Since the global pandemic began over a year ago, religious leaders have sought ways to support the larger community while providing for the needs of members of their congregations. For the next several weeks, we will publish pandemic stories from alumni of the Collegeville Institute’s programs, both in the United States and abroad.
The following post was written by Sarah Lane Cawte, Education Officer for the Free Churches Group in England and Wales and a former Resident Scholar at the Collegeville Institute.
Lockdown, quarantine, isolation. These words became part of almost every conversation in the early months of 2020. They conjured images of imprisonment, and brought with them feelings of despair. As Covid-19 spread around the globe, governments imposed measures to contain it.
March 23,2020, was the date when England entered the first of three (so far) national lockdowns, intended to prevent the spread of Covid-19. For a nation in which personal freedom is taken, to a large extent, for granted, this was a shock for the population. “Stay home, protect the NHS (the British National Health Service), save lives” became the slogan that was used everywhere, from the Prime Minister’s podium at his regular public appearances, to newspaper advertisements and billboards. Suddenly millions of people with pre-existing health conditions were declared clinically vulnerable and told to stay indoors, and an epidemic of loneliness began as households were forbidden from combining socially, schools were closed, and only essential stores were allowed to open. People were unable to gather in their places of worship, and for many the world became a much darker place.
People were unable to gather in their places of worship, and for many the world became a much darker place.
Recognizing the shock and sadness in the days leading up to the lockdown, the Presidents of Churches Together in England, the leading ecumenical “instrument,” issued a national call to prayer, to take place on March 22, Mothering Sunday, at 7 p.m. Christians throughout England were asked to light a candle and put in a window where it would be seen by neighbors and passers-by, symbolizing the light of Christ shining in the darkness. This initiative was widely publicized on social media as #candlesofhope, and people were asked to share photos of their candles, using the hashtag. The initiative was supported by #prayersofhope, broadcast on a Christian radio station, as it became a weekly practice.
I joined this collective witness, lit my candle, and took time to pray. The symbolism of the candle was something that spoke powerfully to me and I decided to light a candle every evening, not just on Sundays. Along with my first photo, I asked my Facebook friends if any of them would like to join in lighting a candle every evening. I was surprised to find that over 30 of them said they would.
I asked my Facebook friends if any of them would like to join in lighting a candle every evening.
As the days grew longer, I started to light my candle a little later, when the light started to fade. I took time to pray, to listen to music, and to “just be.” Each day, as I lit the candle, I took a photo and shared it on social media. It was comforting to connect with others who commented, shared their own photos, or just “liked” the post. Communication on-screen became more important as the impact of isolation grew more acute. Within a short time, our ways of interacting changed and the screens of our laptops became our windows onto the world.
Initially, I simply posted my photos, with the hashtag #candlesofhope, but then I started to add a few words. I asked people to remember those who were unwell, or bereaved, or I made reference to a particular situation. Aware of the differing positions of my friends in relation to faith and spiritual practice, I didn’t overtly mention prayer: my aim was to include people rather than alienate them.
Within a couple of weeks, my practice was developing. I felt the need to share words of hope each day, so I would often “dedicate” my candle to people I knew were struggling. At times I included a photo I’d taken on a walk – perhaps a sunset over the river, blossoms on trees, buds coming into flower – all signs of hope. At other times, and more frequently as time went on, I began to use words from liturgy, hymns, or quotes from spiritual leaders (in the broadest sense). These seemed to resonate, and they often started conversations.
I felt the need to share words of hope each day, so I would often dedicate my candle to people I knew were struggling.
The reactions to my candles were often quite moving. In response to a post remembering the people we love but could not see, one friend commented “Thanks for lighting all your candles. Today I’m really missing my parents.” Another friend, who would not regard herself as “religious” but makes a point of visiting churches to light candles said, “I love seeing your candles—I so miss my church visits to light one.”
I was surprised at the responses when I shared these words from Barack Obama: “The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you. If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, you will fill yourself with hope.” A female friend was honest enough to say that she didn’t feel very hopeful on that day, and that tears were coming easily to her, while another said how much the words had helped her. Others simply thanked me. I was surprised and touched when I received a package in the mail and opened it to find that someone had sent me a new candle so that I could keep sharing my photos and words.
I received a package in the mail and opened it to find that someone had sent me a new candle.
When I started out on my journey with #candlesofhope, I was simply responding personally to the original call to prayer. As the days and weeks went by, I needed to focus on hope for the future, and I did that drawing on my own Reformed Protestant background. I didn’t set out to use my posts as a tool for evangelization but simply to share what I found helpful in coping with the unfolding picture of the pandemic. Friends who have a religious faith sometimes responded with reference to prayer, but others found something in my posts that spoke to them where they were. The symbol of the candle seemed to connect with the increasing numbers of people who regard themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Some were inspired to light their own candles, others were moved to pray, and many found comfort in seeing daily posts that spoke of hope.
I asked myself how long I would continue to light my candles and to post them for friends to share. Like the rest of the experience, there was no advance planning, but it felt right to end these posts as the first lockdown eased in early July 2020. They were part of a particular season, but the practice of focusing on hope each day has remained with me, and with others who joined me from their screens.
They were part of a particular season, but the practice of focusing on hope each day has remained with me.