good work could continue through the Anglican Charitable Foundation for Children (ACFC) that still cares for children and families in need today.
Just think, because of all that, the response our ancestors made to the cholera outbreak of 1854 can still be felt 166 years later. Sometimes in adversity, great and lasting transformation comes about. I wonder what great and lasting transformation coming about now will be with us for years to come?
The changes we are making today will affect our lives well into the future. And some of those changes will transform us all for the better.
We have a long road still ahead of us, but this too shall pass. Right now, it is important to protect one another and reach out in love, knowing that no storm lasts forever.