One word: shaken. Because of the crisis brought about by the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, the world was shaken. So was the church. So was my ministry. Doing as usual could not work anymore. Something changed: “normal” is no longer the norm.
I felt as if a stop sign had appeared from nowhere to force us to reconceive our ministerial approaches. Within a few days orders were given to close churches and schools, while, simultaneously, a new era of extending the bound- aries of ministry was inaugurated.
A familiar Bible verse serves well at this point: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:34, KJV). Henceforth, this treasure would be clearly defined and identified. No one would miss the point about what was their highest value as we made plans to work around our COVID-19-inspired lockdowns, social distancing obli- gations, and stay-at-home orders. COVID-19 was a tremen- dous wake-up call to sharpen my vision of ministry.
I spent much of 2020 and 2021 in self-evaluation, as I experienced something similar to Elijah’s invisible army experience found in 2 Kings 6:8-23.
At first the exclamation of Elijah’s servant, “Oh no, my lord! What shall we do?” (verse 15, NIV), resonated deeply in me. On campus we had organized a Week of Prayer, invited speakers, lined up participants, purchased decora- tions for the chapel and prizes for the games we would play as well. We had scheduled a trip to St. Lucia for the dorm students; some had made reservations, and some parents had already paid in full for the trip. We also had humanitarian events scheduled, and a choral concert was in preparation. Besides, my agenda was filling up: spiritual counseling appointments with students and parents, preaching, seminar assignments. . . . Then the pandemic struck: “Oh no, my lord! What shall we do?”
COVID-19 struck as an unavoidable blow. In some people its stress and fear produced erratic behavior. In my own prayers I went through that moment of Oh no, my Lord! that exposed to Him my thoughts and concerns. As I asked Him for guidance, His Spirit quieted me down and led me to realize that the One who is with me is greater in wisdom and power. God always already knows the end before the beginning. He will make a way.
Then, just as Elisha prayed, “Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see” (verse 17, NIV), I prayed, Open my eyes, Lord, so I may see that this is a time of opportunities and possibilities!
The large number of casualties and the breadth of suffering COVID-19 has engendered are constant reminders that our neighbors, our colleagues, our stu- dents, are worried, distressed, and living now with unattended emotional wounds. In these times feelings of depression and suicidal thoughts are prevalent among both young people and their parents. As a chaplain, I knew that my posture as a listener and my ability to embrace indi- viduals’ needs in the context of the pan- demic’s nerve-racking atmosphere were keys to unlock the ways to people’s hearts. Every action, every word, needed to be thoughtfully conceived to convey Jesus’ message of grace and compassion. In order to do so, I needed to be self- aware and to address my own needs, fears, and anxieties. To become emotion- ally available and connect empathically with others was crucial to my ministry. Each opportunity needed to be grasped correctly; because of that, I felt compelled to be trained in clinical pastoral educa- tion and in life coaching.
Most one-on-one meetings and home visits migrated from face-to-face to calls over the phone. I had to develop and improve my telephone listening skills, taking every feature of exchanges into consideration to listen clinically, in order to detect the emotions and feelings my parishioners were experiencing , and to identify the pastoral questions patients were posing: tone of voice, rhythm, silences, signs of excitement, volume, etc.—everything mattered. I had to see patients through my ears. Meanwhile, they needed to feel my presence through my voice in their ear: I needed empathy; I needed a voice that matched their mood, their questioning; I tried to recap key facts; my prayers needed to be ori- ented toward their expressed needs.
Core values of the Adventist education system invite students to care for others, especially elderly individuals and the weakest of society. COVID-19 proved to be a time to empower families and young people to be the hands of Jesus, i.e., to find creative ways to meet the needs of their community while respecting health regulations and guidelines.
For example, a class of 20 high schoolers carried on a love-call project toward elderly people named “A call = A smile.” Each student chose up to three isolated persons, known or unknown, to call and find out fun facts about them.1
As bringers of hope and inspirers of faith, my team members made it a priority to reinvent and maintain fraternity without shaking hands and eating together. We did things to impact the school community, reassuring hearts and nurturing faith. Online challenges facilitated connection and inter- generational exchange.2
While we maintain our focus on the soon com- ing of the Lord Christ Jesus, the pandemic has also been a time to revisit routine and established patterns of behavior and practice. It was a time for social distancing, and yet a time for digital con- nection over platforms like Zoom or Google Meet. School classes, committees, and spiritual activities all became part of our new digital world. We reen- visioned worship, Weeks of Prayer, prayer sessions, Bible studies, etc., as we questioned current needs and sought to meet students where they were.
In June 2020 we chose to break up the loneli- ness of our students by building a digital bridge between the three SDA middle schools from
Martinique and Guadeloupe, and sharing one common Week of Prayer. My team and I discovered the joys and challenges of filmmaking as we created the CODE PS46.12 series project, with participation from all three schools. Feedback was a torrent of praise to God.3
During April 2021 we returned to in-person school. However, the regulations forbade assembly of large groups. I asked God to give us a plan of action to organize the Week of Prayer that would work with 720 students. And He did. One week each, by class level, totaling seven continuous weeks of back-to-back prayer. It may sound crazy, but God did it!
“Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and char- iots of fire all around Elisha” (2 Kings 6:17, NIV).
Ministers involved in church, school, prison, and hospital ministries should not be afraid to invest, to train, to equip themselves, their mem- bership, and their youth. When God responded positively to Elisha’s request, his servant saw something he would never have dreamed. Trying to limit the infinite God is a nonsensical and point- less contradiction. I learned this much during these recent months. God’s chariots are already in place. God has always been in charge of His work. It is He who provides the ideas, means, training, and finances for our success.
This pandemic continuously calls me, as a spir- itual leader, to prayerfully review my church’s role and place in society; to better define my ministry priorities; and to become a close companion to those around me so they may become closer to Jesus.
Shaken yet strengthened. So is my faith. So is my ministry. So is the church, I pray.
Jaëlle Valiamé Noël is a campus chaplain with the Martinique Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, in the French Antilles.