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 Jessie Fubara-Manuel, a minister with the Presbyterian Church of Nigeria and PhD student at the University of Edinburgh.
Our Father, who art in Heaven
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, the power,
And the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.
I first learned the Lord’s Prayer as a Sunday School girl in Afaha Offiong in southern Nigeria. It was part of the church worship ritual. We said it at home and at school as well. Over the years, I have heard sermons, read devotionals, and published reflections on the Lord’s Prayer. But it has never made as much sense to me as it has during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020.
It was December 9, 2020, and the pandemic had been going on for nine months. I had just received an email that my flight to Nigeria from Edinburgh for the Christmas holidays had been cancelled. Although I had begun to question the wisdom of traveling home under the uncertainties occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic, the idea that I could not travel even if I wanted to was devastating. I took a walk along the lovely Princes Street Gardens and sat down to pray. Tears streamed down my face as I tried to find the words with which to pray. I felt weak, tired, and drained of every ounce of energy. So, I began to say the Lord’s Prayer, just like I had been doing for the past several months.
Tears streamed down my face as I tried to find the words with which to pray.
I am a Nigerian Christian woman. I live in Edinburgh studying at the University of Edinburgh with research interests in faith, gender, disability, and HIV. In January 2020, I returned from Nigeria after my fieldwork eager to work hard, write my thesis, and complete my studies. I took up tutoring at the university, volunteered at a local church, and joined a faith-based disability advocacy group. I was full of energy, excited for the possibilities of the new year, and thankful to God for the privilege of studying in Edinburgh.
News of the pandemic filtered into the UK soon after and by mid-March 2020, the government introduced the first set of lockdown restrictions as new infections emerged with an increase in Covid-related deaths. I was not sick, not physically anyway. But I began to struggle to understand what this pandemic meant. Every day, I suffered from fear and was gripped with anxiety. I was far from home with no knowledge of when I would be able to return. I worried about my family in Nigeria: for my immediate family (my husband and children); for my extended family (my parents, my siblings, my in-laws); and more broadly for my country. Nigeria also went into lockdown, but, without government support, insecurity and violence escalated rapidly. The already poor health care system was stretched. When my father became ill, I worried that he might not receive the best care, being especially vulnerable to Covid-19 due to his age.
The distance from home frustrated me greatly. It made me feel helpless as I was unable to carry out my traditional responsibilities as a member of my family. My physical body was in Edinburgh, but my heart and soul were in Nigeria, spreading out across the West and South where my family lives. This worry affected my studies. In April, I wrote to my PhD supervisor, “I feel I am doing everything a little slower these days which is another concern for me.” I had missed many deadlines and the probability of completing my studies on schedule was beginning to seem more and more far-fetched. If I did not complete my studies, then I would be faced with the possibility of losing my scholarship.
As a pastor’s kid, a pastor’s wife, and a pastor myself, prayer has mostly always come naturally. It has been part of my daily ritual—my source of strength and the place of conversation with God. However, with the psychological effects of this pandemic, I was maintaining the ritual without the conversation. “Lord, I am tired! I want to go home!” I cried. But I also wanted to successfully finish what I came here for—to get a PhD. I read the scriptures and I professed my faith in the God who is still in charge of this world. But when I knelt to pray privately, no words would come out. One day, after kneeling for a while, an idea came to me: “say the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples.” So, I said it the first time, then I said it again, slowly this time, taking in the words and digesting them sentence by sentence.
As I prayed with the words of the Lord’s Prayer, I felt myself embodying the prayer. When I said, “hallowed be thy name,” I felt a sense of praise and gratitude. When I repeated “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth,” I felt God in charge, sovereign, and pouring God’s love on the Earth. And when I said, “give us this day our daily bread,” I felt God taking care of me, my family, the church, the world, and everything else that concerned me. It was not a magic wand, but it gave me a sense of peace.
As I prayed with the words of the Lord’s Prayer, I felt myself embodying the prayer.
On the day that I received the news of the cancellation of my flight, I felt that peace again when I said the Lord’s Prayer in the garden. It is sometimes difficult to know what to pray for, with so much global suffering due to the pandemic. This prayer helps me fill the gaps.
On a WhatsApp chat with a friend, I said to her, “I think most days, the Lord’s Prayer is all I can muster. That should be enough for now, I guess?” She replied, “It is enough.” It has been more than enough; for in that place of prayer, I have felt God’s presence. As I write this, it is spring in Edinburgh, the sun is out, the birds are singing, and the flowers are beginning to bloom. God continues to show Godself in creation. Spring signals hope and the possibilities of new beginnings. While more lockdown restrictions are in place, and new strains of the virus are emerging, there is hope; not just because of the vaccine but because God is present with us and always has been. Virtual meetings are decreasing the pain of physical absence. Different ways of learning are being introduced so the work of research can continue.
In that place of prayer, I have felt God’s presence.
Although I still feel tired sometimes, I have learned a thing or two. Being in God’s presence is about the consciousness of God. For me, it has been the grace to acknowledge my need for God and to find it, even if it is by kneeling in silence because there are no words to express the heart’s pain, or simply saying the Lord’s Prayer. When I can connect with God, my body responds. For thine (God’s) is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen!