As we pass the one-year mark of the coronavirus pandemic, we wanted to include the voices of RTS faculty, staff, and current students who have seen the impact of the pandemic for believers worldwide.
In these interviews, conducted via email, you’ll hear from Karen Ellis, the director of the Edmiston Center for the Study of the Bible and Ethnicity, who has worked in advocacy for global religious freedom. We also reached out to Dr. Gray Sutanto, who has been teaching for RTS Washington since June 2020 from his home in Jakarta, Indonesia. Lastly, we emailed Chris and Heather Shepherd, current students at RTS Atlanta, who moved back to the United States after working with refugees in the Middle East.
Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity. Due to safety concerns, we have removed all indicators of location and names in the Shepherds’ answers.
How has the pandemic impacted you and your family?
Karen Ellis (KE): For our immediate household, the pandemic has given my husband and me the opportunity to slow down and be present for my mother-in-law’s twilight years. She’s 94 and lives with us. She’s often said she’s glad to be home with us during the pandemic.
As a teacher, I’ve seen the Holy Spirit work through technology to still create community in our online classes. When I hear my students praying, or discussing how to apply course materials with each other, I can hear that they’ve forged community and relationships that will last past the course itself. The Spirit moves, even in the Zoom room, and I know this is a grace!
Dr. Gray Sutanto (GS): I think the biggest way the pandemic has impacted us is that it has delayed our move to Washington, D.C. We were supposed to move back in May 2020, but unfortunately, immigration to the United States has been frozen even until now. I have been personally grateful for the patience and tenacity of our students as they have endured Zoom classes!
Other than that, day to day we have been quarantined at home, and occasionally, we’ve enjoyed spending extra time with our friends and family. Groceries and the like can be delivered, and so we have been grateful for that as well.
Chris and Heather Shepherd (CHS): We were still in the Middle East when the pandemic hit and our country was locked down. Their culture very much values the elderly and was concerned about protecting them. The emphasis culturally and politically is more focused on collective good over individual freedom.
People were allowed outside the house on certain days to get food or go to the store, but there was a mask law that was enforced by police. Children and anyone over the age of 65 weren’t allowed out of the house for three months, which was hard! We had a small “backyard” that was all concrete and we would take our boys out there occasionally just to get some sunlight.
We were preparing to move to the United States in the midst of a lockdown, and it was hard to be able to connect with our friends on the team, in our church, and in our ministries to say goodbye. One of the most essential things to cultural adaptation is to dive into community with local people. Thankfully, our church in Georgia meets in person and is very careful about COVID. That has helped us to build relationships, but we haven’t been able to dive as deep as we would like.
How has the pandemic impacted the church in your country?
KE: The restrictions on travel have forced those of us who serve the global church to reframe how we interface with one another. On the positive, it’s brought us together electronically — at least for those places where there is easy internet access. Many new connections are taking this opportunity to plug in our “local” family of God with the global family of God. I see electronic “pods” forming where we are strategizing together, learning from each other, praying together, supporting each other, returning to first things — together. It feels like a unifying moment.
In many ways the pandemic has been an opportunity to get the gospel out to more people through the internet and social media as we find new ways to connect.GS: I think the pandemic has forced us all to quickly adapt technologically since worship gatherings are not allowed to meet with more than 25-50 people. Even if the government has not issued lockdowns, we have kept a close watch on the rate of positive cases and most have deemed it still unwise to meet.
Speaking for our church, Covenant City Church, a lot of our members stepped up to assist in making weekly online services, taking turns with recording, editing, and posting the whole service every week on YouTube Live. We’ve also taken this opportunity to host virtual events, and progress has thankfully continued on our Indonesian-speaking church plant. We have also developed an internal relief ministry fund for our members who are impacted financially and stepped up on our giving for various mercy ministries.
We have seen other churches do the same — in many ways the pandemic has been an opportunity to get the gospel out to more people through the internet and social media as we find new ways to connect. Yet, there’s also certainly a longing to get back to meeting in person as soon as we can.
CHS: We were in the Middle East specifically serving refugees and refugee churches. So many refugees lost their jobs during the lockdown, which was catastrophic for them. During the pandemic, all of our in-person ministries were closed. Our team went full force into buying grocery cards and sending them to our refugee friends in need.
Has the church experienced any (additional) form of oppression or persecution during the pandemic?
KE: In some places, it’s pushed the persecuted church further onto the margins. They are sometimes the last to receive food, aid, or medical treatment from their own governments, if they receive supplies at all, due to their social position as Christians or as people of faith. In societies where the internet is unstable or scarce, there is no such thing as a “pivot to online services,” so local churches have faced challenges in meeting and making community.
At the same time, the church shines with her creativity and resilience, solving many of these issues while also tending the sick, caring for those inside and outside of the Christian community, and proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. I know of several closed countries where the church has stepped up in places where their own governments failed to deliver to their citizens. This has been a witness even to those who are hostile toward the church.The church shines with her creativity and resilience, solving many of these issues while also tending the sick, caring for those inside and outside of the Christian community, and proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ.
CHS: The Christian population where we lived is 1%, so the fellowship is essential because otherwise, believers are very much alone. Many of our refugee church members suddenly found themselves without any Christian community.
The persecution and oppression that refugee Christians face is most often from family members or the immediate surrounding community. Not being able to leave the house and being forced to stay home with the very people who are most hostile to their faith has caused extra pain and challenges.
One young man struggles with depression. His family is hostile to Christianity and regularly pressures him to turn back to Islam. He has found the pandemic to be an extremely challenging time because the church was his only community of faith and support.
Another young woman has had her brother pour boiling water on her while she slept because she converted to Christianity. Despite the danger, she doesn’t want to leave her family because she is a young single woman; without a husband, she simply cannot move out or live alone because that would bring great dishonor to her, culturally. She found solace in coming to our programs, so losing that has been very difficult for her.
What can the American church learn from the global church during the pandemic?
The fact that all of us entered into this same global moment, with similar realities and concerns, should bring to light our transcendent, invisible, Spirit-wrought connectedness. We too often take for granted that the local and the global are connected.KE: The fact that all of us entered into this same global moment, with similar realities and concerns, should bring to light our transcendent, invisible, Spirit-wrought connectedness. We too often take for granted that the local and the global are connected. The assumption has always been (erroneously and arrogantly) that ministry knowledge “flows from the West outward.” We now have clear channels where knowledge is being exchanged, and we in the West are getting much needed, first-hand, on-the-ground perspectives from Christians in the rest of the world. When the pandemic ends, I hope we’ll keep our newfound connections as treasure.
GS: Firstly, I think the American church would do well to really ponder their privileged position in even being able to make a case for meeting in person, or being tolerated when they do, when the government has issued a lockdown. If the government has issued a lockdown here, we do not feel that we have any way of negotiating. The church in America is still in a much more privileged state than churches elsewhere, and this is really a cause for soberness and gratitude.
Secondly, I’ve seen the churches in Jakarta really step up in their online presence, outreach, and quality without sacrificing but rather intensifying gospel proclamation. The churches here have used all their resources to see this pandemic as an opportunity to minister the gospel well.
CHS: First, remembering that the entire global church is a community and family of believers. While there are radical differences, we have much in common: our hearts for worship, our struggles to rightly understand and apply Scripture. Regularly remembering that we are one might also have some real benefits for the American church and help us not to see our brothers and sisters abroad as “other” but as “us.”
The American church needs to realize how much it actually has, and also take a moment of deep reflection on the true nature of persecution.There is so much access in America. The American church needs to realize how much it actually has, and also take a moment of deep reflection on the true nature of persecution. Sometimes the word “persecution” is thrown about lightly in the American church. There is a difference between experiencing true persecution versus experiencing a culture that is becoming less friendly towards Christianity resulting in loss of privileges.
How have you seen God’s faithfulness during these changing circumstances? How have you seen the perseverance and zeal of the church continue?
GS: We have seen the faithfulness of God in so many ways during this period. Without the pandemic, I personally would not have seen the patience and kindness of my colleagues and students at RTS the way I have — they have gone above and beyond in welcoming us even at a
I’ve also felt close relationships with friends and family grow because we have spent more quality time together as gatherings are limited to just a few people. And above all, I’m grateful to spend extra time with my wife, Indita.
It has also been such a wonderful experience to witness our own church continue to grow through the internet, as members continually seek out one another. It reminds me of Kuyper’s and Bavinck’s comments about the organism of the church; it’s a leavening influence no matter what context it finds itself in.
CHS: Despite the pressure from home, our refugee churches haven’t lost any members, and many members gather online every Sunday to worship and hear the word virtually. In the face of huge pressure to renounce their faith, they have not done so and remain faithful in prayer and worship, even in secret. Many of the more prosperous churches have pooled their resources to help pay for refugee groceries and medical bills which has been a huge testimony to many non-Christian refugees.
From Genesis to Revelation, the greatest and deepest blessing is his presence, no matter what circumstances are swirling around us.KE: I’ve been meditating on what constitutes blessing, from God’s point of view. From Genesis to Revelation, the greatest and deepest blessing is his presence, no matter what circumstances are swirling around us. In contrast, of course, the greatest curse is losing his presence. The older I get, the more God’s presence becomes more profound and precious; it’s the foundation of what makes the people of God that other-cultural, other-political reality that indicts and also blesses the nations and cultures around it.
God is our strong tower in times like these; the righteous are hidden in him and are safe (Prov 18:10). And in Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit, this immovable strong tower becomes a movable force for his people — protection, peace, and power wrapped up in the blessing of presence. He promises to go with us as we move about; blessed, to be a blessing, to the nations. This is how I want to move from this moment on.