by Anne Harra
“It had to teach her to think of love as a state of grace: not the means to anything but the alpha and omega, an end in itself.” (Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
Despite the plethora of graduate course offerings for students at St. Joseph’s University in the teacher education department, there is no course called, Managing Your Classroom in a Pandemic 101. I am officially halfway through my master’s degree. I also am wrapping up my first year at Immanuel Church Highlands as their children’s and youth minister — all in the midst of this bizarre, unsettling, frightening, novel pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic has taught me several things: Google Chrome, not Safari, is the preferred web browser for Facebook Live; The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is one of Netflix’s better and more underrated shows; and yes, Jesus does find His way into our lives even during a pandemic.
When I saw the writing on the wall that COVID-19 would seem to be as prevalent as the Holy Spirit for a while, I developed a system to maintain student and family engagement; Zoom Sunday school, weekly home packages (letters, craft kits, lesson summaries, and prize bucket items), storytimes on Facebook Live, Holy Week activities, and Morning Prayer became integral parts of my piece of virtual worship at Immanuel Highlands. Days turned into weeks. It became too overwhelming. Where was Jesus in all of this? Sure, His presence was in our lessons. It still felt like a bad joke, as if He was mocking me. In ’real’ Sunday school, we light candles, sing songs, eat snacks, water the succulents, and sometimes one of my younger friends dumps a whole jar of glitter on the floor. There is charm and love in the quirkiness, missteps, and ’whoopsies’ that happen in Sunday school. Virtual Sunday school seemed to lack all of this. The only ’whoopsie’ I’ve navigated with virtual Sunday school was learning how to share and un-share my screen on Zoom. It all felt too prepared, too organized, too rehearsed.
Easter and the subsequent 50 days of Eastertide is my favorite time in the church year. This spring, I have taught the story of the Resurrection, Doubting Thomas, the Road to Emmaus, and ’Breakfast with Jesus’ (John 21:1–14). All of these stories have so many beautiful themes: breaking bread, the resurrected Christ as a physical body, how and where humans 2000 years ago fit into the story, how and where humans today fit into the story. Communicating these messages to a group of children (aged 3–13) over Zoom was not sufficient. Despite the hope and celebration of the Resurrection, I felt perpetually stuck in Holy Saturday: a state of purgatory, date of release unknown.
One of the moms from Immanuel asked me if I would drive in her daughter’s birthday parade. Her daughter, Claire*, was turning five. I said of course I would. Later that week, when I arrived ten minutes early for the parade procession, there must have been six or seven cars already lined up. Another 15 or so followed behind me; I was not the only car from
Immanuel either. There must have been about 50 people celebrating Claire’s birthday. The street was illuminated with 25 cars’ flashers and high beams. The sound of 25 car horns reverberated through the neighborhood. Some cars were decorated with balloons and posters, some people even threw cards, gifts, silly string, candy, and decorations out the window to where Claire and her family were sitting. It was an amazing sight.
In his first letter to the Church at Corinth, Paul writes about love. The Greek word he uses is agape, meaning charity, or unconditional love from God. “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or clanging cymbal. … Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.” Replace each ’love’ from 1 Corinthians 13 with ’charity’ or ’unconditional love from God’ and suddenly the message shifts drastically. When I was driving home from Claire’s birthday parade, Paul’s words dawned on me. Love is patient. Love is kind. Love never fails. Everyone in that parade had put aside the anger, anxiety, sadness, and uncertainty in the world to participate in an act of love — an act of charity, of grace, of unconditional love from God — all for this little girl.
Suddenly the world was not as dismal. It dawned on me that God finds ways to love us unconditionally every day in the quietest ways: driving in birthday parades for little ones, your partner making your favorite breakfast when you least expect it, talking on the phone with an old friend, a bird’s nest in a tree outside, the presence of children. Perhaps the most important love that God shows for us is the love of God in Christ Jesus. It was almost as if I did not want to bring the love of Christ into my heart during the pandemic; sometimes anger is the easier way out. Seeing sweet Claire’s face when she realized that all these people came our for her birthday opened my heart back up. Love is not a tangible thing, but a state to which we should aspire, the alpha and the omega, as both Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jesus Christ have said.
Once again Paul’s words seem to be the most appropriate: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38–39).
Anne Harra is the children and youth minister at Immanuel Church Highlands in Wilmington and a member of St. David’s Church.