In a Time Like This
Resilience in the Face of COVID-19
by Gloria Lita D. Mapangdol
It was mid-March when the Covid outbreak in Manila started. We were certainly not prepared for this. We had been looking forward to the joyous occasion in May when our 7 Myanmar students would finally graduate, together with other local students. This was the highest number of foreign student graduates in the history of Saint Andrew’s Theological Seminary (SATS). Alas, as the end of May approached (graduation day), we were still under Enhanced Community Quarantine as Manila had become the center of this pandemic in the Philippines. In the end, it was still a memorable graduation as it was the first time no guests were invited. We had to keep social distancing, wear masks, and avoid physical contact so much so that Diplomas were not handed, but instead were picked up by students from a table.
From March to June, seminarians were literally locked down at the SATS dormitories. For some, living here may have felt like living in a barracks. They could not go out to play, to shop outside, or visit friends. They could not even go home to their families because of strict travel restrictions. They had no choice but to stay at SATS and strictly observe lockdown protocols to prevent an outbreak. In fact, those who had flu were quarantined at separate quarters for close monitoring. Since this was the first time something like this happened, there was fear and anxiety, but we encouraged each other to surrender everything to God in prayer. Part of God’s response was a very supportive community who not only helped with the needs of the seminarians, but also served as front-liners by serving as marketers and doing errands for seminarians.
So many things happened in a short time and we thought it would go away soon. However, Covid is still here and judging by the numbers of new cases each day, this may take longer than expected. From Enhanced Community Quarantine, Manila is now under General Community Quarantine, but nothing changed at SATS. For our protection, students are not yet allowed to go out except for exercises, work details, and other community-related activities. We have started our regular chapel services too, observing health protocols. However, with this unfortunate situation, worship at the SATS chapel is exclusively for us. Members of the community are advised to worship at the nearby cathedral.
One of the many important lessons taught to us by this pandemic is resilience. We were shocked by its impact, but we need to move on. Fear and panic has no place in a situation where so many people are depending on what should be done next. It encouraged us to assess our situation (financial, mental, spiritual) and remedy things in order to survive. In building our resilience, we have discovered hidden talents and creative ideas we had not imagined before the pandemic. Since more than 95% of the students are from the Indigenous Peoples of the north and south, we were reminded of our relationship with the land. While we do not have the gift of seas and oceans, we do have parcels of land we can till and turn into gardens. As a result, what used to be flower gardens or fields of grass were turned into beautiful vegetable gardens. We even have a small duck farm now. We never thought about these possibilities before Covid. Indeed, when the land is tilled and cared for, it produces fruit. Aside from harvesting for their food, students shared their produce to those who were in need in the community or were sold for fertilizers. This has, in fact, created a ripple effect that most households and tenants in the same compound started their own garden plots.
We at SATS also learned new skills and polished old ones. It was surprising to learn, for instance, that some students worked as bakers and chefs before they came to SATS. Others are almost professional barbers and nail cleaners. Some are good at playing the piano and the guitar. Others are into construction work, housekeeping, taekwondo, and more. We made use of these skills during the lockdown to serve the whole community at SATS. Again, the community was always there to help encourage and patronize what we offered and we were able to raise an amount to add to their food supply. All these activities have helped keep everyone happy and healthy (physically, mentally, spiritually, and socially).
Unplanned things do happen in life, whether these come in the form of calamities, tragedies, pandemic, etc. We may not have been prepared at all for this, but we never gave up learning and discovering how we could survive and cope with the new situation as a community. Everyone participated, despite the fear of getting infected. Students followed the rules and helped monitor violators. SATS, though it was also struggling financially, extended help to stranded college students living with us and fed them for the duration of the lockdown. This pandemic truly taught us to value what we have and share them with others.
In times of crisis, God raises up brave men and women to help. This is Biblical and is true in our Covid experience. Volunteers from among us became front-liners during Covid. They went to market. They visited drug stores to buy medicines. They bought vegetables and fruits for those who couldn’t go out to buy. Going out was very risky, yet they did it for us. We can only pray for their safety.
To top it all, Covid has not been successful in scaring and stopping those whom God called for the ministry. In July, Manila was still the center of this pandemic (it still is). Difficult travel restrictions and quarantine measures resulted in the cancellation of all international applicants: 1 from Bangladesh and 3 from Myanmar. We have accepted 35 local applicants, but one by one, they started changing plans. We prayed hard for God’s intervention because the old students were already here and we need to start classes soon. And lo and behold, with God’s grace, we welcomed 20 new students this year.
This school year (August 2020-May 2021), we have a total of 55 students who are all stay-ins here at SATS. Since they had been living here together, we decided to do blended learning, a combination of face-to-face learning (60%), online learning, and research. This is the best we can do for their training and formation as we await better days for more learning opportunities and activities outside. Life at SATS is not easy, but as long as we follow health protocols and trust in God’s grace and mercy, we consider ourselves blessed. May God continue to protect and provide for us! To God be the Glory!
The Very Rev. Dr. Gloria Lita D. Mapangdol is the President and Dean of Saint Andrew’s Seminary in Manila, Philippines.
Vancouver School of Theology and Saint Andrew’s Seminary have initiated a partnership agreement beginning January 1, 2021. We are already learning, teaching, writing, and researching together in the service of the global church.
A Story from Jakarta Theological Seminary
by Joas Adiprasetya
The pandemic has badly affected every organization in Indonesia. Jakarta Theological Seminary is no exception. We have to unlearn our old life and relearn new habits. As a faculty member, I am very grateful for the leadership team’s adaptive responses to such an unprecedented situation. Allow me to tell you what we have been doing in the last seven months. Of course, the first thing that we did was change our learning process from classroom to online platform, right in the middle of the last Spring semester. Such a switch has been challenging for most of us: students, lecturers, and staff members. As people who have a face-to-face culture, it is not easy to relate with others using a new screen-to-screen platform. Some of our community members have been hit hard financially by the prolonged pandemic. We cooperate with our supporting churches to provide daily necessities, distribute financial assistance, additional tuition grants, and internet connection vouchers to some students and staff members. Our seminary also provides an in-house psychologist and two counselors to help our students and staff deal with their mental health; in the last seven months, 35 people have benefited from this ministry.
We have also practiced several measures to make sure that the seminary complex can maintain its spirit as a life-giving ecology for everybody: building a hand-washing station at the front gate for everybody entering the seminary, using a thermometer gun at the entrance to measure body temperature, implementing a mask mandate and physical distance for everybody, promoting awareness through posters at several spots, and performing a daily disinfectant spray throughout the campus. In cooperation with a local Christian hospital, we also educated our staff, faculty, and students using the Zoom platform to live healthily during the pandemic. The same hospital also provided free Covid-19 tests for all family members of our lecturers and staff members. As our guesthouse has been vacant for months, we used the rooms to accommodate some staff members and alums who needed to self-isolate after contracting Covid-19. We provided food and vitamins for them every day to build their immune system. Our students and staff members also made 5,000 face shields and distributed them to medical workers in some remote areas in our country.
The pandemic has certainly pushed us to adapt to such a new situation in many ways, but we refuse to give up our values as a community of love and solidarity. A seminary is not only a place where theology is taught and learned academically. It is also a place where we have to live out our theology spiritually, though brokenly. And we also pray for the Vancouver School of Theology that you will receive all grace and strength from God to continue your journey in such troubled times.
Rev. Dr. Joas Adiprasetya is a Lecturer in Systematic Theology at Jakarta Theological Seminary and Pastor at Pondok Indah Indonesian Christian Church, Jakarta.
Vancouver School of Theology and Jakarta Theological Seminary have initiated a partnership agreement beginning January 1, 2021. We are already learning, teaching, writing,
and researching together in the service of the global church.
Finding Community in the Midst of a Pandemic
by Elizabeth Ruder-Celiz
One of the last face to face interactions I had at VST in early March was in the hallway by my office, as one student commented that, “after all the things going on in the World, it was going to be this pandemic that brings everything down, “ (or words to that effect!). In truth, I didn’t really believe it… then, slowly and quickly I changed my mind, and within two weeks of that conversation we were at home.
One of the strengths of VST has always been the community gathered. Students, faculty, and staff gathered together to support each other; because life is always happening in our midst. The World does not stop because we come to school — births, deaths, relationships beginning and ending, sickness — all continue, and the community is formed, and reformed, as we support each other through all of life. I’ve seen this community carry people through the best and worst times of their lives. The challenge for VST during Covid has been to keep the community healthy, while online.
From my observation as the School Chaplain; VST shifted quickly to online study, and online worship, aided by the fact that whole community of online students already existed; classes shifted, worship happened, people gathered. It wasn’t the same, but in the early days of this pandemic there was something so comforting in seeing each other’s faces and being together — the Community formed and re-formed.
Students took the initiative and started worshipping and meeting together on Zoom, supporting each other, and in fact worship patterns, like Anglican Morning Prayer that usually end with the term continued through the summer. It became apparent quickly, too, that some students were feeling very isolated, and often fearful. Many of our students live alone, and that was very hard, as people weren’t able to be together, to hug, to touch, and to be close to others. As well, ‘zoom fatigue’ started to creep in as students spent hours and hours in front of screens, not to mention the Faculty and the Staff!
The question for me (and for many others in the school) is how to maintain the sense of community; how to be together, without physically being together, how to keep the Community forming and re-forming. This has presented challenges and opportunities for the school. Distance students seem to be much more fully incorporated into the life of the community this year. We have record enrollment as people are home, and more able to come because they do not have to throw their whole lives into chaos to transplant themselves. This fall Orientation was entirely done online: students gathered to hear about classes, and to meet each other, to find their denominational groups and program groups.
What I missed was the in-between time, the time between hearing about classes, the time spent milling around, when people really got to know each other, and when I got to know students, and that remains a challenge.
Denominational worship also seems to be more accessible this year as more and more students are able to attend, and I’ve observed a strengthening of the denominational communities. Community Worship is one of the few times that students are all invited to gather together, and it’s been a bit of a learning curve; as we figure out how to worship together, how to sing together, how many voices should be unmuted at any time, and how we hold the holy space. There have been moments where things went sideways and there have been some really holy moments that I will remember with joy.
The pandemic isn’t new any longer, it’s not exciting — it’s just a slog, and it’s normal. The challenge and the opportunity for VST is, as always, how to be the community together, how to form and re-form the community of faithful people on a journey supporting each other. Community living out in action faith in God. That ultimately is what roots us, following Jesus by ministering to others — because that has not changed. I’m looking forward to next term when we’re going to “Linger” bringing back the time after Community worship when we eat together — no agenda, just fellowship. I’m so proud of the way that everyone has tried to support each other, to be together in new ways, and I look forward to the day when we gather in person and embrace.
The Rev. Elizabeth Ruder-Celiz has been the school chaplain at VST since August 2019, she also serves as Associate Priest at St. John’s Shaughnessy Anglican Church in Vancouver. She has been an ordained Anglican Priest for over 15 years and has served in a wide variety of contexts; rural urban, big small within British Columbia, and has learned so much from every community she’s been in. Elizabeth has a passion for supporting people in ministry, and helping them develop as leaders in their communities.