Rt. Rev. Sharma Nithyanandam is the bishop in Vellore, Church of South India. Below, he reflects on how churches can infuse hope as an antidote to despair by becoming agents of tangible social action. During the COVID-19 lockdown, our church doors may be closed but our hearts are not, and Bishop Nithyanandam reflects on why this is a time for deeds and not just words.
Bishop, in what ways do you see churches adapt to life amid the coronavirus outbreak? In India, and worldwide.
Bishop Nithyanandam: COVID-19 has imposed a heavy onslaught on humanity, posing serious threat to human life, jobs and livelihood. So far in the past the churches in India and abroad have been actively tackling the challenges of poverty, unemployment, economic deprivation, gender inequality and ecological destruction. Now, as we see the unprecedented escalation of suffering and hopelessness of the most poor and vulnerable among us, adapting to life amidst COVID-19 involves infusing hope as an antidote against despair. Motivating humanity to not to lose hope for survival and sustenance and struggling to make this hope a reality for people, even as we wait for deliverance from God is our challenge today. We can adapt to life meaningfully only by emerging from a passive mode of participation in the life of the world to an active mode of participation. The greatest test of faith for the churches at this time is to contribute towards suspending negativity and disbelief by instilling hope. It is only through the power of the risen Christ that we can reach out to people to spread the good news that together humanity will overcome the pandemic.
How can we protect lives? What can we, as church/religious communities do?
Bishop Nithyanandam: As people who follow Jesus, who promised life in abundance, we should do our best to promote and protect lives. We should not become agents of death by endangering the vulnerable. Rather we should become agents of life. This is especially a time for the church to extend all possible help to those suffering among us – especially the well-to-do churches. We need to be holistic and attend to both physical, as well as psychological well being.
As communities of hope it is time for the rich churches and communities among us to provide relief and help at a time where several have been rendered jobless and hungry. The church has to proactively take the program of feeding the hungry and leading the sick to healthcare services for recovery. It is that we become agents of tangible social action, so that people we serve will be able, through our actions, to ‘taste and see that our Lord is good’ (Psalm 34:8). It is time for our churches to be converted into centres of refuge where migrants and others can come in and be treated with dignity. It is also time to open up community kitchens with local church resources. Psychological and emotional support to those who are living in fear, is needed. Church groups need to equip themselves in addressing the emotional health of all and in disseminating valuable information. Churches should also become agents of social preparedness.
Photo: Diocese of Vellore
Please share some of the current liturgical work in India. How do you organize your ministry in the midst of COVID-19?
Bishop Nithyanandam: During this lockdown situation, our church doors may be closed but our hearts are not closed. Pastors have been encouraged to livestream their services and make use of online tools for worship. I understand that access to technology may be limited for people, therefore we have made use of print media and have been sending typed messages to parishes and calling people through phones and praying for them. We understand we have to get used to new ways of service.
This is also a time for liturgical improvisation. Special liturgy prepared by few individuals are circulated in some churches. We have other instances where we have ecumenically collaborated with our local Roman Catholic partners. On 14 May in response to the global call to prayer by the World Council of Churches, we used a special order of worship prepared by the Catholic bishop’s Conference of India, which was prepared specially for this occasion with an interreligious dimension. It was encouraging to see the initiative being embraced by our diocesan hospitals, schools and congregations. For us this has been also a time for strengthening ecumenical and interreligious collaboration.
In what ways can the church leaders in India be a role model in the midst of COVID-19?
Bishop Nithyanandam: I personally think this is the time for deeds and not words. It has been an undeniable fact that the church takes up the role of servant leadership in times of need. This is a time of great need and leaders should soil their hands, engage in actions that promote the good of the wider community and lead from the front. This is the time to be catalysts for change, break the walls of inequality that COVID-19 has highlighted, and reach out to the bottom-most sections of our society.
As you and your diocese confront unprecedented challenges, what can the global fellowship pray?
Bishop Nithyanandam: We draw strength from the fact that we are part of the global fellowship. Our diocese is a predominantly rural diocese, so the people badly affected are small farmers, those who work on a daily wage basis, migrants and small shopkeepers. It is time to pray that the narrow divisions that the pandemic has highlighted will disappear, and for everyone to come together as one family. Pray that at this particular moment we as a diocese will embrace our Christian calling to be the salt of the earth and light of the world and maximise our reach and resources for service and solidarity. At a time when it is clear that the powers have no answer for coronavirus, that science and medicine have no answer for coronavirus it is time to fall back and rest in God’s reassuring grace. Pray that God will strengthen us and sustain our will to spend our lives in selfless service.