Hope in Extraordinary Times

March 23, 2020

Robin Baker praying with students

Who knew 90 days ago that coronavirus emerging in central China would lead to a global pandemic? Our early awareness of COVID-19 led us to meet and discuss our study-abroad programs. That quickly led to discussions about athletics because we were at the start of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament and spring sports seasons. As difficult as these discussions were, we always entered them focused on our students and commitment to Christ.

I want to, if just for a few moments, invite you into the whirlwind of the past two weeks.

Two Weeks Ago

I came to work and was informed that our women’s basketball team would be forced to play its upcoming NCAA Div. III “Sweet 16” game in a gymnasium in Massachusetts with no fans because of the potential threat of the coronavirus. Our parents and students were understandably upset. We tried – and failed – to convince the NCAA to make changes that would allow parents to attend games.

12 Days Ago

The NBA disclosed that one of their players had tested positive for the virus and announced that the entire season was suspended. That announcement was followed by Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League and Major League Soccer all announcing that their seasons were halted until further notice.

President Trump announced a European travel ban which canceled many of our study-abroad trips. For several weeks, we’d been in wait-and-see mode with Juniors Abroad, our study-abroad program that provides overseas experiences for nearly half our traditional undergraduates during their college career. Would we still be able to take trips in May? Two weeks earlier we’d redirected our Asia trips to other “safer” continents.

11 Days Ago

Our basketball team’s practice in Massachusetts was interrupted by an official who told them the entire national tournament – and all NCAA basketball tournaments – were canceled. Basketball season was over.

The Oregon governor ordered all K-12 schools to close until April and canceled all events with more than 250 people.

We announced our decision to move to remote instruction for several weeks while keeping the residence and dining halls open to help students who would have no place to go. Our academic team had been preparing to move in this direction and were ready when we made the decision.

I attended an outstanding George Fox symphonic band concert that proved to be the university’s last major in-person event of the academic year.

10 Days Ago

College presidents across the country spoke by phone to determine what we would do with spring sports. Our Northwest Conference presidents held a phone call early in the morning and agreed that we would follow the Pac-12 Conference and play spring sports but with no fans. As soon as we got off the phone call, the Pac-12 announced that it would not play spring sports. We all got back on the phone only to learn in the midst of the phone call that the NCAA was canceling all spring sports. College sports were officially over for the academic year. Our student-athletes – and especially our seniors – were heartbroken.

8 Days Ago

We entered the weekend with hope that we could still send study-abroad trips to Australia and New Zealand – countries that had yet to experience widespread infection of the virus. By Sunday, both countries had essentially closed their borders. Juniors Abroad was canceled for the first time in its 33-year history.

The engines of our economy began to shut down. Major stores closed – Nike, REI, Apple and Columbia, among many others. Restaurants, which at first committed to stay open, by Monday had begun to close. Theaters closed. Spring break plans were canceled. Starbucks announced they would temporarily stop allowing customers to gather in their cafes. The popular Shamrock Run in Portland halted. All major cultural events were canceled.

7 Days Ago

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that any event over 50 persons should be canceled for eight weeks. This was followed by even more limited gathering recommendations by the federal government. Thousands of people were out of work, the stock market was in a free fall, and angst became widespread.

6 Days Ago

We extended remote instruction to the end of the semester and encouraged students to move out of their residence halls. All campus events were canceled through the end of the spring semester. Employees were encouraged, where job duties allowed, to work from home.

5 Days Ago

The Oregon governor used her emergency powers to prohibit colleges from providing in-person classroom, laboratory and other instruction through April 28.

For me, this period was like a bad dream. Every decision seemed to require a subsequent decision just moments later. Our entire environment appeared liquid, and there was little you could do as a leader to hammer a “stake” in the ground to give the campus the sense that we could now operate under the new conditions. Would we keep the campus open? How would we deliver on our academic promise? What would the protocols be in the residence halls? Our leadership groups were meeting consistently to try and keep ahead of the constantly changing environment. We all began to recognize that we couldn’t know what the next day would bring.

I was very proud of our faculty and staff as they moved to adapt their work in the service of students. As virus concerns heightened, the academic team immediately began to create the systems and training essential to the launch of remote learning. It may look quite different from what we expected a month ago, but we will continue to educate and inspire students to follow God's call.

Are These Unprecedented Times?

As you know, I am a historian, and we often provide context for current discussions. While this coronavirus may appear unprecedented, deadly infections were once common in the United States. In a recent essay in The Wall Street Journal, entitled “When Epidemics Wreaked Havoc in America,” Professor David Oshinsky details how infectious diseases devastated the human community prior to 1960. Every summer, polio maimed and killed thousands of children until it was eradicated through the vaccine work of Jonas Salk. Measles, mumps, typhus, cholera, smallpox and yellow fever took a significant toll on the lives of Americans (and others) prior to the miraculous work of science (conquered by vaccines and later penicillin). In 1860, 20 percent of the children born in New York City would not live to their first birthday.

Today, we are not emotionally prepared for an infectious disease epidemic because, unlike my father’s generation, we have never been forced to endure such hardship. We live as if science has conquered all disease, but we have discovered that the world of microbes is far more complex. Having lost our control, we often live in angst.

In Christ There is Always Hope

How should we live in such a challenging time? The simple answer is: as Christians always have lived – guided by our faith in our great shepherd, Jesus Christ. We have never really had control. Although there were very different circumstances in the 1950s, C.S. Lewis addressed this concern decades ago when he was asked how a Christian should live in the atomic age.

“In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. ‘How are we to live in an atomic age?’ I am tempted to reply: ‘Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors – anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things – praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts – not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”

Our current epidemic will pass. I do not want to minimize the suffering and loss that many will experience. It is real. Our culture and university are taking steps to help the most vulnerable in our community, and we are indeed all in this together. Our opportunity, in this moment, is to realize that the most sophisticated scientific culture in the world still does not guarantee that humans will overcome disease and sufferings. Our hope lies elsewhere.

Click the image above to hear Robin's timely message of hope.

Be Strong and Courageous

The point of life is how one chooses to live each day in the face of difficult circumstances. As Joshua looked into the Promised Land, the Lord gave him this message: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified, do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” The promise was good thousands of years ago and it remains for us today – be strong and courageous in your teaching, learning and in your constant service of others because the Lord goes in front of us at all times and in all circumstances.

In Christ, Robin Baker