On March 11, the world marked the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the COVID pandemic – the day in 2020 when the World Health Organization officially declared COVID as a worldwide pandemic.
And what a year it has been. Classes moved to remote or hybrid formats. Students and faculty began wearing masks everywhere. Most large gatherings were cancelled. When people did gather in person, seating was spaced out to allow social distancing.
Now, with vaccinations rolling out across the country, many are wondering how soon things will return to normal — and how life might be different, even after the threat of the virus recedes.
That was the subject of a discussion — “Post-COVID Life at Perkins” — at the March 23 Community Hour at Perkins (CHAP), moderated by Susanne Scholz, Professor of Old Testament and sponsored by the Community Life Committee, a faculty standing committee.
Attendees were asked: What should we keep from our online life of 2020 and 2021, and what should we modify?
“There’s no going back to the world we lived in before,” said Tracy Anne Allred, Assistant Dean of Student Life. “We’ve been forced to see community differently. There’s more depth to our community when everyone has access.”
Several students agreed on one “keeper”: Thursday night Study Halls, initiated last spring and held via Zoom. The Office of Student Life hosts the weekly gatherings to allow students to connect, chat, discuss assignments, and get to know each other. The study halls typically start at 8:30 p.m. and often run on until midnight or later.
“They’ve been a fantastic time of community building and shared learning, and it has been a lot of fun,” said Julian Hobdy, a third-year M.Div. student.
Students shared how study halls served to connect them with students in other classes and for first-year students to mine the wisdom of second-and-third year students. And many recalled fond memories of laughs and pranks shared during the study halls.
“I’ve never set foot on SMU’s campus,” said Steven Lefebvre, a student in the Houston-Galveston program. “But I have zero doubts about my belonging to the Perkins family. Study hall played a major role in my sense of belonging.”
Several students also expressed hopes that the online Bridwell Library workshops will continue post-pandemic.
Others in the CHAP said they’d like to see other online programs like virtual chapel services continued, to foster connections between the Dallas and Houston-Galveston students. Some expressed appreciation for the gift of having students join from places like Mumbai and Mombasa. While that has posed some technological challenges – WiFi isn’t always as reliable in some parts of the world – the virtual connection has expanded and enriched the community.
Staff members expressed hopes that some of the flexibility of working at home, if only part-time, might be continued after the pandemic.
Ally Stokes, a first-year student, would like to see faculty members continue to record classroom sessions.
“Having the ability to re-watch classes provides an extra level of reinforcement when we’re learning,” she said. “And when something comes up and I have to miss a class, being able to go back and watched a recorded class is really helpful.”
Still, Stokes says she’s looking forward to returning to in-person classes.
“There’s a lot that we miss from the in-person environment,” she said. “When a professor can’t see us, they can’t tell if we’re getting it.”
Going forward, Susanne Scholz thinks it’s important for faculty members to examine the pedagogical impact of the Hy-flex teaching mode (combining in-person and remote learning) before embracing it in an ongoing basis.
“We need to critically keep in mind how this works,” she said. “Even when we have some people in class, we all end up on the screen. I think it deserves further exploration and investigation.”
In an informal survey via email, faculty members also mused about lessons they’ve learned from the past year – and what the world might look like on the other side.
Rebekah Miles, Professor of Ethics and Practical Theology, envisions a post-pandemic world that’s more centered on the home.
“Even though we are all eager to get back to some regular routines, I suspect that the pandemic has made home-bodies of many in the US,” she said. “I think we will see a flourishing of the domestic arts – cooking, sewing, carpentry, etc.”
At the same time, she adds, the pandemic has fast forwarded the move to online technologies in theological education and churches.
“I suspect that a lot of our meetings will stay online and that we will have richer online offerings for teaching and worship but that face-to-face interactions in worship and teaching will still be preferred,” Miles said.
Susanne Scholz, a proponent of classical homeopathy, sees the crisis through a health care lens.
“Christians in the USA face a massive health crisis in their lives,” she said. “The vast majority of them are utterly and almost totally dependent on their meds and thus the allopathic medical industries.”
Post-COVID, she hopes that Perkins can help members of the community learn to “gain and sustain medical agency and holistic health over our bodies, minds, and spirits by deconstructing the tech-pharmaceutical industrial complex from a theological position.”
“Can this happen when Christian faculty themselves are believing more in their meds than in Christ?” she asked. “I see the response to this question as our quintessential theological-pedagogical problem in the post-COVID era.”
Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner, Professor of Pastoral Care and Pastoral Theology, noted that Winter Storm Uri, coupled with the pandemic, showed the need for church leaders to be prepared to offer radical hospitality in catastrophic emergencies. She thinks members of the Perkins community can lead and are leading the way.
“If life is a journey or pilgrimage, there will be a need for waystations, sacred and warm waystations,” she said. “Especially in the time of a pandemic or natural weather disaster, the wayfarers called ‘the unhoused’ or ‘the unsheltered’ will stand in need of hospitality of all sorts.”
When Uri struck, and people lost heat and electricity, she asked: “How was the ecclesial practice of hospitality to wayfarers extended? Where were the waystations?”
As a successful model, she cited Oaklawn UMC in Dallas, a midtown church staffed by Pastor Mara Morhouse (M.Div. 2019) and the Rev. Rachel Griffin Baughman, Senior Pastor and a former Perkins student. When their church shelter reached capacity, they turned to the city government and pre-established relationships with other agencies in a team effort. As a result, the Convention Center of Dallas was opened for the unhoused and unsheltered. Blankets, warmth, bathrooms, cots, and meals were offered to hundreds in an unlikely waystation.
Mark W. Stamm, Professor of Christian Worship, looks back on the past year as a liminal time – “a time between times,” an extended period of uncertainty and change. Much like Israel’s period of wandering in the wilderness, there were many unexpected and strange moments. During liminal times, Stamm says, the best response is “imaginative hope.”
“We deal with this time just by being aware of the grace and sustenance that comes to us in the middle of it,” he said.
He recalled a retreat that he attends annually for the Order of St. Luke. In typical years, members travel from around the U.S. to gather in person. Members of chapters in faraway places like the Philippines and Singapore don’t normally participate. This year, with the retreat held virtually, members from Singapore led a service of Morning Prayer in real time, which was evening for attendees in the continental U.S.
“That is an experience that we will never forget and that we wouldn’t have had without the pandemic,” he said. “As a result, we’ve realized that at least some of our work going forward should be done in a virtual online format.”
Many members of the Perkins community reiterated their anticipation of a time when in-person gatherings return.
Several in the CHAP said they’ve missed the in-person social events. Scholz looks forward to seeing people in Kirby Parlor again. Faculty Assistant Carolyn Douglas hopes committee meetings will continue via Zoom, but she won’t miss Zoom celebrations.
“I can’t wait to get back in the actual classroom, to interact in person with students and colleagues, to sit together over a meal in the refectory,” Miles said.
Once it’s safe, Stevenson-Moessner said, “I will grab my two little granddaughters in Iowa, head to the beach, run barefoot with them in the sand and surf, cuddle at night, and never stop kissing them goodnight.”