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 Martin Zikmund, a pastor in the Czech Republic and a former Resident Scholar at the Collegeville Institute.
The Covid-19 pandemic has changed all of our lives, including my daily work as a pastor in central Europe. My church, which is part of the Protestant Church of Czech Brethren (Českobratrská církev evangelická), is located in Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad) in the very Western part of Bohemia, Czech Republic, close to Saxony and Bavaria in Germany.
Karlovy Vary is a town of about 50,000 people, a spa town with multiple thermal springs in Middle Europe. Under normal circumstances, we welcome thousands of visitors from around the world in all seasons, but the spa is especially crowded from May through September. It’s a region known for its natural beauty and glorious architecture. Karlovy Vary is also known for its International Film Festival in the first days of July. Thousands of movie lovers arrive for this annual event. The Karlovy Vary area is dependent on tourism, because the nearby coal mining industry is decreasing.
As a region, Karlovy Vary is the least populated in the CR, and, at least these days, the worst as far as Covid-19 statistics are concerned. On February 17, Ash Wednesday, the Minister of Health, Jan Blatný, said, “In the last few weeks the Covid mutation first identified in the United Kingdom has been found in our country. The most serious situation is in the Karlovy Vary District.”
The spa valley below the city center is now empty because of Covid-19. It’s a very unusual situation. Because our church is located between the town itself and the spa valley, we see the results of Covid-19 clearly. Before the pandemic, when I would leave the building, I would rarely hear people speaking Czech; people on the streets spoke a wide range of foreign languages. Now to meet a foreigner is the exception. The nearby border with Germany, which many people from Karlovy Vary cross daily for work, is almost entirely closed. You must first be tested for Covid-19 at the border crossing, and you must prove that Germany considers your work there “indispensable.”
You must first be tested for Covid-19 at the border crossing.
It’s no wonder. On Ash Wednesday Covid-19 statistics from the day before were published. In all of Germany, 7,556 new Covid-19 cases were registered. In the CR, which is much smaller than Germany, 12,486 new cases were registered, 973 of them from our sparsely populated Karlovy Vary district. Germans fear the mutation found in the UK will cross the border from the CR.
As a Protestant congregation, we have symbolically expressed our solidarity with the physicians and nurses. We prepared and distributed pastries for them, and on another occasion, we hired an unemployed chef to prepare 100 gourmet meals for medical workers. Workers were grateful for the meal, but our church cannot afford to do this kind of thing very often.
For the most part, our congregation has not worshipped together for the past year since we do not have a large space that allows for social distancing. Every Saturday I send an audio-recording of that week’s sermon and part of the liturgy to about 60 members of two small congregations where I also serve as pastor, one in Karlovy Vary, the other in a smaller town nearby. Where possible, I distribute in person printed material from the denomination, as well as printed copies of my sermon. Crucially, I am also in constant contact with parishioners by phone.
I am in constant contact with parishioners by phone.
My pastoral duties on Ash Wednesday illustrate how different my ministry has become during the pandemic. That day I talked on the phone to an 88-year-old woman. She is mentally exhausted and told me how difficult it was for her to make an appointment for an early vaccination. The vaccination system in the CR is very chaotic and is largely computer-based. Her family attempted to help but failed to schedule an appointment before the end of April. The woman is afraid of the disease and frustrated, which has caused some familial tension. She wept during our conversation.
I also spoke with a mother whose 18-month-old child I baptized last year. Her husband, who works in a hotel, has become responsible for administering subsidies from the government given to some employees of the larger Karlovy Vary hotels. The subsidies are not large but at least help these employees survive during the downturn in business.
In another call I talked to the mother of two daughters (13 and 14) who would normally belong to our small confirmation class. Her husband drives a truck throughout Europe for a company based in Holland. She told me that a couple of days earlier her husband had waited for five hours at the border before he was allowed to enter Germany. She also shared with me the difficulties of distance learning. The older daughter wept recently when she found out that the government cancelled its earlier decision to allow students to return to school on February 1st.
Her husband had waited for five hours at the border before he was allowed to enter Germany.
“Adolescence is a sensitive time for youth,” a young psychologist told me, another person I spoke with on the phone on Ash Wednesday. “Teenagers need their schoolmates and peers.” Last year I conducted the psychologist’s wedding. Although neither she nor her future husband were members of our church, they asked me to do some pre-marriage counseling and officiate the wedding. I viewed this as an opportunity to talk about the Christian message to people who were not raised in any church tradition, which is common in our highly secular country. On this call, she confided to me that she is pregnant and the couple would like to have their baby baptized if possible. People have the same spiritual needs as always, and it is more complicated to meet them. Phone calls are no match for meeting in person.
People have the same spiritual needs as always, and it is more complicated to meet them.
Recently we started an experiment in our congregation—an online Bible study that consists of seven lessons in preparation for Easter. About 20 people are involved. In each meeting we talk about the penitential psalms, the Passion narrative according to Matthew, and the History of the Unity of Brethren, a very influential branch of the Czech Reformation. Most participants would not otherwise have had the opportunity to attend such a course, but via computer it is possible. We all hope that Easter will bring us hope that the bonds of this pandemic, which has so pressed our society, are about to be loosened.