JAC Online

What We Did When Church Was Illegal
by Captain Michael Ramsay


As I am writing this church gatherings are still illegal in British Columbia. I will write about what we are doing now but first I thought we would look at what we did the first time church gatherings were illegal, during the pandemic, in BC. It was back in March of 2020. The world was gripped by panic. I was on furlough with my family in Europe. We literally had to flee across borders and reschedule flights more than once to try to get back to our country as each terrified nation closed their borders to visitors. We, like so many others, were racing, trying to get home while we still could. We had originally flown out of the United States. That is where our car was and we couldn’t get it because the US would not let us in their country. We did get home safely without it. A night or two before we arrived we were informed that almost everything in Canada and British Columbia had shut down – including Salvation Army Corps: the churches first and later the Thrift Stores and some other ministries. In our community even soup kitchens and other necessary services for people in crisis were closed due to an all-encompassing fear of the pandemic. This was the first time church gatherings were declared illegal.


My family and I spent the next two weeks in isolation. From there we helped arrange the Alberni Covid-19 Community Response. This is an organization made up of a number of agencies in our community. My wife and I also met via messenger video chats with corps council, our management teams, and key workers every morning to discuss how to implement the Army’s role in the community response to Covid-19. There were a number of decisions we had to make about many things, including corporate worship, during this time.


I would be lying to you if I said that I wasn’t concerned about Hebrews 10:23-25 where it says:

“Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”


I was more confident in this:


James 1:27 “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…” and


Matthew 25: 34-40: … “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” 

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”


We embraced our worship of the Lord through service. Because every other food service for vulnerable people had shut down we offered hot meals seven days a week delivered straight to people’s homes or for pick up from the front door of The Salvation Army for people who did not have homes. Later we were able to use the Community Response Unit from Gibsons (Thank you Darrell Pilgrim and Ian Pollard and the BC EDS team!) to better serve those with undeliverable addresses. At the height of need in our community we were delivering meals to over 700 individuals every day in our community. We were confident that we were offering the true worship of James 1 and Matthew 25.


We were still bothered, however, by the fact that traditional Sunday church gatherings were illegal. We tried to ‘do church’ in many ways, like many others. We made videos and posted them on-line: this had diminishing returns. At first I don’t think I’d ever had so many people listen to my sermons; by the end of our experiment with this, I am sure almost nobody was. We also made newsletters and mailed them or hand delivered them to our congregation members’ homes. We had many end-of-driveway visits and the newsletters were a good way for people to still feel connected: this worked well, for a time. Some churches developed dynamic interactive Zoom church meeting during this time complete with break-out rooms and interactive worship. Many of our congregational members are not able to access this technology so we never did try that. I do understand that that did work well for many people for a time. The problem with Zoom over the long term, as I came to discover from the many zoom meetings I participated in with various community groups, is they lack tangible personal interaction. They miss the human element. The informal conversations are at least as important as any item on any agenda. We – like everyone else – struggled our way through this time and came out the other end as churches (like businesses and other groups) re-opened their doors in new Covid-safe ways.


We relocated our services to the Legion Hall which is quite a bit bigger than our regular worship space so we could properly social distance. We sat 2 people (who are in the same bubble) at tables 6’ apart from the next table; people wore masks; we took their temperatures; we collected contact-tracing information; we had multiple Plexiglas shields and sanitized everything. It was good to meet again. We were actually safer during our newly opened Sunday meetings than we were in our re-opened store and our ever-expanding social services (which were each inspected, approved and very safe!) And then it happened.


Just before Christmas, like just before Easter, the government declared gathering for church illegal. This time it upset a lot of people in a lot of churches a lot more than when they previously declared it illegal because this time many in the churches felt targeted. Our church services were certainly not less Covid-safe than our thrift store (which is allowed to be open), our food services and meal assembly (which is still going strong), our warming centre (which was opened during the most recent lockdown) or other things we are doing. And our church services, as they were set up, were far more safe than many restaurants, stores, pubs, and other places that are not closed in BC. The fact that the government banned church gatherings did not sit well with many people.


This was our solution: we were in constant conversations with the Health Authority as to what was acceptable for making food and for people gathering for service or other reasons (we have just opened a warming centre!). When church gatherings were opened up again we ceased preparing meals seven days a week and began taking Sundays off. Now that traditional gathering for Sunday church is illegal, after many conversations and much research, we decided to gather to make sandwiches to be served to people who are homeless and/or hard-to-house in our community. So every Sunday an approved number of our congregation members meet at the Legion, where we were meeting before, to worship the Lord by making sandwiches rather than singing. During Advent we took a minute or two to light a candle or four and read Advent Reading s. We then said a prayer and went to work worshipping our Lord through service, as we do the other six days a week. Now that Advent has come and gone, prior to commencing our worship through sandwich-making someone (fully masked) will read a short scripture and devotional thought. After making the sandwiches we then clean up, load the truck, pray, and head out to continue our worship in service.


Covid-19 has provided many challenges and many opportunities for worship and service in many corps in many communities. I know many people have risen to the challenge to serve God in these challenging times “being as gentle as doves and as wise as serpents” (Matthew 10:16) while properly “rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to Christ what is Christ’s” (Matthew 22:21) This is how we have been trying to do that in our community here. This is how our congregation has been worshiping legally while traditional church gatherings are illegal here.


This issue of JAC is looking at The Salvation War of 2020 from a 2030 perspective: What was significant? What was overblown? What did we do right? What did we miss..? One of the lessons that the Lord has driven home to me is that as we have been faithful with a little He has given us a lot of opportunities to serve on new fronts in the Salvation War. We have been blessed to be able to pray with, walk with, and share the Gospel with many new people in many new ways. And as I know Army Corps across the territory and world have dedicated themselves to being as wise as serpents and gentle as doves in fighting the Salvation War during this time, I am confident that we will look back in 2030 to the Army’s mobilization in 2020 and celebrate how He has used us to claim many victories in the battles of 2020.











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