A single flame flickered into existence in the window of a home in Steinbach, and now throughout the city—and across the country—candles send warmth to a hurting community.
Grace Mennonite Church in Steinbach began lighting candles on Nov. 13, putting them in windows and posting photos to social media daily, in prayer and solidarity with health-care workers, patients and their families in the community.
The action was in response to the skyrocketing rate of COVID-19 in the city of nearly 16,000 residents, which reported an alarming 10-day test positivity rate of 40 percent on Nov. 20. Hundreds are sick from the virus, and multiple outbreaks were reported in personal-care homes, leaving the local hospital, Bethesda Regional Health Centre, overflowing and under-staffed.
“It feels scary and heavy,” said Alisa Harder, who attends Grace Mennonite. “It’s like we’re all walking around with this weight on our shoulders, and it seems to be getting worse, which is very discouraging for us.”
And yet, after a particularly tough week for the city, and just two days after the whole province moved to code red and tighter restrictions, more than 100 people gathered in Steinbach on Nov. 14 to protest mandatory masks and other restrictions.
This public defiance of health measures was deeply discouraging for health-care workers, who are risking their lives to help others.
“The actual number of people who are anti-maskers is actually quite small, but they’re very loud,” said Kyle Penner, associate pastor of Grace Mennonite. He wanted his congregants to be able to do something practical to show their support for those suffering from COVID-19 and those trying to help them.
When he and others from the congregation began posting pictures of their candles on the internet, they quickly gained hundreds of likes and dozens of comments by people sharing their own photos from across Canada. Penner said the health-care workers he heard from “were crying with tears of gratitude. . . . It was kind of neat to see a gesture of hope and solidarity spread like wildfire, as opposed to fear and anxiety.”
Harder said she and her friends were “feeling very powerless and very angry” when they were messaging on a group chat one day. They decided they needed to take action to show nurses and doctors that “there’s more of us that have their back than those that don’t.”
She put out a call for donations among friends and family, and very quickly received enough contributions to purchase and deliver $10 coffee gift cards for all the ER nurses and support staff, paramedics and the majority of COVID-19 ward staff at the local hospital. Harder’s friend fundraised through her Facebook page and purchased bath salts from a local business to help nurses relax after their shifts.
Since then, Steinbach residents started another online fundraiser through GoFundMe, to show their appreciation by providing food purchased from local businesses for staff at the hospital and nursing homes. In one week, they raised $12,221, far exceeding their $5,000 goal.
Harder said it is the fundraisers and candle lighters who reflect the heart of her community, not the anti-maskers: “Being from Steinbach, I know that’s not who we are, that’s not what Steinbach is about.” But with so many COVID-19 cases, she said it is clear that not everyone is following the rules, “so some of that reputation is sadly probably valid.”
Many protesters did not actually come from Steinbach, but from neighbouring towns and as far away as Winnipeg. Dozens came from the Church of God, a congregation located south of Steinbach. Penner said there is “deep frustration” in the community that, despite a small Steinbach presence at the rally, “we all got tarred and feathered with the same brushes.”
Anti-mask protesters expressed dismay over losing rights and freedoms, and being prevented from worshipping together in person.
“I understand that people are worried about personal freedoms . . . [but], as disciples of Christ, we put aside our freedoms for the love of the neighbour,” said Lee Hiebert, lead pastor of Steinbach Mennonite Church. “I think that, as disciples of Christ, as always, one of our mandates is to care for our neighbour. And I think that wearing a mask is an embodiment of that.”
Other churches in the area seem to think so, too. Steinbach Mennonite and Grace Mennonite joined 21 other Steinbach area churches in signing an open letter imploring Christians to follow public-health orders.
While congregants hunker down in their homes and wait out the lockdown, the two Mennonite churches will continue to connect with them, whether that’s through phone calls, online Sunday school, sending out CDs of worship services to those who can’t access them online, or by lighting candles of care.
Do you have a story idea about Mennonites in Manitoba? Send it to Nicolien Klassen-Wiebe at email@example.com.
A plea for compassion
Milo Penner, 4, looks out the window as a candle lit by his father, Kyle Penner, burns in support of Steinbach's healthcare workers, patients and their families. (Photo by Kyle Penner)
Kyle Penner, a pastor at Grace Mennonite Church in Steinbach, Man., has been lighting candles every evening since mid-November in prayer and solidarity with his community's healthcare workers, patients and their families. (Photo courtesy of Kyle Penner)