Picture it: March 12, 2020, a group of 20 anxious and stressed students gather in a small chapel with their college chaplain. As we prepare for our weekly college chapel service, we discuss the chaos of what the world was handing us. As schools around us were shutting down for extend spring breaks, other schools were considering how long they could remain open and the state was starting to engage the topic of the pandemic hitting our communities, we sat around in a small room not sure what our future would hold.
Would we manage to make it to our spring break? What would next week look like? Surely this is just like a horrible case of the flu or a cold! What is this COVID thing we are speaking of? We were just discussing the larger number of deaths from the flu in our state, and now this thing comes along. To say that tension and anxiety were on the rise with our students would be an understatement.
And right when I was about to open our time in worship with prayer, a student spoke up. “Hey Chaplain, is there anyway we could have some Jesus next week? I think we could all use some Communion and a taste of Jesus to ease us into whatever this is shaping up to be!” I responded” “That is an excellent idea. We will have Communion next week in chapel. And we will spend some time in prayer, as we hope for a quick end to whatever this pandemic will shape up to be.”
As we finished chapel, and entered the downward slide into the weekend, more schools across the country were closing, heading to break early. There was an endless flow of students into my office asking about what it would mean for us. I sat with them and their worry, and if I’m honest with myself, my worry too about what it was we were facing.
And I did the one thing that I knew I could do: I sat down to write liturgy and craft a worship service for chapel. Praying that we would be able to make it to Thursday and be able to gather around the table one last time before the chaos took over our campus.
I was moved by the fact that all these students wanted during the chaos was a time to gather together around the table, to share a familiar meal and to hear the words “this is my body broken for you.” These students wanted to gather in Communion with God and with one another. They were looking for the nourishment, peace and hope that only this simple meal can provide.
And while I made the provisions and had extra hand sanitizer ready, we never made it to the table that week. We got the news on Monday that classes would end at 5 p.m. that day and students would begin an early break on Tuesday. The level of anxiety on campus was at an all-time high.
As we gathered for our last Monday night of the semester, we did so around a table. Sharing a meal, lamenting the end of the school year as we knew it, concerned about what graduation would look like, not sure if we would ever see these seniors again, unsure of how long this would last, hoping we would be able to gather again in the fall. And as we gathered, while it was not the traditional campus Communion meal of King’s Hawaiian bread and Welch’s Grape, it was holy nonetheless.
We gathered with greasy pepperoni pizza and sweet tea. We shared our worries and our hopes. We looked around at the face of God looking back at us — sharing memories from the semester and year, sharing laughter, sharing years. Looking to the student who so anxiously asked about having some Jesus the week before, I told him, that in this moment we were celebrating the great feast. And it was just what these weary souls needed.
Over the summer, as we planned our return to campus, I knew we would celebrate communion. I knew we would gather around the table again, to greet one another with love and acceptance. However, as we were two weeks out from students returning to campus, the college made the decision to continue remote learning during this fall semester. As we grappled with this news, it was clear that the students were still in need of meeting at the table.
So, like any good chaplain, I had to learn to improvise. We began our semester and I started to think of ways we would gather. We will gather like most churches have, around computer and phone screens. We will hear the familiar words. We will take the common elements we have around us in our homes. We will meet one another at the virtual table. And in this moment, the holy will emerge. Though scattered throughout the state, we will be united through the Spirit. Joined again in community, sharing a meal.
These moments will keep us going, keep us hoping and longing for the day when we are able to physically gather together around a common table. We will look into one another’s eyes, pass the bread to one another, share the cup and join in the words “this is my body.” What an exciting and memorable day that will be!
MAGGIE ALSUP lives on iced coffee, believes that Disney movies are for all ages, is obsessed with hippos and loves living in the foothills of the Ozarks. She currently serves as the chaplain at Lyon College, in Batesville, Arkansas, where she helps empower and equip students for the life and ministry of the church universal.