This blog post was part of the coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum course, “Ethnography of the University 2020: Focus on Knowledge.” It was originally posted in the category “Online Communities.”
Throughout my fieldwork at a local Montreal Parish, I encountered a recurrent narrative about COVID-19 expressed by both the priest and the parishioners. COVID, as a revelatory crisis, is the main theoretical framework guiding my research. It is inspired by Jacqueline Solway’s article “Drought as a Revelatory Crisis: An Exploration of Shifting Entitlements and Hierarchies in the Kalahari, Botswana.” Solway argues that in times of crisis, disruption to the status quo can expose existing problems within society while also providing moments of creativity and potentiality. For many of my informants, over the various lockdowns COVID has revealed God’s goodness. In my final paper, I focused on the embodied and sensory changes many parishioners experienced. In this blog post I explore the parishioners’ COVID narrative.
When the pandemic reached its peak in March and the whole world seemed to be in quarantine, the parish priest, Fr. K, received several phone calls from people questioning whether this was a sign from God. They wondered if God was angry and punishing society for “our” selfish, capitalistic and individualistic ways. This was the 2020 version of the Ten Egyptian Plagues (Exodus 7-14) where God inflicted ten disasters on Egypt (i.e. frogs, lice, pestilence to livestock, darkness for three days) to force the Pharaoh to free the Israelite slaves. As in all life crises there are two common reactions: those who lean into their faith and others who turn away, angry and questioning: “why would God make me suffer if he loves me?”
Fr. K has a different interpretation, which he shared several times during his Facebook live bible study sessions, his sermons, and my focus group. For him COVID 19 is unquestionably terrible and is “a beautiful gift from the evil one” (i.e. devil, Satan). God has taken this evil and made it into a “teachable” moment. Since people are forced to stop, they now have time to reflect on their lives, prioritize what is important to them and see where God is helping them through it all. As Fr. K shared, “out of evil, He will bring about good. Out of the evil of the crucifixion, God brought the goodness of the resurrection.” One of my interviewees, Valeria, a stylish middle-aged woman, echoed this sentiment when she shared with me: “people think I’m crazy when I tell them COVID is my friend.” Despite having experienced trauma throughout COVID, the pandemic allowed her the time to take care of herself without feeling guilty. She felt like her thoughts, and her heart were finally aligned. Realizing that material things were unimportant to her, she planned to resume work part-time, allowing her more time for self-care.
Valeria was not alone in sharing these feelings. Although no one else referred to COVID “as their friend,” many echoed her sentiment and perceived COVID has an opportunity to slow down, rest and reflect. However, by mid-October, many experienced “virus fatigue,” as one informant called it and were antsy for sociability and movement outside of their “bubbles.” The parishioners were not angry at God but rather continued to collectively pray to Him for a cure, to heal those who were ill and especially to protect front-line workers. They were eager to return to a pre-COVID “normal” and confront the “busyness” with their new sense of awareness courtesy of the pandemic.
Solway, Jacqueline S. 1994. “Drought as a Revelatory Crisis: An Exploration of Shifting Entitlements and Hierarchies in the Kalahari, Botswana.” Development and Change 25, no. 3: 471–95. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-7660.1994.tb00523.x.