The Anglican Alliance continues to connect frequently through regional online consultations across the Anglican Communion to hear from churches and agencies on how they are responding to COVID-19 and all its related challenges. In the articles below we highlight some of the many profound insights and lessons that we learn each day from Anglicans and Episcopalians across the world on how they are continuing to worship God and love their neighbours at this time – especially in loving and serving the most vulnerable and marginalised.
Below are summaries of our most recent regional calls for Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, the Caribbean and East Asia. You can jump directly to each story by clicking on the link. Our hub of COVID-19 resources continues to grow. For a summary of the latest additions see here and the hub is here.
A medical practitioner, Dr John Otoo from West Africa, outlined the anticipated trajectory of the virus in Africa, which is likely to peak in the coming months. He stressed again the importance of public health messaging and hygiene behaviours to prevent infections.
However, the lockdown measures taken to contain COVID-19 have also greatly affected livelihoods and employment across the continent. Ven. Canon Kofi deGraft Johnson, CAPA General Secretary, reported how the impacts have been felt across sectors, combining to dire effect with other factors, such as on-going conflict and youth unemployment, as well as floods, drought and locust swarms. Other participants highlighted issues of food insecurity, also describing how farmers needing to plant may not be able to buy seed or fertiliser, with markets being closed.
Many churches are working actively to serve the poorest and most vulnerable in their communities at this time. Many are involved in feeding programmes. In South Africa churches have joined civil society groups in feeding initiatives, mobilising the assets in the communities. Particular concern was raised in South Africa about the plight of undocumented migrants, who cannot access any official government help and are in dire need currently without income from daily work. For these most vulnerable migrants it feels as if they have to choose between imprisonment (through breaking the lockdown) and hunger.
Because of the economic impacts, people are being forced to consider migrating, either within their countries or beyond. Many see migration as their only option and are willing to take risks in order to survive. There are also great concerns that these economic stresses put both adults and children at greater risk of being trafficked, especially internally. There was a concern that more children in West Africa are likely to be trafficked to work in the fishing and cocoa industry. Churches should encourage children to return to school when they open and should highlight the potential benefits this will have for their future. School feeding programmes will also help to draw children back to school.
The consultations concluded by raising the crucial need to look at the intersecting root causes of vulnerability, rather than just the presenting issues such as unemployment or food insecurity. The response likewise needs to be cross-sectoral and networked, enabling strategic and collaborative action within which the church can play a distinctive and effective role. As Canon Grace Kaiso, Anglican Alliance Senior Adviser, said on the call: “We need to look beyond the humanitarian response and reimagine the shape of our future, building on the spirit of community and generosity.”
The Middle East
Participants on the calls have shared the numerous ways their churches are responding to these challenges, including providing food packages and other support to migrant labourers, refugees and vulnerable parishioners. Pre-existing connections and relationships within the local community, with refugees and migrant camps have proved invaluable. St Paul’s Anglican Church in Jordan is in Ashrafiyah, an area of Amman where many refugees live. The lockdown deprived day labourers (often the only type of work available to refugees) of any opportunity to work and, therefore, the ability to earn money to buy food. The church mobilised to provide food parcels locally, but the speed with which the lockdown initially happened made accessing the necessary money extremely difficult. However, Fr. George al-Kopti was able to negotiate with local vendors to provide food on promise of later payment and some of the providers actually donated extra food when they discovered how the church was trying to help. Similarly, in Cyprus, St. Paul’s Cathedral and St. Helena’s, Larnaca have joined with others to provide food parcels to asylum-seekers, refugees and others in need.
Despite the financial pressures on his diocese, Archbishop Suheil, Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem, has committed to continue paying the full salaries of the staff of the approximately thirty diocesan institutions, which include two hospitals in Gaza and Nablus, schools and rehabilitation centres. This commitment to honouring contracts, when governments have permitted salary reductions and when the economic outlook for the church is uncertain, is a positive display of love and care, and of trust that God will provide.
In the most recent call, we heard from Nour, an Anglican in Syria. Nour described the impacts of COVID-19 in Damascus, which have come on top of ten years of devastating war. “The numbers of people infected with COVID-19 in Syria is small compared with other countries”, Nour said. “But the influence of the pandemic has been great because a lot of Syrian doctors emigrated or became refugees outside Syria [because of the war]. A good number of hospitals are not functioning anymore and, because of the economic sanctions on Syria, medications are not available – or if they are available, the prices are really high and people cannot afford them”.
Many of the congregants of All Saints Church in Damascus are refugees – both internally displaced Syrians and Sudanese refugees working in Syria as domestic workers. The combination of the war and COVID-19 means they are suffering great economic hardship.
Nour described how difficult the situation is for women in Syria, many of whom are widows or have lost children in the war. The pressures of trying to find a source of income, fear of contracting the virus, wanting to protect their families and social distancing are all impacting heavily and detrimentally on women. Men also are under strain because so many have lost their source of income. Domestic violence has increased.
Nour described how All Saints is providing counselling sessions and psychological support to some of those affected.
The physical closure of churches has meant that many people, especially the elderly, have lost an important source of human contact and social support. Services provided by the Church, such as feeding centres and homework clubs, have been disrupted and the Church’s ability to respond to increased need has been restricted by its own loss of income. One participant described how their own church had delivered care packages to vulnerable people but said few people were able to help make up the packages because the active membership of the church is in the at risk group. Churches’ loss of income has led to diocesan workers being laid off and clergy salary being cut in some places.
Father Clive Thomas emphasised the need to learn from the present to plan for the future, asking: How do we restructure social outreach to ensure that it will not totally shut down in a future pandemic? How do we restructure our financial operations – to use our assets as an income source? How do we restructure our administrative structures to make for a more resilient church?
Archbishop Josiah Fearon, Anglican Communion Secretary General, joined the consultation. He reflected on how we might serve in this time of COVID-19 to see an extension of God’s Kingdom. Archbishop Howard Gregory, Primate of the Province of the West Indies, highlighted the creative response by churches to the challenge of lockdown in maintaining worship. Some churches have used radio as well as online platforms, recognising the channels more easily accessed by the elderly. He emphasised how churches are working in tandem with the governments to mitigate the spread and impact of the virus.
An area of particular concern was on how to safely re-open churches. Bishop Michael Beasley, from the companion link Diocese of St Albans, stressed the importance of being clear on the message about prevention. Bishop Michael, formerly an epidemiologist, said that churches can’t eliminate all risk, but they can prepare to make the re-opening as safe as possible. The Anglican Alliance will be sharing learning through our resource hub on how different provinces are approaching the planning for re-opening our churches. Please look out for this next week on the Anglican Alliance website.
COVID-19 cases and deaths are still increasing in the region; there is no indication that the curve is being flattened. In some countries, particularly Brazil and Nicaragua, governments are in denial and there is a lack of official measures to contain the spread of the virus and protect people. There is still both a lack of reliable information and the spread of fake news, particularly via WhatsApp, creating huge challenges.
Food insecurity is a common threat and reality everywhere, mostly a result of unemployment. Some governments are offering a small allowance, but it is far from enough, and they are calling on religious organisations and social movements to join hands to support those affected. All churches are taking serious measures to alleviate hunger and its consequences, and the amount of solidarity is a highlight in these times of darkness and desperation.
Many people are vulnerable as most live in poverty. Particularly vulnerable groups include indigenous people and trans people, according to reports coming from some churches. There are also reports of increased racism and xenophobia towards the usual targets: foreigners, black and indigenous people.
The impact on migrants is also huge. It is difficult to maintain social distancing in the places they tend to be. Many people are displaced at borders. Some have been deported from the USA and are locked in different countries with no possibility of getting back to their own. Participants from Colombia reported a huge amount of work being done by churches in the borders with Venezuelans.
Countries in the region are facing other challenges on top of the pandemic. For example, El Salvador is dealing with massive flooding. The church is requesting support as it has been very difficult to deal with these two big emergencies.
Churches are working hard to attend to the different needs and adapt to this new context. There has been a push from both lay people and clergy for deeper theological conversation on how to worship, care for people, live in solidarity, share financial and other resources, and be a prophetic voice and presence in the world. People are working to make liturgy better suited to people’s current and cultural context. Social media is being widely used to stream liturgies, prayers, retreats, meditations and formation. This is proving to be a time of discovery and was described as a “Kairos” moment for the Church to be more faithful to its calling.
An Anglican Commission for Mental Health has been formed and is working hard throughout the region, gathering professionals and people in pastoral ministries to equip churches to deal with mental health-related issues.
The participation of the church of Canada in the conversations is highly valued, bringing a good sense of regional collaboration. Likewise, the companionship links between Canada, Brazil, and Cuba are proving important for connection and support.
In this third regional call, participants discussed how in some countries governments are issuing guidelines on a gradual opening of churches and other places of worship. The churches are moving with caution to see what is possible to keep their members as safe as possible.
The call focused on how churches are maintaining support for the most vulnerable and marginalised in their communities. Through this ministry there is a commitment to uphold the human dignity of each person made in the image of God, with a particular concern about the treatment of migrants. In each context the churches have identified those groups in greatest need, which vary from place to place.
We heard from East Malaysia about their concern for the elderly and lonely. The church is providing food packages and doing its own kind of ‘contact tracing’ to ensure that these vulnerable people are able to connect with their families. At this time of the harvest festival, the sense of loneliness and sadness is particularly acute as families cannot gather for their usual celebrations.
From Singapore we heard about the church outreach with the migrant workers, many of whom are confined to their dormitories following a COVID-19 outbreak. In addition to providing food and vitamins, the church has launched an initiative called ‘My Dorm, My Home,’ donating smart TVs, with an online channel of programmes in the migrants’ main languages to help bring encouragement and entertainment and promote exercise.
Participants from Japan and Korea spoke of their concern for college and high school students and for teachers themselves, all facing particular stresses. In Hong Kong, as the lockdown eases, churches are starting to open up. Amidst ongoing political tensions, the pandemic has resulted in job losses. The churches are seeking to assist, where possible, families reduced to extreme poverty. In West Malaysia, the churches have a special concern for the elderly and for migrants. In Myanmar, the churches are working to support health messaging and to distribute masks and hand sanitiser to prevent infection spreading, especially to those most vulnerable.
In the Philippines, the churches are standing alongside those made economically vulnerable by the pandemic in both urban and rural areas, including migrant workers returning from overseas after losing their jobs. Following their principles on asset-based community development, the churches are connecting farmers, who have produce that cannot be sold at this time, with cooperatives running community kitchens. The church buildings are being used for processing food packs from the government and others. They are promoting the value of mutual help: “What we have we share”.
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