We're thankful to have been in France during COVID
Aussie missionaries in one of the worst COVID hotspots
Daniel and Kate Morris spent a lot of 2020 holed up with their three young children in a small apartment in the university city of Lille, in northern France.
Outside the walls of their home, coronavirus was crippling the proud nation where the family has lived and served for the past seven years. So far in France, more than 2.6 million people have contracted COVID-19 – the fifth highest infection rate in the world – and over 65,000 have died from it.
During the early months of the pandemic, the family were only allowed to leave the house for an hour a day, with masks, and were required to complete a form for any other leave requests.
Then, after the relaxing of restrictions over summer in July and August, a second wave hit. In October curfews returned, masks were donned in schools by all teachers and students aged six and over, universities had restricted numbers, then moved fully online, and many people worked from home.
“God has worked so much. We’ve had a lot of friendships that have been really strengthened through this.” – Kate Morris
And yet, despite the risks and the restrictions, the Morrises say there is nowhere they would rather be during the pandemic.
“It’s actually been a good year to be there and be going through all of this. It’s been such as unique time of solidarity with our friends there,” Daniel tells Eternity.
“God has worked so much. We’ve had a lot of friendships that have been really strengthened through this … It’s that shared experience of going through something together,” Kate adds.
“It was during [the first] lockdown that a couple of my Muslim friends started to talk about God a little bit more with me. Religion is very personal in France, so usually it takes time to be able to get to that point. But the lockdown hastened getting to that point, actually. So that was really wonderful.”
The family’s relationship with their neighbours was also strengthened because of COVID restrictions.
“During the first lockdown, when churches first closed, I decided to run Sunday school in the garden for our kids. There’s one other family with kids in our apartment building who we share the garden with. They had nothing else on, so they came down and joined and Sunday school as well,” Kate explains.
“So we were able to share our faith with them. It was over Easter time too, so we learnt about Jesus and the cross and the resurrection. Who would have thought this would happen during COVID which shut down so much? It just shows that God is in control and nothing’s going to stop his word going out; and everything that happens, good or bad, he can use as another way for his word to go out.”
“In May we decided we really couldn’t leave France …” – Kate Morris
This is part of the encouraging message that the Morrises also shared with participants of Church Missionary Society (CMS) Australia’s Summer School in Katoomba, NSW, held online (January 2-7, 2021) due to recent COVID outbreaks. In addition to their surprisingly good news from the difficult COVID season, the Morrises also shared about the small but steady progress they are making in their ministry work in a very secular city, in a very secular country.
Daniel is the only staff worker for the Christian student group Groupes Bibliques Universitaires (GBU) in Lille, with its population of 120,000 students. And yet, through their bible study group and ministry training program, he is seeing several young Christians growing into evangelistic leaders. Kate is also seeing much growth in the Sunday school she started at their local church – which has grown from nothing to two groups of children with an enthusiastic team of teachers.
Of course, COVID has also thrown up challenges for their ministries.
“Ministry at church obviously had to change when we were no longer doing Sunday school in person and trying to work out how to do that online, which was tricky. For the GBU ministry, Bible studies needed to change to online. Then, we normally have regional events where students from the whole region of the north [of France] can get together and have training and encourage each other. They needed to be moved online, as well as national conferences being changed or cancelled,” says Kate.
Daniel notes that COVID restrictions also created a greater need for emotional support for students.
“The students, especially, have found it really hard. Because students will often move to the other side of the country for their studies. And so they’ll be in a little studio [apartment], like a 12-square-metre studio, where they’ve got a bed, a hotplate, a sink and a bathroom, basically.
“So students have been locked down in that tiny little studio apartment, have all their courses online and all their interactions online, because in lockdown you are not allowed to actually go out and meet someone. (You can go and exercise for one hour, you can do your groceries, but you can’t socialise.) It’s been really lonely for students because they’re often just by themselves. That’s really exhausting and feels really confining.”
“Lots of people had COVID at school and at church.” – Kate Morris
While the Morris family were due to return to Australia for a furlough break in July 2020, these COVID complexities caused them to delay their trip.
“We knew that it was a rough year. So in May we decided we really couldn’t leave France in July as everything had suddenly changed … If we had left in July, we wouldn’t be there for the beginning of the academic year [in September]. Normally that wouldn’t be a problem, but the next academic year had to begin in COVID, and so had to be planned for in COVID times,” says Kate.
As it turned out, French universities did reopen at the start of September, but they soon moved to 50 per cent capacity and by mid October, all studies were back to fully online.
“Students are disappointed because university is a key time where they can make friendships, but now everything has moved back online,” says Daniel.
Since the Morris family eventually returned to Australia in November, they have been in a state of “COVID shock” – rather than the usual culture shock experienced by missionaries on home furlough.
“When we were in hotel quarantine, we (thankfully) had a balcony overlooking the main street in Canberra. We were looking into a tram on the street and no one was wearing a mask. And people were walking along the street and no one was wearing a mask. We were like, what’s going on?” says Daniel.
He continues: “I know that it has been a really hard year and everything has been turned upside down for lots of people, but it’s hard coming from France where life has been even more turned upside down …
“One week in one of our daughter’s classes, one girl was at home in quarantine because her grandparents had COVID. Another girl was at home because she had tested positively. And that’s just one week in one class.”
“Lots of people had COVID at school and at church, says Kate.
She’s quick to add, “We don’t want to minimise what Australia is going through. It’s been rough in Australia, and that means that people in Australia can have a hint of what it’s been like in France as well. We know people who’ve lost people because of COVID.”
“It’s the time for the gospel to be going out … God’s using this.” – Kate Morris
The time and distance spent away from France (they return in May) has already given Daniel and Kate greater clarity about the impact COVID could have on that nation.
“France is the sort of country that wants to stand on its own two feet. It’s strong and wealthy and successful. It has been able to rely on its own might for hundreds of years. It’s got this idea of itself as being able to endure anything. They don’t need to look to God for anything,” Kate reflects.
“But in the last five years, they’ve had horrific terror attacks … [In 2019] Notre Dame – the symbol of their heritage – burned down. And now COVID. France is being crippled by this [pandemic], the economy has been shockingly hit.
“So one after another, every pillar that France puts its trust in has been knocked down, especially over this last year. It’s the time for the gospel to be going out – and it is. We see Christians being bold and creative in how to make the gospel go out. God’s using this.”
Kate continues: “It’s hard to see any nation be crippled. But at the same time, if you see that the thing that was holding them up is distracting them from the gospel, you want them to come to see the reality that they are not actually able to stand without God.
“We’re asking people to be praying for Christians that they’ll be using opportunities and making opportunities to send the gospel out.”