Night Vision

"In a dark time, the eye begins to see." -Theodore Roethke

I write this on April 17, 2020. Just over a month ago, drastic public health measures were adopted across Canada to slow the spread of the coronavirus. At Grebel, classes were suspended. Most students moved out, staff and faculty were sent home, and our campus closed abruptly. For the next four months, all in-person classes are cancelled and courses will be delivered online. It’s not yet clear what September will look like. The residence remains closed.

From speaking with our alumni and other supporters, I’m keenly aware that Grebel’s difficulties are far from unique. Our wider community of stakeholders work in every sector of the economy and come from all walks of life. We own and operate businesses, labour in agriculture and farming, and teach at all levels. We serve courageously in the health care system as doctors and nurses. We are pastors and church workers. We are retirees living in residential care homes, and we are also new graduates who are just starting out. Everyone is living through a remarkable time of uncertainty and sacrifice—and some face harder realities than others.

These days, it can feel like we are all in the dark. The world has not seen anything like this pandemic in living memory. The scale of the challenge is staggering. We don’t have experience with this situation and have a hard time predicting what the future might bring.

Long ago, on childhood camping trips, I learned that when you are lost in the dark, reaching for a flashlight is not always the best strategy. The flashlight will only illuminate a small area right in front of you, and it blinds the eye to wider surroundings. It’s counter-intuitive, but the flashlight actually narrows your vision. If you have the patience to pause, look around, and give your eyes time to adjust, you can begin to see in the dark and find the path forward. The night becomes less frightening.

In a crisis, the temptation is to reach for fast and comforting answers, and hope that life will quickly go back to normal. However, I think we need to accept that this pandemic will continue to disrupt our lives for many months to come. We need to pause, reflect, pray, face facts, assess our surroundings, and adapt our sight to a new reality.

I’m pleased to report that everyone at Grebel is learning how to “see in the dark.” Instructors have been hard at work developing online materials for remote teaching. Students did their best to complete their winter term course requirements, and enrolments for our spring term courses are very strong. We’ve had online chapel services and a virtual term-end banquet.

Moving programs to online formats has already enabled us to make connections with new people and expand our reach. For example, our community education program in Conflict Management has drawn interest from people as far away as the Northwest Territories and the United Kingdom as a result of moving to online formats. It would be dishonest to suggest that these adaptations have been easy or painless—or that we’ve finished the job. But we are all working together to make it happen.

So far, these difficult times have brought out the best in Grebel and its people. The times are also drawing out new questions for us to ponder and study. For example: How can theology help us to understand this moment in history? Can music help express our deepest responses to the pandemic? What peace and justice issues have arisen in this global crisis? How can we best serve church and society in a post-pandemic world?

Eventually, the world will begin a conversation about life after the coronavirus. We look forward to joining that conversation: to listen, reflect, and add our voices. In the meantime, we’ll keep striving for “night vision”—and keep faith that the path forward will be revealed to all of us.