Pioneer Ministry and COVID-19 In the University Sector

Halls of Residence, Stirling

The impact of the lockdown in March 2020 on the student campus was immediate as all classes were cancelled. The students themselves were not necessarily able to travel home, many being stuck in halls of residences and student flats for the duration of the lockdown. The decision of the Church of Scotland to furlough its Pioneer Ministers was controversial and caused some friction within the group. Although I accepted furlough, in retrospect if I had known others were to refuse I might Have questioned that decision.

However, my furlough did release me to become part of the NHS Louisa Jordan chaplaincy team and the church was very supportive of this vital role, after the training took place the NHS LJ facility was not required and so my volunteer hours were transferred to NHS Fife where I worked in several community hospitals visiting patients who were unable to have family visits due to COVID-19. I remain on the ‘Bank’ list for NHS LJ should that facility be required. 

On my return to work in July I immediately received an email from the Chief Executive of the Students’ Union, ‘It’s really so good to have you back !’ she wrote. That feeling of being missed and valued continued as I reconnected with the students and staff. I supported overseas students still stranded in the UK, in particular a student I had worked with all year from India, two from Italy and one from Germany. These students were either trying to find a way home, or struggling to deal with the economic hardships caused by lockdown, three out of four of these students lost their jobs.

Another nursing student was ‘graduated’ without ceremony early and then found himself in empty wards, as all the regular surgery patients were not being booked in. We have all found the disruptive force of COVID-19 difficult in many ways. Supporting the students through this has been the major part of my role since 1st July.

The highly successful Patches4Peace sewing group has been moved online and the first session is to take place this week. Chaplaincy is also being offered as an online service and getting prepared for that has been a huge piece of work. Unfortunately, the distribution of our sewing to the drop-in group in Paisley has had to be postponed until that group and our group can meet in person again. On my YouTube channel I am putting up videos of prayers and meditations.

The student community itself is fractured, some students returning to flats and halls, others staying at home. A bigger divide than usual is opening up between mature students and those in the 18-25 age range as the impact of COVID-19 falls differently in their population groups. In halls of residence students are now restricted to their own flats, and no visiting is allowed, they are also not allowed at time of writing to return home.

A new initiative that I am involved in with the Archives is the #StirDiary project where students can chronicle their semester in art, writing, or any form of creativity, and then hand in their journal to the archives to be part of the permanent record of COVID-19 and its impact on our times. This is an imaginative, practical and inspiring project that combines good mental health with respectful human understanding.

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The work that I routinely do around food and fair distribution of food resources is more needed than ever, at the CPG Food Secretariat it was disclosed that an additional 70,000 people are expected to be made redundant in Scotland, ‘new to benefits’ and to be destitute by Christmas. On top of the increased food distribution and financial impact we have already seen it is clear that the student population will not remain unaffected by the economic realities of lockdown and COVID-19 restrictions.

In terms of student mental health and well-being this was already an issue of concern, and one which is under further strain as students who are away from home had to cope with the restrictions, whereas those at home have feelings of loss of progress in life, and the natural rite of passage which is leaving home. For mature students financial worries and carers responsibilities take centre stage. The importance of community, such as the Student Community Garden, a collaboration with the Students’ Union and the University, is clearer than ever with over 50 students in the first three sessions, an unprecedented uptake, with more students emailing and getting in touch asking if they can join the garden team. COVID-19 restrictions mean we need to garden at 2m distant, mask wearing though not compulsory is recommended outdoors, all tools are being sanitized and gloves provided and washed.

Two of the gardening students have made promotional videos with me talking about how positive the gardening is for their spirits.

In conclusion, COVID-19 has consolidated my role, outlined the importance of Pioneer Ministry communities to students in a time of crisis, and demonstrated that the students who are completely new to church are more than willing to turn to this community in a time of need. This is the fruit of regular, dedicated group building during the first three years of my Pioneer Ministry here.

Inclusion Church

The Inclusion Church is an initiative by Janet Foggie, the Pioneer Minister, Stirling, to enable all Christians to worship together in a way that includes everyone. It is based in the student community in Stirling and is open to all who are looking for God’s including love. This is an online community, we have no buildings or premises, and it is one that enables Christians to access worship, fellowship and God’s eternal love in a way that suits you.

The Inclusion Church is an environmentally aware community that values God’s created world. We believe God is in and through everything, a Spirit that is like the wind, blowing through our lives with power and holy love. We believe Jesus was born Son of Humanity and Son of God. He walked the earth in handmade clothes, ate homegrown food and demonstrated to us a life that was grounded in loving community and earthy pragmatism.

Expressions of the love of God for the world can be seen in many ways or forms. There’s two initiatives Janet is involved in at the Stirling Campus, Patches4Peace, a sewing group, and the Student Community Garden where Janet is a fellow volunteer.

Pancake Day: Are we ‘using up the last of the eggs?’

three hens

“Eggs and milk foods are forbidden to those who fast, for as much as they originate from animals that provide us with flesh … Again the Lenten fast is the most solemn of all, both because it is kept in imitation of Christ, and because it disposes us to celebrate devoutly the mysteries of our redemption.” Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-74)coloured eggs in a wooden bowl

Writing in the middle ages, Aquinas had made a logical connection between the fast of Lent (40 days leading up to Easter) and the practice of not eating eggs and milk. This may seem strange when most hens come into lay in late January or early February, and most ducks are laying by March. Eggs don’t store for terribly long (though they can do when pickled) so in a time before refrigeration why not eat eggs during the period of their most prolific availability?

The answer lies in the breeding cycle of poultry. Eating spring eggs would be eating next year’s hens and ducks. This helps to explain why not eating eggs in spring continued after the Reformation in Scotland in 1560,even though the reformers gave up the ideas behind the Christian Year, they still needed to refrain from eating eggs in lent so that they would have continued poultry.

9 little chicks in a brooder
spring chicks

Pancake day, therefore did not ‘use up the last of the eggs’ but rather it was a time to mark the end of egg eating until the broody hens had brought out their young. This secured next year’s hens and ducks, for some people this was a part of their rent. In Peeblesshire, on 5 March 1650, Mr Andrew Hay, let out the steading of Newbie for three years. The rent includes 600 merks per annum (each merk was 13s and 4d Scots, so this adds up to a fair amount of money for the time), plus 2 stones of cheese, 1 stone of butter & 12 fowls (half capons, half hens). Each bird was valued at 10s. This would be a lot of potential profit to lose if the family ate the hatching eggs in spring.

So, enjoy pancake day with an outdoor free-range egg this year! And remember, that through lent, up and down Scotland, poultry keepers are tending the chicks which will be next year’s egg laying hens.img_0623

Patches 4 Peace

Sewing is a skill which enables. Whether it is mending, making, designing or altering sewing gives us power and control over our clothing, our home furnishings, our individual style. Our group is free and open to all. All the fabric used by Patches 4 Peace has been donated to the group, either by church members, community members, or through the Pioneer Minister. This means our sewing is often up-cycling, sometimes simply using things other people bought but couldn’t use, and sometimes re-purposing an item to give it new life.

As we sew we talk. We talk about our cultures, countries and lives, our faiths, world views and politics. Our families come into the conversations, many of us are in Stirling from other parts of the world, Czech Republic, France, Canada, Brazil, Germany to name but a few.

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cutting patches with a rotary cutter

We learn new skills together. As we increase our skills and knowledge so confidence grows and we can take on new and more challenging projects. We also come with a mix of skills and so can discuss and share our ideas, improving all of our projects.

Next semester we are planning to make a quilt to give to Starter Packs in Stirling. We have begun cutting and piecing the squares. Why not come along if you would like to be part of our team sewing Patches 4 Peace in order to piece together a better world?

If you don’t know how to sew don’t worry, or if you would just like to join the chat at first, that’s fine. If you can sew, you might like to take on a big project, or if you haven’t threaded a needle since primary school, there’s simple bags and other projects you can complete to get started.

This year, we went to the Great Tapestry of Scotland, in the Verdant Works, Dundee. It was a great day out and again, food, fellowship and learning were all part of an interesting and engaging day. We certainly felt the struggles we had learning to sew were nothing to the lives of the mill women who worked long shifts for low wages in the jute mill. We have yet to decide where our next outing might be, so if you have a suggestion you can message us on facebook and let us know.

women listening to a presentation
Patches 4 Peace learn about life in a jute mill.

The idea of a garden…

For me the idea of god as the gardener and his people as the ‘true vine’ is a physical reality in tending the earth together as an expression of faith which is active, wordless, and open to sharing with all regardless of belief or life stance. Interrogation of creed recedes entirely in this metaphor, the true vine reflects god’s love and kindness into a broken world and is tended, pruned, tied up, trained and made fruitful.

The tending of a garden involves deep knowledge of plants, a knowledge I am daily increasing. It requires an understanding of the soil, the light levels, the planting requirements, in order to flourish and develop. There must also be weeding, sorting, cleaning of tools and storing of the equipment needed for the task.

God’s garden also brings us a metaphor for redemption which is rich and fulfilling. We find new life each spring, in every seed germinated, every cutting that takes, larvae and worms clean and clear the soil, bees and other pollinators carry the pollen of good news across the flowers. Refugees, survivors of abuse, the bereaved, those with dementia, children, even tax collectors and those sickened with the consumption of western society, all the people that Christ called to his upside-down kingdom, can find release in gardening, redemptive restoration of the soul, the mood, or even just a moment of quiet in times of illness or pain.IMG_5542

Choice is also a vital element in gardening well. Exercise of choice and acceptance of responsibility for the variables of planting choice, use of the ground, and shape of the garden, gives the gardener much needed control. This is a healthy reflection of god-the-gardener who gave free choice to each of us. And yet, in gardening we come up repeatedly against that which we did not choose, the power of the weather to destroy, here at Stirling we have bunnies who like to share our crops, weeds that choke them, and the fungus and rot which is part of the natural return to earth of all plants but which can rob the human gardener of a keenly awaited harvest.

In gardening the gospel, I find a personal reconnection with Jesus whose teachings turned the accepted world upside down. It is a new way to experience the ministry I feel I am called to and a fresh engagement with the people to whom I have been called to work. I do not need to start conversations on the topic of spirituality, these come to me; nor to enforce or dictate; nor to examine or catechise. Instead I trust the gardener that the growth with comes through the choice of others is good growth and even in simply tending a piece of soil alongside the students at Stirling University we make a little part of the world a better place and build a community of relationships around the food we grow.

When we go back to Jesus’ description of the feast which will be the expression of god’s love, the doors are opened to the beggars on the road, the poorest of the poor, the lame and the blind. I can’t help feeling that it is god the gardener who set the table, harvested the food, and laid out the feast before them. In Pioneer Ministry the sharing, the food and the feast are real. For me, that is enough.

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Rescuing a junior toad.