At a time when “physical distancing” is our best way of beating COVID-19, how do we support a program like IVEP (International Volunteer Exchange Program), whose essence is about connecting the world? How do we navigate our way forward?
We here at MCC are taking seriously the fluid reality of COVID-19. Our program is about moving people physically from one place to another. Allowable and advisable travel is changing daily. We monitor and make decisions with input and information from credible sources. Human bodies in movement require caution, and we discern carefully best ways forward.
In orientation, we talk about self-care and the connections between the well-being of our physical, emotional, spiritual and social selves. When I am sad, I seek solace in company. Physical distancing impacts this. I worry about the vulnerable loved ones in my own life and the vulnerable populations in general who are already living socially isolated lives through no wish of their own. IVEP participants have shared their very real worries for their friends and family back home as well as their communities here in the U.S. and Canada.
On a recent work trip to Colombia, I spent time with IVEP alumni and MCC staff. I didn't know that this trip would bring a sense of peace to a restlessness of spirit that I have carried for many years. As a young adult, my first international trip was to Rwanda. For a long time afterward, my faith and commitment to pacifism were challenged, knowing many of those who died in the genocide were killed in the very churches where they sought solace.
The question “Where was God?” echoed within me. I found some resonance with the idea that God was there with those that died. But it wasn’t until this trip, 13 years later, to a very different part of the world, when talking about the liberation theology that impacted Central and South America, that a slightly different answer found its way to my ear.
The MCCer I was speaking with listened to the pain still within me about my experience abroad and said his answer to the question of where God was at the time of the genocide would be a bit different. To him, the answer would be that during the genocide. God died. Suddenly something within me fell into place. He went on to say that this is what our faith is about, a trust that after death, the resurrection promises new life. God is reborn in our world through our daily decisions to live into the directions we sense his leading.
Our faith compels us to act in the face of oppression and adversity. We are not protected from calamity but nor are we left alone with it. God was with those who died, and in the evil that killed, he too lost his life. And then, in the ashes of that pain, he rose again.
It is the uncertainty of the duration and impact of COVID-19 that brings many of us the most stress. I feel my body tensing as the constant news cycle bombards me through social media and the radio. Like is so often the case in my life, I long to predict and control the future and I am frustrated that I cannot. Given these real limitations, how do I practice self-care at this time when it is most needed?
To face this new world reality, I will use the same precautions I take when I travel to new places. I will stay informed, take the precautions health officials recommend, and after doing so, I will try very hard to relax within the boundaries I must follow. When I am out, I will not touch my face, I will frequently wash my hands for at least 25 seconds. If I become sick I will self-isolate. These are things I can do.
But how do I relax after I’ve taken the necessary precautions? So far, I’ve called friends and family to check in on them, and I’m trying to go on regular walks outside remembering that if I stop caring for myself physically, my mind will be free to wander into worry. I’ve been cooking and baking and trying to think of the ways I can help those around me. Some people in my neighbourhood make noise from their windows, porches or balconies at 7:30 pm in support of our front-line health care workers. Joining this rallying cry is both inspiring but also a reminder of how very vulnerable we are in the face of this virus.
So, here we are. Together, we who are connected to this program that works to bring the world—and more specifically the global church—closer together through the young adults that are serving in different parts of the world, strive to find a way forward. Many of us repeat out loud to ourselves and each other, this is a time we are passing through, it is not forever.
Like I realized when I travelled abroad for the first time, sometimes exposure to different realities and new questions can threaten to harm our way of understanding faith and concepts of good and evil. When we get frightened or shaken enough, it can take years to gain new perspectives and even longer to live into answers to the hard questions we grapple with. So, when faced with adversity we need to remember to give our minds, bodies and spirit a chance to unwind.
Right now, I am taking a moment to discern how being a Christian impacts the response I have to COVID-19. I hope that grappling with this question will bear some good fruit and I invite others to join me on this journey. We are not promised safety, but there is reassurance in knowing that neither are we called to face uncertainty alone.