Fear of the unknown was rife when the news of a novel virus first came to our shores in Australia. However, there was a unity across the country and a desire to deal with the threat appropriately. A general trust in our leaders was evident and an almost wartime commitment to do our bit to not overwhelm our hospitals. “Just a few weeks to flatten the curve”. Little did we know that that same fear and unity would be used for political advantage, to generate division and usher in an unjustified authoritarianism, the likes of which Australia had never seen before. My state of Victoria would be known as the lockdown capital of the world.
A never before used mRNA vaccine to deal with a novel virus was impressively fast-tracked and released. Although offering some help, it was promoted as safe and effective and disappointed on both counts. On the eve of its release, evangelicals were encouraged to be thankful and roll up their sleeves. Denominations instructed their ministers and elders to urge their people “to have themselves vaccinated at the earliest opportunity.” I have no medical expertise but I wasn’t sure how even the medically informed could be sure of the novel vaccine’s efficacy or safety. As it turned out, experts are now admitting there was little evidence that it reduced transmission. Many countries are now winding back recommendations due to serious side effects particularly, but not exclusively, impacting the young.
Things really came to a head when vaccine mandates were introduced. As with lockdowns, people were affected differently. Some got jabbed and got on with life. Others resisted (including quite a number who had suffered physical abuse and had regained bodily autonomy). Some happily rolled up their sleeves while others were coerced and subsequently felt violated. Still, others abstained and endured a long and daily trauma of exclusions, loss of livelihoods, taunts and threats. A not insignificant number also rolled up their sleeves and were never the same again (their voices were often ignored and silenced as an embarrassment).
A few pastors saw early what was on the horizon and released a document called the Ezekiel Declaration to protest the impending and unjust vaccine mandates and the impact they would have on individual, community and church life. It quickly attracted almost 30,000 signatures including 3,000 church leaders! Then for maybe the only time during the pandemic, a few influential Christian leaders, across denominations, united to make a stand. Over the space of two days, a coordinated flurry of articles appeared slamming this Ezekiel Declaration. The declaration was considered not only to be bad in tone but not effusive enough about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. These writers managed to extinguish its momentum and so too the opportunity for the church to speak up against the coming coercion.
I watched with dismay, over the space of barely two months, how the evangelical consensus went from claiming ‘mandates wouldn’t happen’, to ‘they wouldn’t happen in church’, to ‘if they did that would be a line in the sand’, to ‘it was only a temporary inconvenience’, to ‘just love one another by getting jabbed and going along with segregated services’. Several talkfests from key leaders were released to cajole the church to go along with what only a few months earlier was deemed unconscionable.
As I watched the wider church’s resolve quickly crumble. I was eager for my own church to draw a line in the sand, lest we get caught up with the fast-forming compromise and consensus. I was pleased that our elders agreed that conscience was important and that we wouldn’t segregate our services but remain open to all without distinction. I was also encouraged when the Presbyterian Church of Australia put out a statement (one of the very few to do so) honouring conscience and expressing a desire not to make use of vaccine mandates.
After contending (with a few others) within our State denomination, against the segregation of church entry, I then fought even harder not to go the way of many denominations and shut out the unvaccinated from all forms of ministry (from Bible reading to playing musical instruments to even putting flowers in a vase). It was quite a feat, but at this point, churches were segregating even harder than Premier Daniel Andrews, beyond what had been prescribed. After a two-week struggle, by the grace of God, the Victorian Presbyterian church avoided that particular stain.
In response to the difficult times, including the loss of some of our own church leaders, we had an evening of prayer asking God to hold us together as a congregation and to provide what was lacking.
This all led to one decision that would massively impact our local church. Three things led to this decision:
- I noticed the increasing suffering of the unvaccinated. After 260+ days of extreme lockdowns which severely impacted many, when there was finally hope of release, they were suddenly faced with the trauma of vaccine mandates. Additionally the unvaccinated were demonised, stigmatised and cut off from family, friends, cafes and commerce. As a cruel act of coercion, people were forced out of their jobs and even barred from volunteer services. On top of that many found that their own churches joined in and decided to lock them out of worship services and ministry. This added to the perception of some, that churches had sold out their core principles, just like the Opportunity Shops who were refusing service to the unvaccinated in a time of need.
- I noticed in a general sense where the unvaccinated were provided for or included better it was done quietly, almost embarrassingly and even reluctantly in some cases.
- I was reminded of what made Jesus and the great apostle Paul angry, and I mean really angry, and that was when anyone was unfairly excluded or segregated. Jesus was indignant when children were held back (Mark 10:14) and turned over tables when the Gentiles’ place of worship was replaced with a shop (“My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations!” (Mark 11:17). When the Judaizers wanted to divide over a medical procedure (circumcision) Paul strongly opposed Peter to his face and suggested they go the whole way and castrate themselves (Gal 5:12). On the flip side Paul’s life mission was to bring in those who were not previously included (Rom 15:20). Jesus was drawn like a magnet to those whom society and religious leaders urged him to avoid – the outcasts (Matt 20:31-32).
I resolved therefore to not go along with vaccine mandates and segregation but also to tell whoever would listen, especially those who had become the new lepers – we would remain open and welcome to all, without distinction. I determined to let it be known for the church here that vaccination would not be a thing and that Jesus was everything.
Then going against the prevailing winds I simply put up a sign on our Church’s Facebook site that said: “No Passports! All welcome to all services.”
This unexpectedly went viral and was shared around. We got almost 20,000 views! Within two weeks of that sign going up, our congregation almost doubled in size, on a weekly basis.
The new people didn’t know that the other new people were new and were delighted to find they could finally talk about what was going on, what they had been through including being shut out of society and their own prolonged suffering (as they talked to each other I was given undeserved credit for training my people so well.) Quite a number had not been to church in decades or ever and it was a privilege to be preaching to the unconverted. I don’t think in my ministry, I have ever led so many individuals through Christianity Explained simultaneously.
These are not church hoppers or shoppers. They’re either serious seekers or have come fully mature and ready to serve. They’ve already gone on cleaning rosters and are attending Bible studies. More than half of the people at a recent working bee weren’t at this church a year ago. A common refrain is that they came to us because we were an open door but they stayed with us because the Bible was our authority and for the first time, sometimes, they are hearing meaty teaching.
Some stayed for a time of healing and then returned, strengthened, to their places of ministry or found closer biblical fellowships but many (30+) are still with us. For the next six months, we had new visitors every week and even now opportunities and new connections arise almost weekly in this new mission field of suffering people. We also became known as a church that would take people’s Covid distress seriously. Struggling (and sometimes suicidal) people from all around the State would contact us because we understood their pain and didn’t dismiss them as anti-vaxxers or problematic. The sheer number of pastoral opportunities was exhausting but each one was also a deep privilege to be entrusted with.
Though there were definitely challenges along the way, the result has been a mutual blessing under God. I only wish it hadn’t seemed so radical at the time. (It should be acknowledged that God’s particular grace and mercy and blessing to us here was not everyone’s experience. Others I know of, in ministry, who have spoken up, have faced strong opposition and have been made pariahs or even removed from ministry.) I am thankful to God for all who have strengthened and encouraged us, along the way, to remain a place that is open to all and not divide or ban the uncertified.
Our church has seen a whole lot of new people from Anglicans to Pentecostals and even the unchurched join us but we have all come to the one Jesus, who said “All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6:37).
As one friend wrote recently “The isolation & abandonment so many of us went through was incredibly traumatic. I can never forget it.” Another wrote, “Thank you. Your church was literally a beacon of hope during that dark time.” My hope is that the church would reflect; repent; reach out to those impacted and never again seem so eager to be respectable that they lose their distinctive prophetic voice – including being a voice for justice.