Towards the end of February, as things were getting to normal, I was planning for a weekend family trip since my daughter was completing her exams. Tired of working from home, I was hoping to go to the office. At the church front, our gatherings had resumed. Church camp was on the cards.
But, I never imagined things would take such a shocking turn so quickly. In the past weeks, I lost many friends. I hear of at least five to ten deaths daily among my contacts, leave alone the local news. I do not know for sure if I will even survive, what some call the COVID Apocalypse.
Families were wiped out within a couple of weeks, sometimes leaving behind children or even infants. Those remaining are asking, “who is next?” Citizens were caught off-guard, and the government has left its citizens to fend for themselves.
Has the Church been caught off-guard too?
The mood of the churchgoers was bright and cheerful in February as they could get back to Sunday services they missed last year. They became busy planning the calendar for the year.
Today many churches that are preoccupied with their weekly gatherings, Sunday performances, doctrinal debates, church growth numbers, etc., have no clue how to make sense of the situation.
Some churches in the last couple of weeks didn’t even reflect on the current crisis. Other sermons couldn’t go beyond: “Do not be anxious, trust in God and he will protect you,” “We can do nothing but pray,” “We need to return to God,” “Sin is deadlier than the virus,” “Preach the gospel to the hopeless.” etc. At best, they were occupied with prayers for the sick and forwarding prayer requests on WhatsApp.
God was speaking to the faithless Judah in Isaiah chapter one says:
“When you spread out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause.”
If that was the faithless Judah, how does the unfaithful Church look like today? Last year, during the lockdown, were we more concerned to resume the church gathering or about the poor, sick, and the jobless in their neighborhoods?
Thankfully, God has found some faithful. For them loving God and loving their neighbor is the central command of their Lord Jesus. They risked their lives (while taking all precautions) to be His faithful disciples, like giving the five loaves and two fish they had.
They helped the sick, buried the dead, fed the hungry migrant workers on their horrendous journey back to their villages. Why wasn’t this the burden of the Church in general? Was it because it did not serve our idea of ‘ministry’ or ‘church’? Is helping our neighbor in need, not of value like ‘preaching the gospel’? Should the Church be concerned for the plight of the migrant workers or unknown COVID patients? This year, have we woken up because COVID is creating havoc within our church families?
Yes, we’ve been caught off-guard because ‘Loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves is no longer central to our theology and practice. We passed that responsibility to NGOs or the church committees. (Isaiah 1:25)
The good news is, God wants to restore the Church as a city of righteousness and justice if we repent of our ways. (Isaiah 1:26,27) Can we respond to his call?
Loving the migrant worker
One volunteer, who runs his own business, responded to a call for help. His friend from Mumbai requested him to help a group of migrant workers from the state of Orissa, working in Bangalore. He quickly bought groceries sufficient for a week for 30 of them. He prayed with them, asked them to reach out for any help during the week. They were so glad and grateful to God for his generosity.
Such incidents quickly led to multiple such calls with numerous volunteers across many cities over WhatsApp groups to serve migrant workers with meals and rations, travel arrangements, medical assistance, etc. They risked their lives, contributed generously, joined hands with the local governments and volunteers from different faiths and languages in this time of crisis.
After the migrant crisis ended, the COVID cases peaked last September. They started helplines in different cities for hospital beds, oxygen, plasma, funerals, counseling, etc. Now during the second wave, they continue the work even when the scale is many times bigger.
Are you a Christian?
That is what a stranger asked one volunteer at the end of her call after the patient got a hospital bed through their help.
As soon as the government announced the lockdown last year, this volunteer, a behavioral therapist, started distributing freshly cooked meals for the people in a slum near her home.
Today, along with many volunteers, She is helping with an average of fifty hospital bed requests daily. Their task is to talk to the patient’s attendant to understand the condition, call the hospitals to check required bed availability and the local authority (BBMP) war room to allocate that available beds. These volunteers sometimes make 40 to 50 calls to get one bed confirmed.
After all this effort, they still lose patients either on the way or even after getting the bed. Together, they mourn when one of the patients dies and praises God when another is healed and discharged.
One day, she is on a call with the attendant, who is the patient’s daughter. The daughter said to her, “Please stay on the call with me; I think I am losing my dad.” The volunteer could hear the heartbeat machine sound go flat line. She stood there to comfort her at that moment.
A volunteer meets God at the cemetery.
During the lockdown last year, she volunteered with the labor department to help provide food for thousands of migrant workers traveling to their hometowns with almost nothing with them.
After the migrant worker crisis ended, she got a call to help with a COVID burial as there was no one to bury this deceased person. She did not know what and how to do this, but she rushed to the cemetery.
From that day, she has helped with close to a thousand funerals through many volunteer groups. Seeing the helplessness of families trying to give a dignified funeral with unfamiliar COVID protocols is disheartening, so she decided to help render that.
This wasn’t easy. In one of the earliest funerals, the body was not in a coffin. With bare hands and just a mask, the team had to bury the body. But while putting the body in the pit, it fell. She was terrified. Even the gravediggers could not help because they had no protective gear.
Most of the bodies they receive from the hospitals come in a terrible state, sometimes even decomposing. If the family has to see the deceased’s face, she opens the body bag, not knowing how infected that person is. Besides the body bag, unfortunately, the bodies are not covered with any cloth. In a few instances, the body bag tore, and the body fell out. They quickly had to cover it with the extra PPE they had. Imagine the trauma the family would have faced.
Her team faces physical and mental exhaustion every day. She says, “I cannot think anymore.” For many days she could not smell or taste due to the infection. She said, “It was purely by God’s grace I am protected.”
This volunteer said that she was not a very spiritual person before this COVID crisis, but she met God at the cemetery, and it changed her life.
These stories are just a few snapshots of what faithful disciples are doing across the country in serving their neighbors and strangers in need.
Another volunteer who works as a logistics professional is always on the ground helping hundreds of patients find beds, yet he could not find one when his brother needed it. His brother passed away.
Another volunteer, along with his Muslim friend, got a call to perform the last rites of an elderly Hindu man as his children were hospitalized with COVID. He managed to do the entire cremation ritual breaking all the so-called boundaries we created by religion and caste. He became the son of that family that day.
Two women in New Delhi started Nivi Helpline because many people needed help and weren’t finding any. Despite knowing that they weren’t experts and had no special contacts, the duo began helping one family at a time. It was either for a hospital bed or medicine or oxygen; they ensured that the family got help, especially those who had no one to help.
The call is not about how many charitable projects my local church or organization is doing, though they are important. God’s command is to love our neighbors as a community of disciples in our daily rhythms of life sacrificially. I confess, I, too, struggle with this.
I pray that the rest of us will join them by keeping our Lord’s command central, to live our lives worthy of our calling.