AT THE beginning of March 2020, while the Government of the UK was being criticised for failing to prepare adequately for the looming pandemic, the Rwandan government’s response was to install wash basins in taxi parks; in Uganda, artists wrote and broadcast songs about how to prevent the spread of Covid-19; and Senegal quickly banned public gatherings and suspended international flights.
Over the course of the year that followed, it became clear that some countries were better able to mobilise a grass-roots public-health response than others.
Having learnt from their experiences with HIV about the dangers of delaying a response, the Church of Zimbabwe recorded and shared sermons to educate congregations about Covid-19, and churches were set up as distribution centres for PPE.
In Sierra Leone, drawing on the community networks used to mobilise against the Ebola virus, a community-sensitisation campaign was launched, using electronic, radio, and print media to communicate messages about hand hygiene, distancing, and the risks of Covid-19. Thermometers, soap, and disinfectant were also distributed to local communities by churches.
All around the Anglican Communion, food distribution was undertaken to help people cope with their financial struggles during lockdown.
The pandemic has revealed afresh the state of different societies and their strengths and weaknesses. It is an opportunity — an imperative — to think about the expertise of churches in the Anglican Communion in relation to public health and community well-being.
So, how do churches respond to support their communities since the arrival of Covid-19?
PARTNERS in Africa working with HIV/AIDS tell how pandemics require a response that will, itself, change and evolve over the long term. In the same way, the impact of Covid-19 is likely to reveal itself over the coming decades.
That said, as a researcher, I have often been asked what the impact of church- and community-based initiatives around the world has been on the lives of those whom they seek to reach. While the “success” stories often tell of big outcomes — babies’ lives saved by malaria nets; HIV transmission rates dropping dramatically, owing to the availability of antiretroviral drugs — the commonest stories of change often come from the simplest of activities: collaboration by churches with local organisations, inviting people to come and listen to one another and the wider communities that they seek to serve.
Creating intentional spaces, enabling people to tell their experiences of grief and pain, and encouraging community members to listen to one another enable new forms of solidarity, care, and opportunity to emerge.
USPG/Ian CampbellA community meeting in St James Mission Hospital chapel, Mantsonyane, Lesotho, led by the group that supported Mpho, to discuss issues affecting local people’s health and to co-ordinate a response
In many of the church and community health programmes that USPG has supported, volunteers who give their time have often been affected themselves by the trauma that they seek to address. In Lesotho and Malawi, participation in community health programmes as clients has drawn women whom I met, many widowed by HIV, into new networks of care and support which they might not otherwise have found. In supporting others, individuals survive their own losses; networks of care are replenished through the very crises that disrupt them.
In Lesotho, Mpho, a widow whose recent loss of her daughter to HIV had left her to care for a five-month-old grandchild, was invited by her neighbour into a community health discussion group hosted by the local hospital. Her neighbour’s invitation, in Mpho’s words, “provided the opportunity to come and meet others, get social support, and pray together”. It was Mpho’s experiences of sharing with the other women in the group and receiving their support that enabled her to carry on caring for her granddaughter despite her terrible loss.
KNOWLEDGE gained in one crisis can be valuable in another. In Malawi, I met Jane, whose baby had failed to thrive. The hospital taught her how to nurse her baby back to health. Years later, while she was participating in one of her church’s community conversation groups, infant nutrition came up as a wider community concern. Jane, who had acquired considerable knowledge through caring for her own baby, was able to speak about her experiences and support other mothers.
By her own admission, Jane had never thought much about the knowledge that she had gained. Being able to support others gave her a renewed confidence and a sense of purpose, and enabled Jane to appraise herself as someone with skills that could serve her wider community.
Her experience highlights another lesson for churches everywhere. The membership of most congregations wields a wide range of skills and knowledge that can benefit the collective. Churches often have a strange siloing effect, however, encouraging people to leave aspects of themselves and their identities at the door.
In a project on the potential part to be played by religious leaders in tackling childhood obesity in Bradford, I interviewed a dietitian to think with her about collaborations between faith leaders and public-health actors. At the end of our conversation, I happened to ask whether she was a member of a religious congregation, and she told me that she was a Roman Catholic.
When I asked her about the health profile of her own congregation, she told me that many members could do with improving their diets and losing weight. I asked whether she had ever talked to the congregation about this and drawn on her professional expertise to support its members’ well-being. She was shocked at my question, and unable to fathom why she had never thought of doing so.
MANAGING a post-pandemic landscape of grief and loss in our communities rests, in part, on breaking down silos and boundaries: between individuals as churchgoers and as professionals with skills and networks that might serve and connect the church to its wider community; between the church and other community organisations to collaborate more effectively; between congregations and those in the parish who come seeking food and material support under lockdown; and between Churches in Britain and Ireland and others in the Anglican Communion whose expertise in pandemic care can be a resource for the UK.
Such work requires fresh dialogue, theological thinking, and collective imagination. Thinking of ourselves as part of a worldwide Communion also offers new opportunities for learning, and communities with which to envisage anew what it is to be part of the Body of Christ.
Dr Jo Sadgrove is a research and learning adviser for USPG, and a Research Fellow at the Centre for Religion and Public Life, in the University of Leeds.