A Chaplain's Log in Pandemic Times

Jane Ellen Nickell



This post by the Rev. Jane Ellen Nickell, chaplain at Allegheny College in Meadville, is part of a new series designed to introduce and update readers about the work of clergy serving in various "extension ministries" in Western PA.

Chaplain’s Log: Friday, March 27, 2020
Over the past two weeks, a novel coronavirus that began in China has upended all of our lives. Three days into spring break, Allegheny College decided to finish the semester online so that students who had travelled would not bring the virus to Meadville. As part of Student Affairs, I pitched in to help get students who were still on campus safely home. Some international students could not return home and others had no place to go, so about 30 students remain on campus. Staff are checking on them daily, so I’m in touch with students from China, Vietnam, and Sudan, who so far are managing well.
When we realized that the students who were already at home had left essential items in their dorm rooms, I volunteered to retrieve those items and ship them to the students. So far I have retrieved car keys, prescription medications, books for class, passports and green cards, laptops (which, we learned, cannot be shipped to Germany), two fish and a snail from an aquarium, and about two dozen plants which we moved from a student’s room to the college greenhouse where they will be tended. I’m grateful for these points of contact with students and to be able to do something concrete that helps them deal with the stress of this uncertain time. I remind myself that pastoral care takes many forms.
Our ministry programs have been transformed. Religious clubs have transferred to online gatherings, and our staff are praying with students virtually. The reality of this virus sunk in when the Dean of Students asked me to develop a protocol for how we handle the death of community members, and I heard from other college chaplains that they are already dealing with that. In addition to the threat of COVID, we learned today that one of our May 2019 graduates died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. I contacted those closest to him and arranged for staff from our office, the Counseling Center, and other offices to be available for any students who need someone to talk to. We do not normally announce alumni deaths campus-wide, but after a raft of emails, up the chain to Pres. Hilary Link, it was agreed that these are not normal times. We are not just announcing a death, but we are letting students know that we are here for them as they process devastating news at an already scary time.
Chaplain’s Log: August 20, 2020
I spent the afternoon at our athletic field taking temperatures of returning students as we begin a semester like no other. Some students opted to study from home, but most value in-person instruction and chose to return to campus. All were tested for the virus before they were allowed to go to their residence halls, and those with symptoms or coming from states on lockdown will remain in a quarantine dorm until they get their COVID test results. With face coverings required, it was more difficult than usual to recognize returning students. Still, there was a good feeling in the air, and I love seeing students again.
Over the summer, working groups addressed every aspect of campus life. Allegheny created its own health agency to guide the process, making the safety of the campus and Meadville communities the top priority. President Link just completed her first full year, which was more difficult than anyone could have imagined, but she has provided decisive leadership in this critical moment. Students are fearful that they will have to go home before the end of the semester, but I tell them that the college has a good plan, and it is up to students to implement it and monitor each other’s compliance.
I’m teaching Religion and Ecology this semester, so like other faculty, I spent the summer redesigning the course and learning Zoom and online teaching software. All the students will not fit in the classroom with the required physical distance, so I will teach a mix of Zoom classes some weeks, and other weeks when half the class meets in person on Tuesday and the other half on Thursday. Three students are attending class from home, so they will always be on Zoom.
Like everywhere, COVID has shaped everything the past few months and has caused the deaths of students’ parents and grandparents, along with the head of our dining services. We had to cancel many events, including in-person Commencement and Baccalaureate, but people found ways to celebrate that and other important moments virtually. A former student invited me to take part (via Zoom) in his family’s backyard ceremony for his graduation from medical school. I officiated a smaller than planned outdoor wedding for a friend. Life goes on, and we learn coping skills, along with new technology.
Chaplain’s Log: December 18, 2020
Well, we made it! After a flurry of COVID cases at the beginning of the semester and a few more in November, we completed the at-home portion of the semester before Thanksgiving with fewer than 1% of our community testing positive. The College provided three large tents on campus, so students could take advantage of the beautiful fall weather and meet outdoors. Our Muslim students met under one of the tents for Friday prayers through mid-November. In addition to regular meetings of our religious clubs, our office provided outdoor and indoor yoga and mindfulness practice by Zoom.
Ministry in the age of COVID was especially challenging because the in-person meetings, meals, and other fellowship activities we rely on were restricted. Classes met in Ford Chapel, and it took a few weeks to work out the protocol for other uses of the building. We began offering Catholic Mass by the end of September, but students had to register in advance, as they did for most events, to make sure we did not exceed capacity and in case we needed to do contact tracing. For the same reason the Chapel  was only open weeknights and Saturday afternoons with students monitoring the space. While students enjoyed gathering outdoors or online with people they know, they were less ready to meet new folks. Our efforts to bring students of different religions together for fellowship and discussion went nowhere. While learning to bridge religious difference is one of our goals, right now that is less important than providing stability and comfort for students. I am most concerned about first-year students who were new to campus and had limited opportunities outside of the classroom to establish relationships.
I turned in grades today, and students did remarkably well, perhaps because there were fewer campus activities to distract them from studying. A highlight was a class project in which students worked with a multimedia artist to create a custom Zoom performance celebrating people at Allegheny and in Meadville who are affecting positive change related to climate and other forms of justice. Forty people attended OK Zoomer! “live,” and we shared the video with those who could not. The students and I were delighted to offer a bit of humor and hope at such a challenging time.
I hosted an Allegheny “affinity room” when the WPA Annual Conference met in October. Rather than meeting people individually at a display table, alumni and friends, including two former Allegheny Chaplains, gathered online for conversation. They provided important insights about our relationship with the Conference, which I shared with Pres. Link and the Trustee task force that is considering Allegheny’s UMC affiliation. While faculty and students are pushing for the College to disaffiliate, the Trustees would like to see what General Conference decides, so like many others, we are in a holding pattern.
We had hoped to have an in-person physically distanced Commencement ceremony in the fall for the class of 2020, including Baccalaureate, but the increase in cases nationwide led to another postponement. There are a large number of first-generation students in that class, so their entire families have looked forward to seeing them walk across the stage and receive their diploma, but that will need to happen down the road.
Focusing on gratitude has provided a good sense of perspective in this difficult year. In addition to keeping a gratitude journal, I preached on gratitude at a local church and coordinated a virtual Thanksgiving service with the Meadville Area Ministerial Association on the theme of gratitude and hope. I am blessed to still have a job and a home, and to have learned new forms of ministry, which will continue beyond the pandemic. For all that and more, I give thanks!


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