The COVID-19 pandemic has deepened the bonds of many families and friends in unexpected ways.
One couple, Jonathan Ericson and Marcella Lobo, saw their relationship bloom during a time of unforeseen circumstances.
Prior to their live-streamed wedding on May 17, 2020, the Ericsons initially met on an online dating app. After their engagement, they began virtual Bible studies and premarital counseling led by Gabriel Bardan, pastor of the Elgin Seventh-day Adventist Church in Elgin, Illinois, United States.
Marcella was living in Evanston, Illinois, and studying for her Master of Business Administration degree at Northwestern University, while Jonathan was working in the Chicago area. To meet women in his area, Jonathan had made an account on a dating app called Bumble, but he had struck out with the women he was meeting because they did not match the lifestyle he was looking for.
Jonathan said that after consulting with a friend about his dating situation, his friend encouraged him to spend some time in Evanston and try swiping there. By chance, Marcella was swiping right on her account on the same evening that Jonathan visited Evanston, and the two ended up matching with each other.
At the time of their first date, Jonathan was not religious, and finding out that Marcella was a devout Adventist was almost a deal-breaker for him. Regardless, Jonathan decided to give the second date a chance, and soon enough, they were going on regular dates.
“He was humble, honest, and willing to be a business partner with me, which was important,” Marcella said. “We slowly became best friends over the next few dates.”
According to Jonathan, the more he got to know Marcella, the more he realized that she was nothing like his preconceived notions about Christians.
“Each progressive date with her opened my eyes a little further to the wonderful person that I was getting to know,” Jonathan said. “Marcella sees brightness in places that I do not, always has a kind word to share, and seems genuinely inspired by the gospel. It didn’t take long for me to fall deeply in love.”
Marcella and Jonathan quickly decided that they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together; however, they did not want to get engaged before Jonathan met Marcella’s family in Brazil. It was there where Marcella’s father gave Jonathan his blessing to marry his daughter, with the condition that he would consider pursuing Christ.
After returning from visiting Marcella’s family, Jonathan found Pastor Gabriel’s contact information online and decided to reach out.
Gabriel recalled that in the conversation with Jonathan, he “didn’t say that he wanted to learn for himself or he wanted to get baptized; he just said that he wanted to better understand the beliefs of the lady that he was planning to spend the rest of his life with.”
After agreeing to begin Bible studies, Jonathan and Gabriel met several times throughout January and February. Jonathan was eager to learn from the beginning and had plenty of questions. Gabriel said that even though Jonathan initially inquired about Bible studies to learn more about his fiancée's beliefs, he quickly began to show interest and buy into the beliefs himself.
After just one Bible study, Jonathan decided to visit the Deer Park Seventh-day Adventist Church with Marcella to hear Gabriel’s sermon. That same Saturday (Sabbath), they approached Gabriel about receiving premarital counseling, to which Gabriel gladly agreed. In late February, Gabriel met with the couple at a local Whole Foods Market for their first counseling session. However, they were only able to complete one in-person session before shifting over to virtual counseling and Bible study meetings due to social distancing rules in response to COVID-19.
Gabriel, who has plenty of experience in virtual ministry and was a founding member of the Adventist Virtual Learning Network in 1999, did not allow a lack of in-person meetings to hinder him from counseling or teaching God’s Word. Although there was also uncertainty with their wedding plans, Jonathan and Marcella decided that they would still get married even if their loved ones could not attend.
“We decided that we were going to be married anyway. We did not want to wait for months or maybe years until [COVID-19] was gone,” Jonathan said.
Ultimately, Jonathan and Marcella’s plans to have their wedding in Key West with family and friends were canceled. According to Gabriel, Jonathan came to him saying that their plans for their wedding were ruined, and they didn't know what to do, so he offered to host the wedding at the church, as well as baptize Jonathan on the same day.
“Right away, I said, look, we can do the wedding in the church,” Gabriel said. “We could stream it because we had the equipment.”
Immediately following Jonathan’s baptism, Jonathan and Marcella joined each other on the stage and were married by Gabriel, with their loved ones present via livestream. To make the virtual wedding more personal and interactive, they played pre-recorded videos from friends and family congratulating the couple.
Right after the wedding, the newlyweds got in their car, which was already packed with everything they needed, and left Chicago to head west. They celebrated their honeymoon at Utah’s Zion National Park and then drove on to California.
While the Ericsons now reside in California, Marcella is currently serving in one of Gabriel’s new virtual ministries by managing the business administration side. According to Gabriel, the ministry essentially serves as a lifestyle center in the Elgin area, where they run weekly free health clinics. Jonathan is serving by helping to write proposals and grant applications for the clinic.
“My new job is perfect, and Marcella received an offer letter for the role she had been pursuing as well,” Jonathan said. “We have moved into a great community close to the ocean and spend every afternoon and evening together. I have never been happier in my life.”