Churches must serve as beacons of hope and compassion amidst COVID-19 crisis, urge Asian church leaders

Posted on 8 May 2020

*Ruth Mathen

Participants (partial view) of the CCA’s virtual conference on ‘Churches in Asia Responding to the COVID-19 Crisis’

CHIANG MAI, 7 MAY 2020: “The Church lives, thrives, and plays a crucial role in accompanying the suffering people and communities while serving as a beacon of hope and compassion amidst the COVID-19 crisis. It is time for the Church in Asia to redefine what the Church is and reposition its role in a changing context. Though we are challenged by sufferings and miseries of innumerable people who are affected by the spread of the novel coronavirus, our fortitude, faith, and hope in God’s unwavering assurance give us the inspiration to find a cause for glorifying God in our troubles. God of all creation feels our pain, sees our tears, and cares about our challenges,” stated the Asian ecclesiastical and ecumenical leaders who were panellists of the Christian Conference of Asia’s (CCA) virtual conference on ‘Churches in Asia Responding to the COVID-19 Crisis’.

As the COVID-19 pandemic grips the world, the CCA has proposed and initiated a series of virtual conferences to serve as a platform to discuss relevant issues and challenges caused by the global crisis.

The second of the CCA Webinar series was held on 7 May 2020. The virtual conference saw engagement from 100 registered participants and also had an audience of over 4,000 viewers who observed the proceedings via live-streaming on the CCA’s social media platforms.

In his opening remarks, the CCA General Secretary Dr Mathews George Chunakara, who moderated and facilitated the online conference, said that the COVID-19 crisis was a ‘loud wake-up call for the world’. He remarked that the proliferation of the virus had shattered myths about global levels of development, which were, in fact, quite unsustainable. “The spread of COVID-19 has exposed our inadequacies in catering to the most vulnerable in our midst, and it is vital to re-examine the role of our churches in this new world,” he said.

The virtual conference’s eight specially invited panellists, who represented the CCA’s member churches, councils, and the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC), shared their profound insights and observations. The key focal points of the webinar centred around discussions on faith and witness amidst the crisis; the diaconal mission of Asian churches; Asian churches’ inter-church cooperation and collaboration with governmental agencies; and appropriate spiritual, biblical, and theological responses to the common suffering of the world today.

Archbishop Sebouh Sarkissian, the Prelate of the Armenian Orthodox Church in Iran, said that his church kept encouraging its members in their faith and Christian existence, as the main spiritual weapon possessed was hope. He spoke of the necessity of holding on to hope in dark times like these and reminded the participants of Paul’s message on the role of hope in the life of the Christian church. “Difficulties are a part of life,” said the Archbishop, while explaining that though we may be physically distant, such tough times have brought us closer to each other.

Metropolitan Dr Yakob Mar Irenaios, the Chairperson of the Churches’ Auxiliary for Social Action (CASA) in India, entreated that we must not permit the virus to enter our minds. Although the lockdown was a shock for all, he highlighted the plight of labourers and workers in the informal economy in India and the urgency needed in the churches’ actions to alleviate their condition. Indian churches have been at the forefront of relief work for migrants and daily labourers, reaching out to millions of people. He also emphasised the need for sensitivity in the responses of the churches – especially in areas where physical distancing was not possible and where there was a severe lack of potable water to maintain personal hygiene.

Metropolitan Mar Irenaios also called upon Asian churches to look inwards and reflect upon their purpose and mission in today’s world. He said it was time for the churches to forsake luxury and reorient their priorities and intentions. He also added that the crisis offered a unique opportunity for the churches to innovate in their ministries.

Bishop Leo Paul, from the Church of Pakistan, spoke of the unique challenges faced by the minorities in Pakistan, an Islamic majority country. Churches and other social organisations were limited to relief work only in large cities and were unable to concentrate their efforts in rural areas, where help was needed the most. While minorities did not face institutional-level discrimination, their needs were deprioritised and largely ignored at the grassroots level. Most funds of the churches were frozen during the critical response period, and this impacted the rate at which churches could address the needs of communities. The people in Pakistan were about to face a severe food security crisis, an economic crisis, a social crisis, and a mass psychological crisis in rapid succession, he said, unless serious and concrete measures were taken to ameliorate the condition of the general populace.

Rev. Jacky Manuputty, the General Secretary of the Communion of Churches in Indonesia (PGI), said that the churches in Indonesia responded to the World Health Organisation’s warning about the global pandemic with immediacy and urgency. The PGI sent out pastoral letters detailing propositions for maintaining physical distancing, recommendations for family-based worship, guidelines for handling the burial of COVID-19 victims, and other practical suggestions for maintaining general health and cleanliness. Indonesian churches were encouraged to create more severe and strategic mitigation actions based on the model developed by the PGI to mobilise financial and human resources across the archipelagic country. He also mentioned the initiatives of churches in constructing online platforms to help out small businesses that were struggling under the effects of the crisis. The responsibility of the diaconal mission could not only be considered and carried out by the headquarters of churches, he said, but it was essential to empower families to carry this task out through local congregations.

Fr. William (Bill) LaRousse, the Deputy General Secretary of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC), said that the pandemic, like the climate emergency, affected everyone – regardless of other differences. The Roman Catholic Church in Asia was closely cooperating with national and local government agencies, and Bishops’ Conferences in different countries were brought closer as the need to respond entailed listening to other ecclesial communities and their responses and plans. The sudden and unfamiliar situation had led to innovation in church ministry as technology was used to live-stream and broadcast prayer and worship, and there was a heightened awareness of the virtual church as a reality.

Fr. William subsequently spoke of the work of CARITAS, the Roman Catholic Church’s charitable organisation that focused on a coordinated response to the pandemic. Schools and other institutions run by the Church were being utilised to house homeless persons, for isolation and quarantine, and in some cases as makeshift residences for healthcare workers to ensure faster access to hospitals. He emphasised the need for constructing recovery programmes and food sustainability measures with care, as the crisis had brought to light underlying humanitarian inequities and the inadequacies of the political-economic system.

Bishop Reuel Norman Marigza, the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, spoke of the collaborative efforts of Protestant, Catholic, and Evangelical councils along with faith-based organisations in providing relief to affected communities. He called for compassionate service and comprehensive scientific redressal. Although the national lockdown had challenged the mobility of aid teams in different parts of the Philippines, churches were able to cater to the needs of all people in their immediate locality, irrespective of their class or creed; churches in some areas were also able to reach out to isolated indigenous people’s communities. He spoke of the painful arrests of aid and care workers and condemned the Filipino government’s military-style approach to containing the pandemic.

Dr Sawako Fujiwara, from the Lutheran Theological Seminary/Rikkyo University in Japan, shared the challenges of catering to a largely elderly congregation with limited access to technology, and the innovation that stemmed from necessity. The United Church of Christ in Japan (UCCJ) initiated a ‘document-based’ worship service, where resources were sent by post. The ‘private worship service’ was reminiscent of the monastic tradition of prayer. A similar mode was followed by the Anglican Church in Japan (Nippon Sei Ko Kai). The Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church also developed a new lending system to help small churches support their pastors. Though the online ministry was effective, she shared that it was not a perfect solution as it reinforced a ‘digital divide’.

Archbishop Dr Willem T.P. Simarmata, the Moderator of the CCA, emphasised the impending food crisis in Asian countries. With the fall in income and consumption worldwide, the procurement of food was set to become a bigger challenge than COVID-19 itself. He opined that churches must think one step ahead, anticipate the problems of the future, and be more adequately prepared to handle the crisis. Sharing the model of the North Sumatera churches in Indonesia, he spoke of the designated funds that were set apart by churches to respond to disasters and calamities. He underscored the necessity of collaborating with other faith groups and civil society organisations to unify relief efforts and ensure aid reaches those who most need it. He reminded the participants that the Church was called to be a blessing to all.

The most pertinent concern was how the Church would look like in a post-COVID-19 scenario. Panellists across the board opined that the previous state of the world was not ‘normal’ and was rife with inequality and unnecessary suffering. “We do not know what the world will look like tomorrow, but we do know that it is our joint responsibility to build a future that is more just and humane,” responded the experienced panellists who represented Asia’s diverse ecclesial and ecumenical landscape.

Dr Mathews George Chunakara concluded the discussions of the virtual conference by saying that the crisis marked a critical point wherein we were called upon to contemplate the inherent fragility of life and the vulnerability of the cosmos. It was crucial to reorient the priorities of the Church as a community of care and compassion which is called to provide love and support to people who are struggling with life’s challenges. Our world needs prayers, cure, and healing especially in times of the COVID-19 crisis, with its devastating effects.

Dr Mathews George Chunakara also brought to attention the Asia Sunday liturgy for 24 May 2020 prepared by the CCA in context of the global pandemic. Focused on the theme, “God, Heal Us as We are Vulnerable”, the special liturgy contains prayers for the victims of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The CCA has scheduled a series of webinars in the upcoming weeks centring on various issues related to the COVID-19 crisis and its impacts. The next webinar on ‘Right to Health amidst the COVID-19 Crisis’ will be held from 12:00–14:00 Bangkok time on Thursday, 14 May 2020. Information regarding the same, including the registration link, will be disseminated later.

Other webinars in coming weeks include ‘Upholding the Rights and Dignity of Children amidst the COVID-19 Crisis’ (19 May 2020); ‘The Impact of COVID-19 Crisis on Women in Asia: Vital Needs and Post-Crisis Recovery’ (21 May 2020); and ‘Food Security: Will the world face more deaths due to hunger or COVID-19?’ (28 May 2020).

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