There’s a scene in The Little Prince where the alien boy, having just landed on Earth, climbs a mountain in search of connection. From its peak, he calls out “Hello.” Then, confusing his own echo for the voice of another person, he calls out again: “Can we be friends? I’m lonely.” The echo answers: “I’m lonely… I’m lonely… I’m lonely…”
As I reread Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic novella recently, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to a year of living through COVID-19. If the pandemic and The Little Prince offer one lesson, it’s this: we’re not built for isolation. The same distancing that’s crucial to stopping the virus has also given rise to what some are calling an “epidemic of loneliness.”
People in search of community often turn to church, and the last year has proven that churches are adept at using technology to keep their congregations connected when they can’t gather in person. One such church is Bethany United in Halifax. Many of its 300 congregants are seniors who moved to the city from rural communities to be closer to medical care and grandchildren.
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“The number one issue I hear — always — is loneliness,” says Bethany’s minister, Rev. Kevin Little. He’s spent a lot of time thinking about how to tackle this problem head-on. Before COVID-19, Bethany had a busy schedule of weekday church activities, including a meditation group and community meals. When COVID hit, Little quickly organized new activities to fill the void: a daily email from the minister, a phone tree, an online book club, meetups at a park. Did it help?
It did for at least one man, a 67-year-old we’ll call Daniel. A year and a half ago, Daniel was “a bit adrift,” he says. His mom and his good friend had died. He left a high-stress job — and the longtime friendships that came with it. He was trying to cope with anxiety, depression and loneliness. One day, he walked into Bethany United, and started joining clubs and making friends. “Bethany was life-giving, welcoming and accepting,” Daniel says.
When COVID-19 forced the suspension of those clubs last March, Daniel carried on, volunteering for the phone-tree team. One day, he rang an octogenarian he describes as “a sharp older guy,” but on that call the man was strangely incoherent. Daniel hung up and dialed 911; the older gentleman was rushed to hospital and survived his medical emergency.
When they get it right, this is how church communities work — in a pandemic or otherwise. At their best, they’re places not only to find connection but also to offer it. For those who stumble into Bethany United and shout, “Can we be friends? I’m lonely,” the sound that reverberates back is a resounding “Yes… yes… yes…” May the same be true for you — wherever you seek community.
This editorial first appeared in Broadview’s March 2021 issue with the title “Lonely together.”
Jocelyn Bell is the editor-publisher of Broadview. She is also the winner of the 2020 National Magazine Awards Editor Grand Prix award.
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