Five months in 2020 and the world has seen what amounts to the shutdown of civilization. Millions are forced out of work and ordered by their governments to stay at home. Millions are infected and hundreds of thousands are dying from a virus that few knew existed at the beginning of the year. The universe is in disarray and people have billion-dollar questions; where is God in this pandemic, what are his purposes in this time of the coronavirus?
With these questions lingering, it seems the futility of religion is becoming obvious, and clerics and apologetics are not helping. Nevertheless, preachers have not stopped reminding people that God cares for them and that the church was actually born in a time when epidemics were common while quoting the mid-third century bishops like Dionysius of Alexandria, Egypt.
But critics, atheists, agnostics and secularists say there has been a limited religious response to COVID-19 unless we count abandoning religious rules in favour of science, medicine, and forlorn prayers. In fact, they are influencing people to accept that religion is pointless, at best, and harmful, at worst.
Imagine the wonder of finding that one on them, Red Pender – an angry atheist – is actually experiencing God’s presence in her life during the same time that many are saying God has deserted us.
Raised by Catholic parents in Bristol England, her childhood had a lot of negativity towards religion. It all stemmed from her parents struggling to have children that they ended up adopting a baby. Sorrowfully, the young fella died before he was baptised, and the Catholic Church they belonged to wouldn’t do his funeral on that basis.
For Red, that created much grief and pain directed towards anything church-y. For her, God became an angry person who was judging everything she did.
As a teenager, she became an angry atheist who thought religion was ridiculous. The Christians she came across also did not make it any better for her and they look down on her as if she wasn’t good enough for “their God”.
Her early love experience was also horrible. In her my early tweenage, she got into an abusive relationship in which she was raped by her boyfriend. Attempts by God knowing people at crisis centres to talk to her about God were futile as she was so angry that God had allowed the assault to happen to her in the first place.
Down and feeling dejected, she developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety, and with that came obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and intrusive thoughts about cleanliness and self-harm. She had therapy and medication, which helped control things, but that never dealt with the underlying problems.
In 1995, she met her husband and she started to clean her life up as he was a very positive influence. Sadly, she was still left with all of the effects of the PTSD and OCD. She had bad social anxiety, which she came to terms with, in part, because she had to raise her two boys who have autism.
That was not for long. She relapsed as the boys grew older and needed her less until about eight years ago when she developed agoraphobia (fear of places and situations that might cause panic, helplessness or embarrassment). For three years, she didn’t leave the house.
As her condition required it, she gradually started to have therapy again.
Shortly, she would meet a friend, Karen, who goes to Redeemer King Church. Karen grew up as a Christian and according to Red, she has this absolute certainty about faith, but not in a judgmental way that she had seen before. Upon Karen’s never-ending insists to go with her to church, Red finally (although reluctantly) agreed to join her for a church service in January this year.
Alas, anxiety did not loosen its grip off her even when she walked into the church. She couldn’t stop crying during praise and worship sessions.
“It was really scary because it wasn’t at all what I was expecting. People quietly offered me a tissue and said: “Tears are good, you know, this is a connection.” It really unnerved me but something made me want to go back. The same thing happened for four services in a row. I hadn’t cried since I’d been assaulted,” Red told Megan Cornwell of Premier Christianity Magazine.
Because of the OCD and the intrusive thoughts, her experience with the Church was weird, and she struggled to process it. Thus, she stopped congregating at the end of January, but she acknowledged that a change had started in her and it was really powerful.
In the succeeding weeks, she said that she found that she had more headspace and peace than she’d had in a very long time.
“When coronavirus started being talked about I had a strong feeling that I wasn’t going to be alone to face it. People at church were reaching out to me. One lady, Andrea, was sending me worship music and it was very soothing,” said Red.
With the pandemic came the lockdown, stay-at-home and #DoTheFive orders. For someone with health anxiety, the later was problematic as she had to wash her hands constantly. And yet, amid all that would-have-been-nightmare situations, she found that she wasn’t having panic attacks anymore. She found peace and “this space in her head that wasn’t there before”. She said she put it down to this new relationship with God.
Since, she has been reading the Bible and going to online church during the lockdown. As someone who has been used to be in control all the time as the only thing that has kept her feeling safe in the past, she has realised that it was an illusion.
But with all these developments, Red was still in deniable that she believed in God because it just felt too sudden for her.
One recent day, she met an old friend who told her that she looked like she was doing really well for lockdown! Apparently, the friend was expecting her to be in a really bad state.
“I found that I had no anxiety saying: “I’ve actually been reading the Bible and there is so much hope in this book.” And he said: “Oh, you’ve become a philosopher.” I took a deep breath and said: “No, I think I’ve become a Christian,” Red said.
Read Red Pender’s full story here.
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