On November 2, five days before anti-maskers held their second “Freedom March” in my hometown of Aylmer, Ontario, Mayor Mary French declared a state of emergency. Despite rising COVID-19 cases across Canada, and in the small community itself, more than 2,000 unmasked protesters marched down Main Street on November 7 to demonstrate against current government health measures such as mask-wearing and limited numbers at social gatherings.
The first “Freedom March” took place in Aylmer on October 24, with an estimated 150 participants, mostly from the area. At the November 7 event, however, most of the participants came from other parts of the province.
“I was outraged that they called in a massive group of out-of-town people, including from Toronto, which is a known hotspot for COVID-19,” Aylmer resident Melissa Tomlin says. She felt the need to counter-protest on November 7 “to make sure I stood to support the majority of our community that disagreed with this gathering.”
Children held signs at the November 7 protest that said, “Please let us be with our friends” and “Peace or freedom: Don’t ever expect both.”
Aylmer, a rural town with a population of 7,500 people, has approximately 15 churches. Many of the protestors have religious affiliations, most notably congregants from the Church of God, led by Pastor Henry Hildebrandt. Tomlin says, “they have made it clear that the Church of God is a main driving force behind gatherings like this in our area.”
Hildebrandt has become somewhat of a local celebrity in the anti-lockdown movement, being greeted at these events with cheers and handshakes from the crowds. He draws on his faith to justify his fight against what he identifies as government tyranny and oppression. In his message at an anti-lockdown event in Toronto on October 17, he quoted John 2:16, where Jesus drives out the animals being sold in the temple: “Jesus says, ‘Get those things out of here!’ That includes, in my mind, the masks. . . We must always strive to have a Christ-like blend of love and truth about us. Jesus was not nice in the temple!” He went on to preach about the difference between nice people and good people: “God has not called us to be nice; rather he has called us to be good. There comes a time when we stiffen our spines and we say, ‘I am not going to bend on this issue! There is a moral standard at stake here on which I cannot compromise and I must plant my feet and refuse to budge.’ Nice people don’t do that, but good people do.”
While the protestors are getting national media attention, most Christians in Aylmer support public health guidelines, including the members of the church I was raised in – Aylmer Christian Reformed Church. Pastor Michael Krahn of Aylmer’s Evangelical Mennonite Mission Church addressed Hildebrandt’s reputation in a recent blog post. “You might assume that the one Aylmer pastor you see constantly in the limelight represents the other pastors and churches in our community,” Krahn writes. “As far as I am aware, he represents no other church except his own. All the pastors I know in my community are working hard to care for people both inside and outside their churches. . . Like me, if they were convinced that the government was trying to pressure us to sin against God, they would speak out.”
Likewise, Melissa Tomlin believes that Hildebrandt “will quote scripture briefly to justify his next verbal attack on our freedoms and rights. These are not the sermons of someone who is simply spreading God’s word,” she concludes. “He publicly ridicules, calls out and mocks the law and seems to love the spotlight.”
A COVID imagination
I believe that, when we follow a Saviour who calls us to turn the other cheek, we can probably, at a bare minimum, cover those cheeks with a mask. And yet I understand the anti-maskers’ fear. Our lives have been overturned by COVID-19. It’s challenging to trust the advice of medical professionals when most cases of the disease manifest minor symptoms. It’s difficult to have your life so dramatically affected when you don’t personally have the illness, and maybe don’t know anyone who does. For our human brains to understand the magnitude of this virus and the complex layers required to protect the vulnerable among us, it takes a good amount of empathy and imagination. By imagination, I don’t mean make-believe or fantasy: I mean imagining what the risks are for people we might not know; imagining germs we cannot see; imagining the possible negative outcomes. It also includes a beautiful hope: imagining a future where the spread of this disease is no longer a global pandemic.
‘Does being healthy have to hurt?’
Recently my very attentive three-and-a-half-year-old overheard me booking our flu shots over the phone. As I hung up, he blurted, “Are we all going to get shots?” His memory of the needle is distant, but his imagination of it is powerful. His lip began to quiver as I bent down to talk to him.
“Yes,” I said, “because it will help us be healthier.”
With tears in his eyes he said, “But why does being healthy have to hurt?”
This reality of our broken world is difficult to explain. But my child will learn it again and again. Sometimes it does hurt to be healthy. This is true for the person who has had to end a toxic relationship with someone they love. For the person undergoing chemo. For the person reliving trauma in therapy. For the person who allows grief to pour over them again and again rather than staving off the tears through escapism. For the person who comes out to loved ones, knowing it might risk a relationship.
It also hurts to be healthy for those of us who are disappointed and lonely in social isolation. It hurts not to be able to hug your grandmother, to cancel family get-togethers, to reschedule your life because your child has a cold. It hurts to give up vacations, sports, choir, going out for supper, conferences—all the things that make life normal.
Once in a while the weight of what we are missing washes over me. I miss being in other people’s houses. I miss seeing friends and family share with me the joy of watching our baby develop month by month. I miss physical contact, last minute get-togethers, hang outs that aren’t weather-conditional. I miss my people so deeply.
But we follow a Scripture which makes the audacious claim that through a God-man’s pain, we are given life. In a great paradox, his hurt brings healing to the world. We are called to acknowledge that pain. We know the world is broken. We recognize it, we grieve it, and we do our utmost to bring healing and freedom to the people around us.
That’s why it’s disturbing that in a community like Aylmer, Ontario, Christianity is becoming associated with the need to prioritize individual wants over the needs of vulnerable people. Ours is a faith of loving our neighbours as ourselves, of being called to lay down our individual interests for the needs of others.
The COVID-19 pandemic is one of the times when we are called to collective sacrifice in order to create health for our communities, to bring, in small offerings, a little bit of God’s restoration here, as we pray and wait for healing.