This week, the widespread news of the arrest of Pastor James Coates of Edmonton, Alberta, for continuing to hold full church services against public health regulations, has had us all sitting up and thinking.
At the same point in time, like vectors intersecting, my own pastor found himself arrived at 1 Peter 2:13-17.
It made me ask this: What are we doing?
In an interview with Justin Peters, Erin Coates (wife of James Coates) said that the spiralling needs around them during shutdown caused them to re-evaluate what the nature of life-preserving and life-saving ministry has to be. I wholeheartedly agree, both with her concerns and with my own pastor’s teaching. The question of how to save lives is serious and immediate. At the same time, we can’t do lifesaving work by appointing ourselves as above and beyond the people around us. The Christian calling is consistently one of servant-leadership.
As I put it all together in my mind, I wondered: What opportunities have we missed? How can we provide lifesaving measures while also providing the example of being willing to live alongside a messed-up world and show love and respect to the people in it? What if we’d started constantly, actively collaborating through our democracy’s mechanisms of communication a year ago?
The year is gone, but it seems this will be ongoing, and we might be wise to settle into a ministry pattern of innovation. Permissions have been obtained through interacting both positively and negatively with authorities; at the time of this writing, one wonders whether those interactions have been vigourous enough, since worship services are currently constrained to 10% capacity while other gathering places with higher risk factors (gyms, yoga studios) are at 25%. (Link)
With all of this in mind, I’d like to encourage the churches to get noisy. Not necessarily in a public way, but in the old-fashioned way. I was raised by a social activist. She taught me that a handwritten letter carries more weight than any other communication form, back in the day, because it takes the most time and care. If you can put pen to paper legibly, please do so. Express your concerns and convictions. Express your doubts. So many of us are only talking to each other, only posting memes on social media to vent frustration.
What goes in a letter to a government official?
- Their correct title (always show the respect of knowing to whom you’re writing)
- A greeting which gives thanks for something about the way they’re fulfilling their role (show honour to the official, whether or not you personally like them or their job or its results)
- A clear statement of the concern about which you’re writing. The more specific — not detailed, but specific and data-oriented — the better
- A suggestion for remedying the concern that uses concrete data (example: “In Christian worship services, singing is generally limited to three songs of no more than 4 minutes in length; gym users are also engaging in deeper breathing, generally for longer than 12 minutes in total, and yet gym capacities are currently higher than places of worship. Please consider allowing religious singing to have an equivalency to gym use, as it provides physiological and psychological benefits to those who may not be able to exercise more vigourously”)
- A statement of support or conviction about our mandate to work with authorities in whatever ways we can, according to conscience
We can also “get noisy” about community care by using the existing channels for volunteering. Below is a screenshot of Help Next Door MB. This is an online service where people can post simple needs for help (i.e., one said “truck to move a dresser”) and others can sign up to connect and fill that need.
Besides volunteering, we can help people discover and use the service in the first place. I noticed very little on the site for my region, which suggests to me that it’s being underutilized. I suspect that most people are simply taking care of these needs for each other, but this is intended to fill gaps for those who don’t already have that support.
Currently, seven Manitoba churches are challenging the level of power granted to the Public Health Office in court. Although at least one of them has created a tainted reputation through civil disobedience, we can carefully consider and plan how to use the correct mechanisms, such as the courts, in order to defend our ability to offer the spiritual care for which so many people are starving.
Above all, we can express honour towards other human beings who are hopelessly fallible and limited, struggling under cumulative burdens of bureaucracy, politics and layers of law and regulation. We Christians have a saying: “The Law kills, but God’s Spirit gives life.”
There’s another, too, more Judaic in nature: “Gird up your loins like a man.” Where we see barriers, we have no business chickening out of using the blessings of our democratic system to work at them. As laypeople, chirping and clucking away online is the farthest thing from girding up to support our pastors, elders and communities.
What are we doing?
I encourage you to forget social media. Forget all the mainstream media versus alt-media noise and confusion. That is dealing in hypotheticals. It’s a rabbit trail that keeps us from our true Christian work. Real needs are here and now, and we’re called to wade into what’s before us.
I encourage you: Clear your head. Aim your communication time where it will hit the right target. Leave the noise behind; write a letter and help a neighbour. Consider the laws and remember that Paul “appealed to Caesar” in a much harsher regime. This, too, can be lifesaving work as we consider the social cost and the mental health cost of current methodologies.
We can only find out what happens next by moving forward under the biblical principles which form our ultimate law and citizenship, as outlined by the biblical writers. As Pastor Dan said, these are for all times and places.