If I said some positives did come out of the Coronavirus pandemic, you probably would think I’m just one of those overpositive people, perhaps one of those liars who pretend to find the good in everything. So maybe I should tell you my story.
On 17 March, the day after Prime Ministr Boris Johnson asked us nicely to stop attending public events, I boarded the train for what I expected would be a 45 minute journey. That journey ended up taking over 3 hours and included a replacement bus service from Preston to Wigan, (which should have been 15 minutes by train). I didn’t realise it then, but that would be my last train journey for a really long time.
In the evening, I got a phone call, during which I learned that church on Sunday wouldn’t be happening as usual. I thought that wasn’t possible, after the assurances we’d received the last Sunday that we’re Christians, above disease and illness. I suppose I knew deep down, especially since the prime minister’s advisory the day before that we were unlikely to go to church; after all, he’d included church services in the activities he thought should not hold. But it was only advice, wasn’t it?
I suppose I was afraid of this strange new world we were entering; it seemed to have no certainties; when would it end? What else would we be unable to do? How would I manage without those everyday things I took for granted, such as the train? I’d been hearing about lockdowns in Italy and China before, but that was only in the news. Now the reality was hitting home, and I wasn’t too sure. Visions of wasting at home filled my mind, and for someone who took two or three train journeys every week, that was disconcerting.
Worse still, I confess I was a little worried that I might lose my faith. You see, church on Sunday had become a kind of prop. I tried never to miss it. I enjoyed singing in the worship group, playing the keyboard, youth work, everything. I once told someone that I hate parties because I just sit down and unless I know someone, I would do or say nothing. Church was different, I knew everyone and they knew me. It was like how I wanted every party to be. I know that if I say that to many, they would just think I was lying. But if you think about it, blind people don’t see expressions. If someone is talking, I’m not sure when they’ve stopped and I can speak. Sometimes, I don’t even know who is on the table with me unless they introduce themselves. I can get very lonely in parties, but never in church. And I had this every week! What more could I ask, and what would happen if I no longer had that? Would I gradually begin to lose contact with people, even with my faith?
My first response was to tell everyone that I’d be careful but not fearful. After all, “God has not given us a Spirit of Fear, but of power, love and sound mind”. Some versions interpret the ‘sound mind’ as ‘good reasoning’. So, I’d be reasonable, but not panic. Fortunately, it was an advisory, it didn’t sound like the Chinese system I heard about on radio. BBC China reporters would speak to someone on skype, who would say what it was like not to be able to leave the house at all. It looked like officials were waiting just outside your door to turn you back. Even when lockdown was eased, I heard a report of someone flying from South Korea back to China and the rigorous temperature checks at every stage of the journey, topped up with a quarantine.
On 24th March, the day after the prime minister’s advisory became a directive, I tested my freedom. I had to buy something and visit the post office. First, town was empty. When I got to the shop, there was only one person and he was way ahead of me. The person behind me was made to wait outside. So this is the brave new world?
Many other things have happened during this pandemic. I discovered that my cousin was stuck in Nigeria after attending a family event. A couple trying to return to Nigeria couldn’t get a flight out. Everyone seemed so confused and I had to negotiate my way through new rules. Fortunately, one of my friends had badgered me until I’d stocked up my house with everything I could find (there were no hand sanitizers of course).
There were many firsts too. I recall the first time I took an evening stroll to test my ability to exercise. I walked from home to the station and back without ever pressing the button on the traffic light. As I approached home, I wondered if I shouldn’t test this new normal by simply walking into the middle of the road and dancing away; there was no car at all, and it was 10PM. It’s only now that I started thinking I should start pressing that button again, and only in the afternoon.
I remember the first time I preached to a purely online community. I had to record on Wednesday. It was weird talking to my wall and I had lots of other technical problems, but the advantage of recording three days earlier was that everything was ready. I’ve led live worship on Zoom too. Everyone else had to mute, but I asked for everyone to unmute and shout their praises afterwards. From all over the city, even around the country, I heard people shout praise to the Lord, and I was in my living room, screaming Hallelujah at the top of my voice! How about that! Next time I update my CV, I’ll include skills in Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet and all the other meeting apps available.
Then good things started to happen. I thought church would end, but it didn’t! First there were Sunday services on Youtube. In fact, small group meetings started to happen on Zoom as well! Wow! In fact, I think I do more meetings now than I ever did. One day, I did three meetings, one using Zoom would have taken place in Penrith, another on Microsoft Teams in Manchester and a third with Freeconference call would have taken place in Lancaster. All were held between 3PM and 9PM.
The number of people who rang me suddenly grew exponentially. I never knew people were so kind. Everyone kept asking if I was fine, if they could go to the stores, etc. As I said, I’d stocked up, but I was still touched. I decided I still had to go shopping though, except things were so different. I wasn’t sure whether to ask for help, whether people would be afraid to take me round the store, or even whether I would be exposing myself to the coronavirus. I did the right things of course, My sister had forced some bottles of hand sanitizers on me when I last visited her, and being the younger brother, I just left them in the suitcase. I dug them out, used them like crazy and decided not to let her know how secretly grateful I was. It’s ok, she’s my sister, she knows I‘m like that.
One day, I expressed my fears to someone and he immediately posted some facemasks to me. Strangely, I had three consignments of facemasks delivered to me within a week; and I hadn’t actually asked. I just told people I was no longer so confident going shopping. I learned that people can be so kind.
We’ve all had to adapt to this pandemic and these strange and unprecedented times. When I wrote last week of the government’s failings, what I should have said is that where institutions have let me down, individuals have been exceptional. People have loved selflessly and cared deeply. They have made it much better for me than I expected; for I had imagined wasting away, stuck at home from dawn till dusk. Thank God that wasting away thing never happened. With all the meetings and everything else keeping me busy, I haven’t needed the train to travel around the country. Early in May, I enjoyed My Auntie’s Zoom birthday party. I haven’t attended her birthday for such a long time, as she lives in Nigeria.
As for my personal worries that I’d somehow stop attending services and gradually stop believing? Thank God that didn’t happen either. In fact, it seemed God had known that Covid-19 was coming and had prepared us with social media and meeting apps. This way, people from all over the world can worship with us. Better still, if there’s someone a little nervous about attending church, what better way than to show up anonymously, either at the start time, or just any time they feel like. On a personal level, God knew I’d be needing those hand sanitizers after all, several years later than my sister threw them in my suitcase. I remember wondering why she thought I’d need her hand sanitizers, but just keeping them anyway. Did I know there’d be a run on such essential commodities as hand sanitizers? I guess what I’m trying to say is thank God that He prepared me for this, even though I didn’t know. And thank you all for showing me what true kindness looks like, even in a pandemic.