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A Nova Scotian Pastor Reflects on a Year of COVID, Terror, Tragedy and Racism

In one phrase how would you describe your impression of an Eastcoast lifestyle?

Answers might include: “They’re some nice”; “A kitchen party waitin’ to happen”; “Are ya in a corner? I ‘magine Buddy will help ya out”; or “If I got something ya need—Fill Your Boots!”

We are known to be laid-back and to be good neighbours as well as having tightly knit communities. But 2020 has challenged us in more ways than one.

Disturbing the Peace while not Becoming Undone

For the most part, we like our laid-back lifestyle but seven months ago an unwanted stranger showed up in our dooryards threatening to undo our lives. Most of us are reluctantly okay with gradual change. But if you start slapping protocols and rules on how we gather as neighbours, friends, families, and churches, we will politely but firmly respond, “Yeah, right?!” Especially if we perceive that this threat to our peace comes from outside our Atlantic Bubble.

In the context of churches and church leaders across our region, I think this is one of many factors that contributed to our general angst and constant exhaustion. Being overwhelmed with the general loss of peace and comfort left many of our people feeling fragile, vulnerable, and no longer in control. Pastors and leaders have been scrambling to redirect themselves, their people, and their communities from the anxiety of lost comfort and security to a Gospel of hope that has eternal value.

This includes how we have viewed church. For the first several weeks, like most pastors in our region and across our country, our church elders and pastors met weekly—more if you count emails. We, too, felt this great inability. “How do we do church in a climate we have never encountered?” Through much discussion and prayer, we put together an immediate plan to shift from gathering as a ‘macro-church’ to equipping our people to lead worship in their homes, families, apartments, missional communities (micro-church?).

We compiled a weekly worship guide that followed our church’s liturgy complete with YouTube song links, a printable kids activity sheet, a pre-recorded sermon for adults, and a shorter sermon version for kids as our attempt at taking this time to make worship leaders out of the majority of our people. We kickstarted a church-wide communications app (SLACK) so we could hear prayer requests and quickly form needed discussion threads (i.e. Elders prayer and fast day; Parents; Staff; Community care and share needs; Schooling helps, etc.). Then we leaned into our missional communities as a key outlet to pastoral care, shepherding, correcting, and discipling.

As the weeks began to turn into months we invited these groups to reach out to their friends who might be suffering from mental angst, shortness of resources, or lack of family friendships. Our elders also picked up the challenge of tracking more closely those who might be on the fringes of our congregation. On top of this, our elders challenged our church to commit to give away 20% of our income over this time of community crisis.

Full Confession: not all these efforts can be touted as a roaring success. Some might not even be considered a moderate success. For instance, weekly prayer meetings have more than doubled in size by going online. However, I am a stunningly horrible pre-recorded preacher. It was doubly painful to preach to a camera then have to watch the sermon again with my family members, many of whom are teenagers!

Our goal was to find the most helpful tools our people could use to lean into the hope of the Gospel and care for each other more intentionally.

Sandbagging It While not Becoming Begrudgingly Obedient

In the middle of all this unwelcome pandemic-newness, our province took a solid one-two-three punch in the face. It stung and still stings. It took the breath out of us and caused us to weep openly, even though we were limited with who we could hug or hold for comfort. It has marked many of our people’s lives forever.

Punch #1—Terror: We suffered the deadliest killing rampage in Canadian history. In a fifteen-hour span, one man murdered 22 people and injured 3 others before he was shot and killed by the RCMP. I wrote about this terror level hurt at the time. Honestly, I don’t like going back to reread what I wrote because the pain is still palpable.  

Punch #2—Tragedy: Ten days later our immediate community lost six of our finest Airforce members. A cyclone helicopter team from our Halifax region airforce base crashed into the sea just miles from their ship. Within 15 minutes of that crash an elder in our church, a Major within the squadron, got a call from the flight deck of the ship telling him the news.

Punch #3—Racism: According to a 2016 census and a 2018 assessment of the total population of Halifax proper almost 4% are African Nova Scotians. In our sister city of Dartmouth, 6.5% are African Nova Scotians. Historically there were two avenues by which African slaves arrived in Nova Scotia. First as slaves to early British and French colonists. Second as Black Loyalists, slaves who gained freedom by abandoning the American armies to join with the British armies for the promise of freedom and land.

During the American Civil War thousands of African Americans fled to Canada for the promise of freedom via the underground railroad. Nova Scotia was one of the premier promised lands at the end of that long rail line. Today more than 21,000 Nova Scotians are of African descent.

But don’t believe the hype. This doesn’t mean it’s been easy, or that we haven’t demonstrated systematic racism to our fellow black Nova Scotians over the years. One day I might write a piece on this but for now, after only 15 short years of being in one of the primarily black urban communities in our city, I haven’t really earned the right. I hadn’t been listening as well as I should have been.

Oh, I have heard the stories of our much-beloved Africville, less than a kilometre from my house. A place where our church is invited to serve every summer as part of their staff for a week-long celebration. A place that, in the late 50s and early 60s, a squatters’-rights community of hundreds of low-income black families called home. Here they had set-up makeshift homes, a small Baptist church, a cemetery, and a community.

I have listened to actual past residents tell me of the city’s actions of ordering and moving people out of their homes into city housing (projects) (via the city dump trunks!) promising the people would be able to go back to collect what was valuable to them. A few weeks later, they bulldozed the entire place to the ground before many could even return.

I’ve heard about the riot on Gottingen St. against the police who had gone on strike in the early 80s. During these riots, many of the staple businesses of then-booming Gottingen Street were devastated. Until recently that area has struggled to regain what was lost. I know because this is the diverse street I call my community.

Full Confession: When the ugly head of racism raised again in the recent months in our world our church wept, our city marched, our people shouted, our voices pleaded, and our hearts broke for the hatred on both sides. We reminded ourselves that “the human heart indeed is desperately wicked.” We are witnessing it. But we haven’t strategized enough to walk with those who are weeping or to right the injustices. We need to think more deeply on clear Gospel responses to pain, suffering, racism and injustice. We need to equip our people to know how to respond in meaningful and practical ways. Not to begrudgingly pick a side that makes them seem obedient to an over-spiritualized opinion.

Right now we ARE serving but I feel like we are “sandbagging it.” When the pandemic hit we were actively sought out by two different organizations that serve our most vulnerable street-level community, and two food venues that were putting together food supplies for those who were struggling with food security in our high-risk populations. To date, we have given away more than $6000 worth of resources directly to those in need and have become the hands and feet for a couple of great organizations in our community.

It’s worthwhile and needed care. But it’s not enough. It’s like filling up and placing sandbags in an ever-rising flood. It’s good, helpful, and makes-you-feel-like-you’re-doing-something work, but it’s not a long term strategy for the reoccurring devastation of a broken world. Lately, I have been reminded by the Lord that He has not given us all this street cred in our neighbourhood so that we could just be actively filling sandbags. Sandbags are temporary solutions. The Kingdom of God lived out by the church should offer more permanent solutions.

Discovering New Normals While not Reaching Back for Old Comforts

I am thankful for a motley and often messy church to work out these things with. That might be the greatest personal blessing of this difficult season. I have grown exponentially in my love for our broken church and her stumbling elders. During this time we have been learning practical Gospel reflected lessons:

  • To fight fairly until we gain unity.
  • To actively chase after the struggling lamb today because next week I might be the one needing to be chased after.
  • To invite strangers into our families not because they’re our kind of people but because they, too, need safe places to address their brokenness.
  • To demonstrate worship in our everyday responses to those we are called to serve rather than in how excellent our worship service is.

Full Confession: Honestly, I hope the church in our region is submissive to refinement. I hope each Christian is feeling crushed by our loving Gardener. If we are going to be made into a useful Kingdom, vintage wine will have to be crushed. To be crushed without being made gospel-ready for submission through God’s chosen means can only create a bitter, sour drink.*I hope we prove not to be so enamoured with our old ways of living out church life that we can’t discover a deeper life in Christ together in our churches.

 


*This thought is adapted from Oswald Chamber’s, My Utmost for His Highest, Sept. 30th reading

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