With much of the world thrust into rapid change and adaptation to the COVID-19 pandemic during the holiday season, some of the more noticeable changes may be found in society’s oldest traditions.
Religious worship involving public gatherings — the kind typical of Christmas Eve vigils in which churches are packed in communal celebration to mark the end of Advent — has been undermined by the pandemic this year. Under B.C.’s current restrictions, religious in-person gatherings and worship services are suspended. Churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship are still open for individual activities such as contemplation or personal prayer, according to the latest directions from Dr. Bonnie Henry.
In Vernon, pastors are harbouring mixed feelings towards the public health restrictions.
Daryl DeKlerk, lead pastor of Vernon’s East Hill Community Church, does not condone the actions of the trio of churches in Chilliwack that were fined last week for contravening the province-wide ban on gatherings.
“COVID is a matter of life and death. Many of us know; we have family members, friends who suffered from it. And so we respect that extraordinary times mean extraordinary measures,” DeKlerk said.
The Vernon pastor says local faith leaders agree that the B.C. government has provided essential guidance to British Columbians and implemented measures to flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases, which have taken a perceptible dip since late November.
DeKlerk said he’s thankful that the province’s second wave has been met with more refined government restrictions; businesses have been allowed to stay open, unlike those under Ontario’s current lock-down.
“In this regard, we’re quite complimentary of Dr. Henry and her team to be able to allow more nuance in the social controls to prevent the spread of COVID,” DeKlerk said.
However, DeKlerk suggests the restrictions haven’t been fair to those of faith.
Speaking on behalf of Vernon Ministerial, a group of pastors from at least 20 churches in town, DeKlerk expressed hope that the provincial health officer will acknowledge the “essential nature of faith communities.”
“We question now the equity of this decision to force churches or any faith organizations to close (their) doors, because we know that people can gather by the hundreds to shop for Christmas presents and yet we can’t gather even by a dozen one day a week, let alone 24-7 like bigger stores can.”
DeKlerk says local churches have been asking the province tough questions in the form of letters, encouraging leaders to prioritize churches as essential services.
The essentiality of physical churches is a question of some debate in the era of virtual congregation via digital platforms. On that note, Vernon Ministerial is offering its Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services online in videos that can be found on the Vernon Ministerial Facebook page.
While DeKlerk is committed to advocating for more flexibility in religious worship during the pandemic, he recognizes that public health decisions are always a balancing act.
“Every church recognizes that our government leaders are caught between competing compassions,” he said. “They have to balance people who want to work but whose workplaces might facilitate Covid. They have to balance the deteriorating mental health of people as households are restricted from interacting together.”
In-person interaction is in short supply in all societal corners, and DeKlerk believes many locals celebrate Christmas as a chance to build community around the Christian story.
Last Christmas, DeKlerk stood in the parking lot of Butcher Boys, conducting a survey. He asked about 50 people what they were celebrating this Christmas.
“Fully half of the people said, ‘Well, I’m celebrating Jesus’s birth, of course,’” DeKlerk said.
To DeKlerk, the survey underscored that there are many people in Vernon for whom Christmas’s core meaning is tied to the Christian story of Jesus.
But as Vernon Alliance Church interim lead pastor Dwayne Boyd said last week, you don’t need a church to deliver God’s message.
“None of this gets in God’s way. Christmas, as it has always been, is still a celebration of Emmanuel.”
DeKlerk draws guidance from one particular verse in the Bible which “tells us to to honour the leaders God has put over us, because they’ve been put there for our good by God Himself.”
“Honestly our prayer is for them,” he said of leaders like Bonnie Henry and Theresa Tam. “And I know all churches, at least those represented here in Vernon, do sincerely pray for that kind of wisdom to prevail for the sake of everyone’s beliefs.”
There have also been some bright spots this holiday season as pastors work together to find creative or technological ways to keep the Christian meaning of Christmas alive in 2020.
“I’ve not always seen churches working together so well, but here in Vernon there’s a great camaraderie, a good blessing from each other that we experience personally,” said DeKlerk.