For most, pandemics are the material of horror films, not realities we are forced to navigate. When the novel coronavirus arrived in the United States, no one was left untouched — RTS students and faculty included.
Both not long and forever ago, city streets began to resemble scenes of judgment from the prophets. The scene in New York, an epicenter of the virus in its early months, felt “apocalyptic” according to Dr. Jay Harvey, Executive Director of RTS New York City.
As a seminary, RTS has been a pioneer in distance education, one of the first to offer online accredited programs. The New York campus, in particular, has online coursework in its DNA. Classes meet over Zoom on Tuesdays and face-to-face on Thursdays. Professors often travel to the city to teach their courses.
Once Amtrak started canceling trains to New York, classes began to meet entirely online. Thanks to their innovative model, both faculty and students were well-prepared to adjust to fully-online instruction.
The change in course structure had minimal effects on the student body. Students in New York City schools often conceive of the city itself as their campus. So, for the RTS community, the most significant impact wasn’t necessarily that students got sick — though some did — but that the gravity of the pandemic’s effects on the city — their campus — weighed heavily. Faculty actively reached out to check on the welfare of students in class, individually and through Slack, only to learn that churches were doing a lot to care for them already.
“New York City churches immediately pivoted to caring for people in a way that was impressive to observe,” Dr. Harvey recalled. He hoped the seminary could come alongside churches to help provide care and that it would be a refreshing source of support rather than an additional burden. His prayers shifted as the suffering in students’ lives intensified and the pandemic’s reach went from fellow congregants to families, and in some cases, to the students themselves.
For Michael McGregor, a recent graduate of RTS Washington, the spring semester was a sprint to the finish. In order to complete his Master of Divinity, he’d taken a much heavier course load than usual. A new position as Director of College Ministry at First Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina, awaited him on the other side of his degree.
Pre-pandemic, the heavier academic load meant he was commuting three times a week to campus in Northern Virginia from his home in Maryland. Classes being moved online gave him more time for his studies and for his family.
“My prayer throughout the semester was that I wanted to finish the program well and retain what I was learning while also loving my wife and family well,” McGregor said. “I think the Lord answered all of those prayers. The pandemic gave me more time at home with our family without losing any time working on readings and assignments.”
The lack of commute was only partially to credit for his strong finish. The faculty made it easy to succeed. McGregor praised their commitment to their mission and students, “Even with COVID-19 I don’t feel my seminary experience was diminished. I was so blessed by how earnest the professors were in wanting to give students the same quality education we’ve come to expect from RTS Washington. The faculty’s professionalism, ingenuity, and zeal for students to have an excellent seminary education despite extenuating circumstances were exemplary.”
Katie Larson, a current student at RTS Charlotte, expressed that the semester felt less like a sprint and more like a fight to survive. Larson and her husband relocated to Charlotte from Fargo, North Dakota to pursue seminary full time in fall 2019. After one semester, the coronavirus reached the United States, disrupting plans. When the RTS campuses, Charlotte included, moved their classes online, she and her husband found themselves faced with a choice.
Larson had been working a number of part-time positions and as the country began to shut down, her work came to an end. Her husband’s part-time job with the seminary could be done remotely. With their whole world now virtual, Larson and her husband wrestled for weeks with whether or not to return to North Dakota before the summer.
In early April, they packed up their car and set out on the 21-plus-hour drive back to North Dakota. On their first day on the road, their car broke down after nightfall. They were towed and checked into a hotel for the night. The next morning, they learned that their engine had ruptured and repair costs exceeded the value of the vehicle. Rather than purchase a new car on the spot, they rented a cargo van, repacked their possessions, stopped for a meal, and returned to the road to complete the journey.
Mere days after arriving back in Fargo, they both developed COVID-like symptoms. Widespread testing was not yet available in North Dakota so COVID-19 was never confirmed, but by day five, they suffered a host of respiratory ailments aligned with the disease. Katie’s symptoms lingered until May.
Early on, Larson had wanted to be a source of peace to others amidst the chaos. As she herself fell ill, her focus shifted as distant fears became her reality. In the middle of ongoing and overwhelming distress at an inability to breathe and all the unknowns of the virus’s long-term health effects, Larson experienced significant personal growth in her relationship with the Lord.
“I have really grown in knowing the Lord not only as my King and Savior but as my Shepherd. I also have a better grasp of biblical tools for repenting of and navigating anxieties,” Larson shared. She took comfort in the words of Psalm 119:92: “If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction.”
To counter anxieties and wandering thoughts, she developed new daily rhythms of prayer, writing out praises, confessions, thanksgiving, and requests. Her scope of prayer broadened as well, she explained, as she interceded “not just for the immediate RTS community of students, professors, and administrators, but for church leaders at large to navigate this new territory with wisdom and insight.”
The crisis navigation skills Larson was praying for were being developed in Josiah Cha’s life at the same time. Cha, a rising third-year MDiv student at RTS Orlando, also serves as the youth pastor of Harvest Korean Presbyterian Church. In February, he launched an exciting and fresh system of small groups for youth at Harvest. After a brief hiatus in March, the groups began gathering again virtually.
Reflecting on the roll-out of these new groups, Cha states, “We realized God’s sovereignty in his timing: the small groups we had created allowed for havens of community for students on a weekly basis. Out of these small groups, discipleship relationships formed between adult teachers and students, or high school students with middle school students.” With virtual ministry, he also was able to reach out to more students than he otherwise would have. Overall, he felt an increasing dependence on God’s Spirit rather than his plans.
Cha juggled the launch of a new ministry and full-time class in the midst of his own illness. He was one of the first few hundred in Florida to contract COVID-19 in March. The two weeks or so he spent incapacitated battling the virus significantly disrupted his studies, but, Cha said, “My professors were extremely gracious in extending deadlines, as I had to catch up on lectures, readings, papers, and assignments.”
The novel coronavirus not only affected current and past students, but also future students. Dr. Harvey noted that some new applicants to RTS New York City credited the pandemic for their applications. They took the step of faith to apply, citing increased urgency to be equipped with the gospel for crisis and a deeper conviction about the importance of ministry. The pandemic has made clear to us all the significance of theological education.
Alicia Akins works in international education by day, is a part-time Master of Arts (Biblical Studies) student at RTS Washington, and is the author of the forthcoming book, Come Feast, with Harvest House Publishers.