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COVID-19 Tag

Are you angry during the pandemic? How do you make peace with anger?

Rev Dr Mery Kolimon is Moderator of GMIT, our partner Church in West Timor, Indonesia. Throughout the pandemic, she has shown leadership in public health and coordinated the emergency relief program after the devastation of Cylone Seroja.  I encourage you to read Rev Dr Kolimon’s full reflection below, a truly insightful exploration of God’s presence in the midst of our suffering. I believe the ‘theology of the body’ she articulates is deeply inspirational for Uniting Church members, particularly those living in regions under lockdown.

-Rev Dr Ji Zhang, Uniting Church in Australia Assembly Theologian-in-Residence

At the end of June 2021, my husband began to feel unwell: colds, coughs, weak body, loss of taste. At that time Kupang was windy and the weather was unstable: sometimes hot, sometimes cold. So my husband thought it must have been a cold caused by tiredness from his schedule of long meetings.

I had previously reminded him: “Work should not be too late, too long or too often. It’s a pandemic. Masks should be replaced frequently. If you go home, change your clothes immediately.”

By the end of that week my daughter rang when I was in the office to say she also felt unwell, and I hurriedly finished my meeting and rushed home.

While my husband was still reluctant to test for Covid-19, believing it just to be a cold, I insisted that we were swabbed and we soon found out that our entire family was positive.  Our nephew, Efi, tested negative – Praise God! As long as we were sick he was able to take care of us.

Making peace with sadness and anger

When I found out the result, I felt angry. Why had we not been more careful? Our kids have been learning from home for over a year, but as parents we were always at work, even though as a Synod we help educate others about how to be safe. Often we have adhered to health protocols. But there are times when we are off-guard, such as unmasking to take pictures and eating together in meetings. Everyone should be more vigilant.

It took me a few days to come to terms with the anger and sadness.

We both know we are lucky to have been vaccinated, because while there is still risk of infection, the impact is not as severe. The four of us did not have problems with breathing, something we’re very grateful for.

We also learned once again that the impact of Covid-19 is more pronounced for older people. My 17-year-old daughter lost her sense of smell and had difficulty eating, but it wasn’t as bad as for my husband and I, who had body pain for days. Alberd, 9 years old, had fever and vomiting, a loss of sense of taste for several days and a lack of appetite. Alberd’s spirits stayed high though and he was a great comfort to us.

The Light of God’s Love

On the third day after being declared positive, our situation was quite severe. Our whole bodies hurt, we couldn’t drink or eat; we had fever, nausea, scalp pain. As a Mama, I had difficulty taking care of the family or paying attention to church affairs. I was worried about many post-Cyclone Seroja agendas in GMIT that needed to be taken care of and plans with ecumenical partners and congregations on various islands.

I almost cried in bed. My God, why am I having this experience?

I thought about what might happen if I couldn’t get through this Covid – my mind was everywhere as I imagined how things would be with GMIT. Within our five Daily Synod Assemblies, three people were also infected at the same time as me; all have now improved.

When it all felt very heavy, I told my daughter who was also having difficulty eating:

“Our Covid situation is like walking into a dark alley without knowing if we will ever get out of that dark alley safely. Although it is very dark, one day we will see light at the end of the hallway, as long as we believe that there is light at the end of that dark passageway. Come on, keep eating.”

She replied: “Mama’s dark hallway analogy is horrifying but true.””

We experienced the light of God’s love in many ways: people came to give care and support; some sent Bible verses and messages; my sisters at SoE sent the medicines we needed; others sent herbal remedies; Oepoi Health Center always contacted us to ask about our situation; the Governor of NTT called and sent Chinese medicine; Tanta Yo from the Synod Office guest house cooked for us for a week. There was a friend who sent Timor Island’s best honey; there was a friend who transferred money and said don’t get dizzy with the thought of medical expenses. Fruits and vegetables flowed from all directions.

We really experienced in these dark times the light and warmth of love – even while we struggled with nausea, fever and night sleep disorders, every day we experienced God loving us. Thank you to all who shared the light with us when the night was so intense and we lived as though in a great storm.

What sin?

A question asked by a group of GBI pastors arose: “Are we affected by Covid-19 because we have betrayed the Lord Jesus like Judas Iscariot?”

This way of thinking is very closely related to the understanding of the relationship of disease and curses in our culture. For example, among West Timorese there is a naketi concept. A person can be afflicted by adversity such as illness because there are certain sins or mistakes.  Sin is seen as so powerful that it can jump across generations. Children and even grandchildren a few generations later can get sick because of the sins of their ancestors. To be healed, it is necessary to confess sin.

I myself struggled with the same question as I lay in bed: “What sin have I and my family committed?”

I reflected that perhaps we did not do enough to wear the masks correctly and keep a distance. I also prayed that if something was wrong, the Holy Ghost would rebuke us so that we realized it, opening our hearts to understand His will through the pain we experienced.

But I could not accept the idea that we were so sinful that we were punished with Covid.

I wrote to a fellow pastor who had shared his concern:

“Reverend, test all voices … I remain a believer in all seasons of life, and God’s faithful love is eternal. He allows us, His servant ministers, to experience this like any other person, that we may also experience the deification of the world today and find that even in the valley of darkness, God has not forsaken His creation.”

Shepherd Infected with Covid-19

In 2015 I was elected chairperson of the Synod. I remember one of the intercessory prayers when I was elected was that I would not be sick for four years while I led the church. I wanted to always look good, healthy, and happy, and refused to allow myself to be sick. I promised to live a healthy life with a good diet, rest, exercise, and management of my mental health.

But early in 2019, due to exhaustion, I suddenly got sick quite seriously.

I told my husband one morning: “Yustus, I can’t lift my legs. Help me.”

Friends who came to visit me advised me: “Mery, it doesn’t matter if you’re sick. The body needs rest too.”

In the second period of my shepherding ministry now, I have come to terms with my body more, to embrace fatigue, rest, and pain.

When I was infected with Covid, I learnt to better understand the deepest fears, anxieties, and worries of those who are sick. I was infected in the second wave in Indonesia, when every day there was news that 20,000 to 30,000 Indonesians were infected and more than a thousand people died because of Covid.

Every morning from the bedroom when we woke up, we heard birdsong from our beautiful courtyard, but also sirens roaring in a hurry to deliver the bodies to the cemetery. A shepherd who suffers herself is allowed understand mankind’s deepest fears in front of menacing diseases, and learn to say the most honest prayers to God during threat of sickness and death. But if she is sensitive, she can also see and follow God’s unceasing care. Birds singing, brothers caring, comrades supporting. Life isn’t just about crying and anxiety. In life there is also friendship, love, and genuine care.

As theologians, we often preach too quickly about certain circumstances. We want to directly write and connect Covid with bible verses so that we are able to lecture others. The experience of having Covid helped me not to rush to jump to certain theological conclusions.

Instead, in suffering:

Listen to your body language. Feel the heart. Listen to your own feelings and anxieties. Listen to your deepest hopes and longing. Talk to God honestly and listen to what God is saying. Start theology from there. Connect the experiences of suffering, anxiety, hope, and longing with the struggles of the faithful in biblical times. Learn the deepest struggles of today’s people, and see what can be learned as the gospel message for mankind’s struggles today.

Body Theology

A female pastor friend who served in one of the church denominations in Kupang City, wrote to me thus: “Mama, I am still struggling with the issue of concentration. Although it has been 2 months since my COVID illness, assignments from the campus are abandoned. Although I still can write, it is at a creeping speed… According to some friends who are over 50 years old, COVID weakens the life spirit, and we become apathetic.”

I wondered whether a lot of people have experienced something like that? This is interesting to study and reflect upon theologically.

Our family does not yet know what the full impact of Covid will be: are our lungs going to be okay? What about our stomachs, our hearts, and our brains? How does Covid impact people long term?

This disease helps us to be more sensitive to the body as God’s noble and fragile work. Our bodies are glorious because they were created by God Himself in His image and likeness, and because man has fallen into sin. The realization of God’s redemption encourages us to hold our bodies accountable because the body is the fruit of God’s glorious work. The invaded body must be loved and cared for as a form of involvement in Christ’s work of redemption and restoration. The invaded body should not be forced to work beyond its means.

The virus may go after a certain time, but its traces will remain to teach mankind valuable life lessons to care for God’s created body and honor His given life.  One of the theological agendas as a survivor of Covid is the journey towards self, to seriously care for and appreciate the body, soul, and spirit.

Being infected with Covid helped me to reflect more on body theology. The human body and life are theological sites. The body is where we meet God. The body comes from the ground and God has touched it to bring it to life: moving, walking, jumping, full of joy. There is also a time when the body is sick and sad. Because the body was created by God, we can meet God there, in all experiences of the body: sad, happy, sick, healthy. The body reveals something about the work of the glorious God. But the body is also limited. There’s a time when the body no longer exists. As long as the body is still there, I exist. When the body stops working, I am no longer in the world. Body theology helps us to honor and care for the body with gratitude to God who created it, until it is time for the body to return to the ground.

 

The Language of Faith in Times of Crisis

There is something interesting in my experience of spirituality in this time of crisis. I was raised as a child speaking two languages: Indonesian and Meto-Timorese. In childhood when we started attending school in the interior, our teachers used two languages for children who could not speak Indonesian. Everyday we learnt more of the regional language. For the sake of study, I also learned English and Dutch so that now I speak four languages: Indonesian, Meto, English, and Dutch.

In my deepest times of fear and anxiety, I prayed in Timorese. When I prayed in that mother tongue, I was able to express my deepest feelings. Sometimes I feel angry at myself for not being able to find a word in the language of the area for what I want to express. Now I am more fluent in Indonesian than the local language. But I really felt the depth of the experience with God in my mother tongue.

In that language I told God about my worries, about my family, the impact of this disease on my ministry, and my anxiety over all human civilization. Sometimes when praying during times of crisis using Indonesian or other languages, I wonder if maybe what I express is superficial. But when I pray in the language of the region, there are very deep things that are revealed to the Lord and to myself. The prayer became very personal between God and me.

I think this may be related to the experience of faith that shaped me. I grew up knowing God in a believing community in West Timor. My father, who was from Alor Island, married my mother, a West Timorese woman, and they worked in Timor until the end of their lives. I grew up as a child learning to know God, the Word, and his works in a strong community nurturing the culture and language of the region in that environment. I am reminded of the strong faith of my mother and grandmother formed by Timorese culture, the late Elder Banunaek of Oetoli in the Western Oinlasi Church who prayed for us when we were sick, or celebrated with us in the depths of the language of poetry. It was all absorbed into my heart. When I struggle with the deepest things, it’s this language that expresses all longing, hope, and anxiety.

Embracing Uncertainty, Learning to Know Boundaries

I no longer have a definite list of activities and a series of trips arranged in order and detail. My suitcases remain untouched, and now all of humanity finds itself experiencing uncertainty. There’s no plan that’s currently workable. People again study the Bible counsel: “For my design is not your plan” (Isaiah 55:8a).

Since the Enlightenment era, people have felt they can do anything. Mankind has thought with his brain that he knows all things and conquer all things in the universe: “I think, then I exist.” Human reason is considered very powerful.

But the Covid pandemic at the beginning of the third decade of this century is teaching us that humans and their abilities are limited. Even a virus so small and invisible to the eye can make an entire human civilization chaotic. Man is not omnipotent. Science and technology are important and very helpful. But human intelligence and technology must not make man act arbitrarily over the life of God’s creation.

I think Covid also teaches us humans to take a break from our ambitions and busyness. We’re stuck in an age where everything we do is rushed. Waking up early, our agenda is long and our plans are layered: after this we will continue with something else. Even before we finish one thing, the other is waiting. We force our bodies, souls, and spirits to keep running without adequate rest periods.

Covid interrupts our busy life. Covid invites us to pause: to take time for the body, for the soul and mentally, for the family, for the Lord, to rest. This disease gives us the opportunity to truly take shelter, submit to God, and submit our life plans to His sovereignty.

Ecological Repentance

For almost two years the earth has been left helpless. Perhaps it is rebuking us harshly and giving us a hard lesson?

As Thomas L. Friedman said in an opinion piece in the New York Times,May 30, 2020: “These past few weeks we have learned… our earth is fragile… Our pandemic today is no longer just a biological pandemic, but also a geopolitical, financial, and environmental pandemic.”

Without a radical change in our consciousness and attitude toward Mother Earth, we will experience even greater consequences than what we are feeling today.

The economic system of capitalism makes people compete for profit and accumulate capital. For financial gain, nature is mercilessly plundered. The rich get richer, the poor and nature is exploited. The uncontrollable virus is now alerting us to a disturbed balance of nature.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a wake up call moment for all human beings. All of us —governments, communities, businesspeople, politicians, anyone—should interpret it as an opportunity to come back to peace with the earth. We are in need of mass repentance for ecological justice. We must stop carrying out development that is solely oriented towards financial gain. Instead we need to commit together to a development oriented towards the sustainability of life.

Claiming Divine Power

Where is God when the whole world struggles with suffering? Does God care about the tears and suffering of the sick or the family’s hope for their brother’s recovery? Where is God when we fight to maintain the lives of our families who are infected by Covid-19? For the healed there is praise to the Lord, but what about those who die? Is God with those who died because of Covid-19? Are the dead unloved by God?

This pandemic invites the church into the midst of the struggle of human suffering. In this great pain, we are challenged to put our ears and hearts on, hear and feel the screams and moans of pain, and the lamentations of life. This pandemic is calling us to see the fragility and dryness of human life.

It is in this context that this year’s GMIT Synod Assembly developed our ministry theme for 2021 from Ezekiel 37:14. Ezekiel was called to be a prophet at exactly the most precarious moment in the history of the Israelic covenant: the destruction of Israel by Babylonia. In the vision in chapter 37, Ezekiel is taken into a valley full of bones. Like Ezekiel, we are not led to avoid disaster, but rather to stand up and acknowledge the existence of it. The Covid-19 pandemic is real, not a conspiracy of certain parties to seek self-and group advantage.

Moreover God gave Ezekiel the task of prophesying to the bones to live again. He was told to prophesy tothe ruakh/spirit of life to enter the bones in the valley. The Spirit is called from the four corners of the earth. Learning from Ezekiel, the church during this pandemic is tasked with voicing God’s intent for the world in disaster.

In human suffering, God does not leave us. The Spirit of Life is with His creation, the Spirit of God gives life and moves the bones that are already very dry (and there is no more life). Just as the work of the Holy Spirit blew when man was created (Gen. 2:7), God continues to work to give life to man. To His frightened and hiding disciples, Jesus was present and breathed His Spirit upon them, restoring them from worry, panic, and fear (Jn. 20:22).  He calls us to repentance, learns from the sufferings of life for the restoration of relations with God, with fellow human beings, and with all creation. He heals us from the worries and anxieties of life.

Where is God in this pandemic? God is in human suffering.

He is in solidarity with those who are terrified in isolation rooms. He hugs the families who have lost their loved ones. God is pleased to use those who care for others as His co-workers for the ministry of salvation.

The message of the book of Ezekiel to the churches this year is that just as God calls Ezekiel to be a prophet in the wasteland, so we must continue to prepare to be ministers of God in this difficult time. On the cross of Jesus, God Himself acted to restore man. He entered into the valley of death as His son gave his life. But no suffering is eternal. No disaster lasts forever. Death has been defeated. Jesus has risen from the dead. God reigns, God cares, God is with us. Although the way of the cross feels very difficult, we must endure to stand by Him, true in faith, hope, and love.

Covid is not just a story about human fragility. Covid also tells about the divine power of God that is conferred so that we hold the promise of hope that He is with us. Even for those who die with Covid, their body is again united with the ground, lying in the everlasting light of God, in the promise of the inclusion of Jesus Christ, the Light of the World. ***

Rev Dr Mery Kolimon, Moderator, Evangelical Christian Church of Timor
Kupang, July 2021

P.S. Thanks to my husband and children as the first readers of this paper and for making corrections. A number of friends have read and given some important feedback. I am responsible for the content of this paper.

 

A prayer of the people of West Timor and Indonesia

By Rev Dr Apwee Ting, UCA Assembly National Consultant

Lord

I kneel before you

carrying an immeasurable burden

my body is very weak

my heart is bleeding

from Covid-19

 

I am no longer embracing the bravery

fragility is what I know

I’m not chasing eternity anymore

day by day is in my sight

 

Laughter and crying

joyfulness and suffering

inseparable

 

Lord

come in my dream

presence in my suffering

be real in my loneliness

 

God

is not there

is here

in the midst of pandemic

giving Indonesia

hope and healing

 

I am no longer afraid of

paralysis

vulnerability

death

because

God is walking with me

Restoration is with me

 

 

Doaku buat Indonesia

Tuhan

pada Mu kubersimpuh

membawa beban tak terkira

tubuh terkulai

batin terkapar

oleh Covid-19

 

Kini kusadar

bukan lagi kegagahan kurengkuh

kerapuhanlah yang kudekap

bukan lagi kekekalan kukejar

keseharianlah yang kutatap

 

Tawa dan tangis

senang dan susah

tak terpisahkan

 

Tuhan

hadir dalam mimpi ku

datang dalam derita ku

nyata dalam kesendirianku

 

Tuhan

tidak lagi disana

Tuhan disini

ditengah pandemi

memberi Indonesia

harapan dan kesembuhan

 

Kelumpuhan

kerantanan

kematian

tidak lagi menakutkan

karena

Tuhan berjalan bersama ku

pemulihan ada pada ku

 

 

India’s COVID-19 surge has overloaded its struggling heath system and is causing thousands of deaths per day.

Our Uniting Church partners, the Church of North India (CNI), are not immune. Battling to keep people fed as a second lockdown wreaks havoc, and spreading critical health information to help beat the spread of the disease, they’re on the frontline of the response in their communities.

“The ‘Corona ‘Tsunami’, if one could say that, has left all of us paralysed,” Bishop Khimla of the Diocese of Durgapur told UnitingWorld.  “There is immense suffering as the medical and social infrastructure struggles to cope with the pandemic. The Church has also lost many ministers, both Pastors and Bishops.”

Project Officer Sanjay Khaling was recently hospitalised after contrating COVID-19, while several staff of the Durgapur Education and Social Empowerment project have contracted COVID-19 along with family and friends.

Despite the dangers, the church continues to serve the community as best they’re able. Bishop Samantaroy of the Amritsar Diocese said the church is working on immediate interventions including free distribution of cooked food, dry rations and hygiene products like masks, sanitiser and soap.

Schools have been closed across the area, so girls attending the hostel project in Amritsar have gone home to their villages for at least a month and possibly two. At the Amritsar Social Empowerment and Education project, study centers will continue in each village and the team are doing what they can to support people remotely.

“There has been a drastic rise in cases every day here in Punjab,” Project Coordinator OP Prakash said this week.  “In some [rural] villages people have tested positive but the situation seems under control.”

While this team has experience from last year’s lengthy lockdown, the pandemic is reaching new heights in other areas.

The Eastern Himalayas Education project has had to close the school and move all activities online. Teachers are navigating the difficult task of teaching online while resourcing children who have little or no access to internet or devices.

“We are assured that UnitingWorld continues to be with us in spirit and prayers and believe that this too shall pass,” Bishop Khimla said yesterday. “We very much appreciate your prayers.”

UnitingWorld is supporting our partners to divert project funds to their COVID-19 responses where needed. Donations will be very gratefully received to support their work.

Click here to donate online.

India recorded 323,144 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, amid a surge that has overloaded its struggling heath system and is causing thousands of deaths per day.

UnitingWorld and the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) have reached out to our partners in the Church of North India (CNI) based in West Bengal and Punjab. UCA President Dr Deidre Palmer and UnitingWorld National Director Dr Sureka Goringe have written to Bishop Pradeep Kumar Samantaroy to offer prayers and solidarity during the crisis (read full letter).

Our partners are responding to the outbreak at the community level through existing projects, diverting resources to help prevent the spread of disease and aiding vulnerable people impacted by the economic fallout. You can help. Click here to donate online.

Our partners have sent some updates below.

West Bengal

West Bengal this week registered its highest single-day spike of 15,889 cases pushing the tally to 743,950 on Tuesday. The death toll rose to 10,941. The number of active cases currently stands at 88,800.

At the Eastern Himalayas Leadership project we support, project officer Sanjay recently contracted COVID-19 and was hospitalised but is now feeling better.

The Eastern Himalayas Education project has had to close the school and move all activities online. Teachers are working from home, navigating the difficult task of teaching online while also resourcing children who do not have little or no access to internet or devices. They have been communicating via WhatsApp and leaving printed worksheets in safe places for students to collect.

Several staff members of the Durgapur Education and Social Empowerment project have contracted COVID-19 along with family and friends. The project is continuing as normal with added precautions, personal protective equipment and limited interaction.

Punjab

The number of new COVID-19 cases has passed 7,000 per day in Punjab and a daily curfew from 6pm to 5am has been introduced until 12 May. The state has recorded 339,000 total cases and 8,400 deaths.

Schools have been closed across the area, so girls attending the hostel project in Amritsar have gone home to their villages for at least a month and possibly two.

At the Amritsar Social Empowerment and Education project,  schools have closed again so study centers will continue in each village and the team are doing what they can to support people remotely. UnitingWorld Project Manager Dan Maddingham has been in contact with Project Coordinator Om Prakash (OP) this week.

“There has been a drastic rise in cases every day here in Punjab… in some [rural] villages people have tested positive but the situation seems under control,” said OP.

“The Church is doing well but all religious places are remaining closed until further notice and there is a complete curfew and lockdown on weekends.”

Yesterday the Australian Government announced an aid package for India.

Please stand with the people of India and our partners as they lead and support their communities through this this crisis. Join us in prayer (UCA Assembly National Consultant Rev Dr Apwee Ting has written a prayer for India in English and Indonesian Click here to read) and donate as you are able.

UnitingWorld is continuing to support our partners to divert project funds to the COVID-19 response. Additional donations will be gratefully received to support their work.

 

We were so encouraged by your response to our appeal late last year, helping us raise $122,000 to support the COVID-19 response and peacebuilding work carried out by our partners in South Sudan and beyond.

Thank you so much!

A few weeks ago, South Sudan has re-entered a lockdown period due to a spike in cases in Juba. Schools, churches and colleges, including the Nile Theological College, are all closed. Our partners are concentrating on helping educate people about the seriousness of the disease. 43 leaders from communities attended a workshop you helped fund, to learn about the pandemic, its symptoms and the precautions to take.

“Corona virus is a real threat to humanity around the whole world,” the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan writes to us. “South Sudan is not exceptional. The Bible says, ‘my people are destroyed from lack of knowledge’ and we find this to be true. Although all the countries right now are aware of the Coronavirus pandemic, the majority of South Sudanese are still not aware of it… In Juba city itself, people do not observe safety rules. Wearing of face masks and social distancing are not seriously followed… We thank God our partners are always standing on our side to fight the pandemic together in South Sudan.”

Thank you so much for your support and solidarity during this crisis.

Ask just about anyone about the state of the world over the past few years and they’ll have shaken their head in dismay. In response to a YouGov study conducted worldwide in 2018, which asked the question ‘All things considered, is the world getting better or worse?” only 3% of Australians chose ‘better.’

Given the general disaster that was 2020, that percentage may have dropped even further. For the first time in two decades, we’re at risk of going backwards on extreme global poverty due to the COVID-19 pandemic; the economic and health impacts are very real for many people we know and love.

In spite of that, the facts are that on balance, almost all aspects of human development are getting better, not worse.

On just about every measure you can think of, we’re in the best shape of our global lives.  

Health, education, gender equality, political democracy, peace, economic opportunity – humanity is in the midst of the most comprehensive, fastest progress we’ve ever made. Even with the impact of the pandemic, we’re still streets ahead of where we were ten years ago.

Alongside people of all faiths and none, Christians have played a significant role in much of this progress, and the Church continues to thrive in large parts of Asia, the Pacific and Africa. In these communities, Church leaders and ordinary Christian people are sharing the hope and dignity of Christ as they roll up their sleeves alongside people working to overcome challenges that include the changing climate, conflict and the impact of COVID-19.

These are significant wins worth celebrating – never more so than when faced with the impact of a global pandemic. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a long way to go – there absolutely is, particularly as we face together the critical challenge of climate change. But the same drive that kept our ancestors hyper vigilant in the face of sabre tooth tigers is also powerfully at work among us today – we tend to focus on the negative. And in keeping our eyes on the dangers at our feet, we miss the stunning horizon.

What if we were to zoom out a little, and take a look at where we fit within the broader family of faith? We are members of a vast worldwide network of people who have been shaken and shaped by the love of the risen Christ, and life looks different from within their midst. The longer arc of history is truly bending toward justice.

UnitingWorld is calling congregations to learn and celebrate in a new initiative called Seven Days of Solidarity.

It’s a week to meet the preachers, teachers, farmers, leaders and workers who are behind incredible change in our global neighbourhood, animated by the spirit of Christ. The week begins with a service which includes a prayer and video encouraging people to lift their eyes to see where God is at work in the world. Seven inspiring stories, with ideas for action and prayer points, are available online or as print copies. At the end of the week, gather your congregation again to celebrate and recommit to the work, making use of a sermon (pre-recorded or notes available) and a full order of service, including prayers, call to worship and music ideas.

The Church in Australia has been part of a global family of changemakers – through mission, prayer, giving and advocacy – for decades. Now seems like the perfect time to take a fresh look at all we’ve achieved, to give thanks and to pledge ourselves anew to God’s work together.

Check out www.sevendaysofsolidarity.com.au for more details and to download/request resources. Seven Days of Solidarity will officially run April 18-25, but you can use the resources any time that suits you best!

 

COVID-19 cases are rising uncontrolled in Papua New Guinea, putting thousands of people at risk in remote areas without access to clean water or adequate health care. The outbreak has also exposed Australia’s north to a new wave of infection.

The Australian Government has responded to the emergency with a plan to immediately send 8,000 COVID-19 vaccines to PNG alongside an Australian Medical Assistance Team. The aim is to protect front line health workers, but the long-term race to vaccinate people in the provinces faces severe challenges.

“In the Highlands there are strong beliefs about witchcraft and people have traditionally used poisoned arrows and foods against others, so people are very suspicious of anything that is injected into the body,” says Bena Seta, who manages the community services projects of UCPNG.

“A focus on the book of Revelation and the apocalypse complicate people’s understanding of the pandemic, and there is also just not a great deal of awareness about modern medicine or the use of vaccines in general.”

Rumours about the vaccine have been running rampant in PNG, with some members of parliament supporting the idea that they are unsafe.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) have recognised the critical importance of working in partnership with PNG churches, who have reach and influence in areas where the virus is growing unchecked.

We have joined with other churches and are working urgently to talk with people about their fears and reassure them that the vaccine is safe,” Bena says. “We did the same with polio and measles vaccinations, and we had good success. We know how to make this work but we need the time and resources to do it.”

High rates of infection

Staggeringly high infection rates have been recorded. Of 91 people tested in a single day, 82 returned a positive test, leading Queensland to suspend flights to Cairns from Papua New Guinea. Movement in and out of communities in the mining industry could be driving the spike in infections, with workers transmitting not just within the country but also to North Queensland.

“We are not even sure how much community transmission there is because the rate of testing isn’t good,” says Bena, who waited five hours in a line for his test at the local hospital. “And isolating while you wait for a test result is very difficult for people in both the city and rural areas. What about work? What about food?”

UnitingWorld supports UCPNG to run a widespread behaviour change campaign to prevent the spread of COVID-19 across communities in PNG

Funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and UnitingWorld donors, UnitingWorld’s partner UCPNG has been offering practical training to health workers, trying to increase the number of sanitation stations in schools and going village to village to encourage social distancing, hand washing and the wearing of masks.

“To be honest we are very fearful – we have seen what can happen in even affluent countries with this disease,” Bena says.

“If this really spreads to rural areas, where there is not much access to clean water or health workers, things will be very very difficult. We know we need to act very quickly here.”

How you can help

You can support our ongoing work with UCPNG to provide critical public health advocacy on COVID-19 and vaccines; as well as clean water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) education and infrastructure in rural communities by making a donating today.

Please make your donation online at www.lentevent.com.au or call us on 1800 998 122

The United Church in PNG Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Project and COVID-19 response activities are supported by the Australian Government through the Australian NGO Cooperation Program (ANCP).

We’ve just been in touch with our partners from the Methodist Church of Zimbabwe and heard the very sad news that four ministers have died from COVID-19 in just a few short weeks.

Zimbabwe has been experiencing a second COVID-19 wave, with more cases in January than all of 2020 combined. Gathering for worship is currently suspended, which means congregations have no money to pay their staff or look after their members.

We’re using your gifts to respond immediately to these threats, as well as maintaining our funding for projects

    • Providing a small daily allowance to meet the critical needs of people without income who serve within the church
    • Providing personal protective equipment for people so they can continue to serve those in poverty
    • Helping ensure clean running water in our partner’s office so that leadership can stay safe to serve others.

Meanwhile, the longer term work of our partner MeDRA (Methodist Development and Relief Agency) is proving incredibly effective in shoring up people’s resilience during the pandemic.

We recently received this report from Mavis, describing the ways her training with MeDRA is relieving economic stress for her family.

My name is Mavis, I’m thirty-eight and  a member of an Internal Savings and Lending (ISAL) group in a village in Gokwe South.

On a monthly basis, my group meets to assess our savings and share investment with each other, as we have been trained by MeDRA. As members we have been able to buy each other household utensils like pots, plates and cups, and at times we also share groceries.

With support from MeDRA, the group was advised to aim high and start investing money in more valuable assets. Equipped with the advice, the group changed its strategy in July 2020, and members were encouraged to invest in projects or buy high value assets that have good returns in the future.

When my turn came in the month of December, I received USD215 from the group. I had to consult my family on a project that would give us more benefit, while still being able to pay back the group loan.

As a family we settled for a broiler poultry project and with the loan from the group, I managed to start the project with seventy-five chicks. They matured into good broilers after six weeks and were bought like hot cakes. I am now doing a batch of 100 broilers per cycle.

The loan has helped to increase the family income and I can also pay back into the group loan. I sell at the local shopping centre to customers who come to the grinding mill or buy basic groceries at the shops. Access to the bigger Gokwe Town center has been limited by the lockdown regulations.

ISAL has opened doors for me to start a project on my own because my household income has been pushed to better levels. I get a lot of support from my family in looking after the broilers and collectively we participate in poultry management and the marketing of broilers. I get technical support from MeDRA and Agritex on how to look after the broilers.

Especially during this pandemic, I am so proud to be the owner of a project that is giving access to good income. I am no longer so worried about food security and school fees for my family, as my project can meet the expenses. For each batch of 100 broilers, I am managing to make a profit of USD 100. With proper guidance from the group and from MeDRA, I feel I can never go wrong in life. I look forward in expanding my enterprise by diversifying to other businesses like opening a Tuckshop that sells grocery items. Thank you for this opportunity!

PLEASE PRAY:

  • For the leadership of the Church in Zimbabwe, especially for those who have lost family members
  • For people like Mavis, who show such great resilience and courage
  • For Zimbabwe’s leadership as they struggle to combat new lethal variants of COVID-19 and source vaccinations.

 

Image: Mavis with some of her chickens – earlier in the month there had been a flock of 400!

While two thirds of Australians say they’ll definitely get vaccinated against COVID-19, another 27% are still undecided. The number of people who say they’ll never get the jab is on the rise, up to 11% from 8% a few months back. These numbers are higher in other places around the world, and they show how deeply divided we are on the matter of the COVID-19 vaccination.

So what makes the difference in terms of changing minds on controversial matters like vaccination? Good information, or good friends?

Good friends.

Many people are surprised to know that the most important factor in shaping beliefs and decisions isn’t necessarily the supply of good information. It’s good relationships. And that’s because decisions are driven by a complex range of factors, with emotion top of the list.

“Good information”, delivered in a relational vacuum, can even harden opinions rather than change them. When people are drowning in shared global feelings like fear, sadness and isolation, ‘facts’ can be the last thing on their minds.

When a person contemplates taking up a particular position or belief,  she’s considering what makes her feel safest. Will a different view threaten her position among like-minded people who’ve given her a sense of belonging? If so, there’s little chance she’ll risk it – unless she has another safe place to take refuge.

That’s why listening and providing reassurance is the most effective way to engage with those who are cautious or opposed to the vaccine (or anything else, for that matter.) If you know people who are sceptical or fearful, hear them out. If you have a good relationship with them, they’ll likely ask your opinion – the perfect time to share reliable information. Avoid handwringing, scorn or contempt about someone else’s views – you’ve instantly lost the emotional airwaves.

This approach is critical in places around the world where COVID-19 cases are sky rocketing.

In many communities, faith in government is low and fear is high. Hearing information from people who are known and trusted makes all the difference, and following the example of high-profile leaders can be especially influential.

In Indonesia, more than 1.3 million people currently have COVID-19.

A recent poll suggests only 37% of people will take the vaccine voluntarily, with 40% undecided.

The Indonesian Government is delivering an intensive education campaign to help improve knowledge and confidence. But it also plans to implement fines and restrict access to social services in some regions for those who refuse the vaccination. Its ambitious plan is to vaccinate 181.5 million people in the next five months.

How do we win the emotional air waves and create community?

In Bali, UnitingWorld’s partner staff have already built strong relationships through training and support on the issues people care about – health, sanitation, opportunities to earn a living . They’ve often gone to remote areas where people feel forgotten by the authorities.

Years of work have laid the foundation for their information to be taken seriously, and for people to feel a part of a supportive community. With special permission to move within communities impacted by lockdowns, they find people open to reassurance and willing to listen. Their innovations include a new 24/7 hotline for people to call with questions, intensive face to face conversations about the safety of the vaccine as well as social and traditional media drops. With movement largely shut down because of the pandemic, they’ve also developed a website that matches suppliers in remote areas with those who need their products in the cities.

All this firms up people’s sense of belonging and security. In this emotional context, people are far more likely to be open to the new information that vaccination represents.

Relational influence from the top is important too.

Rev Mery Kolimon, Moderator of our partner church in West Timor, was contacted by government officials to be among the first to take the vaccine. While happy to get the shot, Rev Mery was still anxious about possible side effects. Unlike many parts of the West where vaccines have become an accepted part of life, millions of people around the world are completely unfamiliar with the concept. Their fears are understandable, and the role our partners play in providing reassurance is significant.

 

Rev Kolimon writes openly here about her fact-finding mission to determine the safety of the vaccine, the feeling of waking up the morning after the shot, and her conviction that the church has an important role to play in helping people understand not only the science of disease, but the role of God in suffering.

 “We entered the beginning of the year with too many wounds,” Rev Kolimon writes.

“Facebook pages are full of sad news that drains inner energy.  The young and old are dying every day.  The threat is now so close.  We all ask: When will this end?”

In naming the context and articulating her own anxiety and quest for accurate knowledge, Rev Kolimon helps people feel heard rather than dismissed when they doubt.

It’s one of the reasons our church partners are particularly useful in the war on COVID-19. As people of faith, they have a natural bias toward a relational approach and are well networked in some of the areas others can’t reach. They’re able to develop influential communities who stick together ‘on message’ – an important factor given how much we’re influenced by our ‘herd’.

Please continue to pray for the work of all our partners. They’re constantly innovating while under pressure, and they need our continued love, prayer and financial support. You can make a gift to this work during Lent at www.lentevent.com.au

If you have concerns about the COVID-19 vaccination, talk to your local General Practitioner.

You can find information about the safety, testing protocols, expected side effects and more HERE from the Australian Department of Health.

 

Rev Mery Kolimon, Moderator of GMIT (the Christian Evangelical Church in Timor) writes about receiving the vaccine to inspire others, the role of the church and where she sees God at work during a disaster like COVID-19.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and are not intended as professional medical advice. Please talk to you doctor if you have questions or concerns about the COVID-19 vaccines.

A few weeks ago I was contacted by an official at the Nusa Tengara Timur Provincial Government Bureau to become one of the first public officials to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

I’d heard that President Jokowi had received the first vaccine, along with a number of public figures in Jakarta. I suspect that involving community leaders as recipients of the first vaccine is the government’s way of convincing the public to take part. Many of them are still caught up in the pros and cons of receiving vaccines.

We have a role to play helping overcome the doubts that still exist in the community about vaccines. I didn’t believe the government would offer a vaccine that might harm its people. But I didn’t want to just believe it. I quickly started looking for information about the safety of the vaccine, as well as thinking through a number of theological considerations that are important too.

Searching for information

I had already been looking for information about the safety of the vaccine. To be honest, I was happy to receive a vaccine shot right at the start of the campaign in Nusa Tenggara Timur province. Vaccination is part of the struggle against COVID-19 which threatens human life. But on the other hand, I also felt a little worried about the side effects of vaccines because I had heard some skewed information about their safety.

The first thing I did was contact friends who could give me good information, and I was grateful to receive their advice immediately. I also received a screening list, with a large number of issues to look into, to help determine whether I was ready to receive the vaccine.

The list explained that people who are pregnant and breastfeeding, have shortness of breath, cough and cold, a history of allergies, blood disorders, heart disease, autoimmune issues, chronic digestive tract, autoimmune hypothyroidism, cancer, blood sugar / diabetes  mellitus, or lung diseases (such as asthma and tuberculosis) should not receive vaccines.

To determine whether I could get the vaccine, I immediately consulted a number of doctors. I received tremendous support from a fellow epidemiologist, a doctor friend in Maumere, as well as doctors in Kupang and in Denpasar. I am grateful that I do health checks every six months so that my doctor friends found  it easier to analyze my condition. In times like these, check ups are critical, and  I want to encourage everyone to do routine check-ups at health facilities.

In addition, I coordinated with my fellow church and ecumenical leaders in Jakarta regarding their views on vaccines. Some of my friends were hesitant, but most of them encouraged me to receive the vaccine. Church leaders in Jakarta, the Communion of Churches in Indonesia (PGI) and a number of friends of the chairmen of the synod council of several churches in the WA group, plus the leadership of the PGI member churches, strongly supported me to receive the vaccine, provided that my health was good based on a consultation with a doctor.

My sister, who is a nurse, gave her considerations based on reports of the implementation of Sinovac vaccinations in Brazil. According to the information she received, of those vaccinated 100% did not experience severe symptoms while 78% experience mild-moderate symptoms. Those things gave me the strength to receive the vaccine. My husband and children also looked for information on the internet to be a basis for our mutual consideration.

Observing the Body’s Reaction to Vaccines

The morning after the vaccination, I woke up with  mixed feelings. There was gratitude because I slept quite soundly. There was also a feeling of anxiety: how would my body react to the COVID-19 vaccine? The night before, I went to bed with the realization that my body had been injected with a disabled coronavirus to build immunity against it.

I had heard that after the vaccine, everybody reacts differently. Some people report feeling achy, very drowsy, etc. After the vaccine, I felt sore in my hands. But my ability to concentrate was good. I chaired a meeting with fellows online and took part in an online seminar. The two events were consecutive and I was able to stay focused. To this day my health is good, and I ask for prayers for all who have been vaccinated to stay healthy and be a sign of hope for efforts to overcome the life-threatening power of COVID-19.

Theology in Disaster

We entered the beginning of the year with too much sad news and wounds.  Facebook pages are full of sad news that drains inner energy. The young and old are dying every day. The threat is now so close. We all ask: When will this end? In an online seminar we conducted at GMIT regarding service planning during the pandemic, a resource person helped us see the global map of the development of COVID-19. They said this pandemic could last until 2025. This is a pretty tough situation for everyone, including the church.

“Some claim to have God’s vision not to receive vaccines: just pray, they say, don’t take any action.”

With vaccination starting, the debate continues: Is this vaccine useful or will it damage the human body? There has been a lot of news circulating.  Some claim to have God’s vision not to receive vaccines: just pray, they say, don’t take any action. I personally see this as a psychological reaction to the threat we feel as humans. But at the same time, it is very important for us to train ourselves to find information from reliable sources. God gave us the intellect to test all news and information, to test all voices that claim to hear God’s voice. The church learns to understand God’s voice (theology) first and foremost from the Bible.  Another source of theology is the conscience of every believer, as well as from the revelation of God in history, in culture, science, and in the experience of human life, including the experience of suffering.

The Spirit of God Blows Over the Dry Bones

This year, Ezekiel 37:14 is the text guiding GMIT services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

God brought Ezekiel into the valley of suffering that was full of dry bones that were scattered, the symbol of a life cut off from God and a loss for the future. God told Ezekiel to speak with the bones. God also told him to call the spirits from the four winds into the dry bones that give life.

“God did not allow the Church to avoid disaster.”

God did not allow the Church to avoid disaster. Instead, God led the church into and struggled in the midst of the valley of life’s threats. But the church’s task does not stop in the midst of suffering. The church is called to testify of the living power of God’s Spirit. Ezekiel has the authority to prophesy to the Holy Spirit to bring to life those dry bones.

I see the task of the church at this time is to learn to understand the reality of “dry bones”, namely the threats to life caused by this pandemic.

“We must not lose hope. Instead, the church is called upon to proclaim and work the good news in the midst of disaster”

We must open our eyes to hear and study the findings of scientists about the development of this virus around the world. We also need to be realistic about the dangers and threats we face. But we must not lose hope. Instead, the church is called upon to proclaim and work the good news in the midst of disaster situations. Within this framework, vaccination by the government needs to be positively accepted as the church’s involvement in God’s work for the restoration of human life. At the same time we need to remain critical of practices that can injure humanity where people resist vaccination or it is unavailable.

I believe that in all situations, our God is Immanuel; He is with us. The Trinity God with us is not passive, but God is with us actively. He acted for the salvation of the world He created. The power of sin destroys human life and the universe, but God does not stop helping humans and the fragile world. I believe that God has given humans the power to work together to fight the power of pain and death amidst the current threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. The COVID-19 vaccine is part of God’s gift for human minds to process knowledge into a safety tool. Receiving vaccines is part of a commitment to caring for life.

Rev Mery Kolimon is the Moderator of our partner GMIT (Christian Evangelical Church in Timor). Read more about our projects in West Timor.

Do you remember Paramjit, from Amritsar in India?

We bought you here story a few years ago as part of Lent Event. Watch it here!

A mother of four and the sole provider for her family, she was struggling to put food on the table until our partners, the Church of North India, offered her training to work in one of their education centres.

Paramjit grabbed the chance with both hands – and life dramatically improved. But where is she now? 

India has been through the throes of one of the world’s most serious outbreaks of COVID-19, and many families in the Amritsar region have relied on the church to bring them food during the lockdown. Over the past months, cases have dropped and work has now resumed where possible. Schools are back. And Paramjit? 

“Life is so much easier than it was five years ago, even though the pandemic has made things difficult for so many,” she told us. “I’m still working, my husband is around to support the family, and we are all happier now.”

It’s fantastic news considering everything they’ve been through.

“The Church has always been there for the community, not just spiritually but spreading information about the importance of education and helping children right through to graduation,” Paramjit told us. “During the Pandemic, they were there to help people survive with food, masks and sanitisers.”

Paramjit says her greatest hope is that she might be able to continue to reach people in the villages, and that others would have the same opportunity as she has had. She’s determined to use all the support she’s been given to help others.

COVID-19 threatens 150 million people just like Paramjit with a return to extreme poverty. Help us keep the good news stories coming – get on board with Lent Event this year and help our neighbours stay strong www.lentevent.com.au