Letter from President Pollard - August 7

Dear JBU Students,

We have been sending you a lot of information about the physical logistics of coming back to campus this fall, and I appreciate your feedback and questions on the information. We will continue to update our FAQ webpage and post on Instagram to highlight any changes. But I wanted to use this letter to speak to the emotional and spiritual challenges of returning to campus, challenges that I have felt personally and also heard about from students. I believe that we must take time to recognize and lament our loss and grief as we seek the emotional and spiritual resources to carry on this semester with Christ’s help.

All of us have lost important things because of the pandemic. New freshmen lost the last months of their high school senior year, including musical performances, spring sports, graduation and the chance to say farewell to friends. At JBU, we all lost the end of the spring semester, including big events such as music recitals, senior project presentations, Junior-Senior Banquet, the Athletics Awards Banquet and graduation. But we also missed smaller but no less important, moments — drinking coffee with a friend at Ground Floor, having deep conversations about your future with a faculty member, or worshiping with your roommate at The Gathering. Moreover, some of you may have returned home to experience even more loss this summer — the summer internship that disappeared, the family trip that was canceled, the cousin’s wedding that was postponed, your mom or dad being furloughed from their work, the anxiety of potentially getting sick or spreading the coronavirus to someone else, or even the loss of a loved one. Almost all of our losses have been sudden, and the grief from those losses has been real and, in some cases, profound.

For those who have taken Psych 101, you have likely read about Elisabeth Kubler Ross’s theory of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. If you think back over the last four and a half months, I expect that you have felt each of these emotions at different times. You may have experienced denial when you had to wake up for another Zoom class; anger at having all of your summer plans canceled; bargaining with your parents about how much freedom they were going to extend for you to see friends; depression because each day seemed exactly the same; and the acceptance that this was going to be a pandemic summer, and you had to make the best of it.

It is now only a week or so until you come to JBU, and you may be hoping that this time of loss and grief is now over. Finally, you can reconnect with friends, meet new people, engage with JBU faculty face-to-face, play intramurals sports, make late night runs to Taco Bell and return to some form of “normal” life. And while we have sought to do everything possible to prepare JBU to serve you well, I anticipate that you may experience new losses as you return. JBU is a deeply relational community, and I expect that you will develop new friendships and deepen other relationships in the coming semester. However, it is also important to acknowledge how new health and safety protocols will alter the nature of the on-campus experience and will make developing relationship at least different if not harder. Face masks will limit our capacity to communicate with each other with nuance and warmth, and they may create unique challenges for those that are Deaf and hard of hearing. Desks separated by six feet in classrooms look and feel alienating. Waiting in longer lines for food might feel frustrating. Spending 14 days in quarantine may be lonely. Not being able to worship together in the Cathedral will create an ache in our souls. Experiencing these losses when you come back may well stir up more grief and another round of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and eventual acceptance.

I too am grieving the loss of our normal JBU life. Carey and I enjoy the chance to see you perform on the soccer field or in musicals, and we may not fully experience that joy this semester. We love informal conversations with students in the cafeteria or our home, and those conversations will likely be more awkward behind a mask and from six feet away. We feel lifted up by your voices when you shake the walls of the Cathedral with your singing, and it won’t be quite the same worshipping outside on the quad. I have cried a few times this summer (which will not surprise returning students) when I thought about how life will be different this fall. Even though I believe that the changes we have put in place are necessary and good, I deeply wish that it was otherwise. I lament the brokenness of a world in which the threat of serious illness makes friendship and human connection so much more difficult, but it is our world at this time. I expect that God will use it to make us more faithful followers of him.

Okay, I know that this letter is not my best marketing piece. At this point, you may wonder whether you should come back to JBU at all. I think that you should, not because you won’t suffer loss and grief, but because our common Christian commitments give us resources to respond to communal pain. We have the resource of mature Christian faculty and staff who will listen to you and point you toward the hope of Christ. We have resources in our Student Counseling Center that will address deeper emotional struggles with the best combination of counseling expertise and spiritual wisdom. We have resources in our residential life program that will be sensitive to these issues and sponsor groups and conversations to encourage and support students. We have creative faculty who are imagining new ways to teach fundamental and lasting truth in the context of these strange parameters. We have the rich Biblical tradition of lament in which we can cry out to God and ask him to fix the brokenness of this world. And, I expect that our greatest resource will be you, JBU students, who love each other so well and who will creatively find ways to connect, encourage and befriend each other within these strange protocols. I truly do believe that this semester could be one of our best semesters if we allow God to fill our grief with his presence and to show us joy, friendship, knowledge and love in surprising new ways. 

Of course, the God whom we worship and serve is our greatest resource in this time of grief and lament. The Psalms often speak to the brevity of our lives and the ever-present sense of loss in it. Psalm 90 says, “The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble, they are soon gone, and we fly away.” Ultimately, we don’t put our faith in strategic plans or COVID-19 response teams; our faith is in the one true God who has “been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (90:1-2). We can find meaning and joy in our lives, even with six-foot distancing and masks because we serve a God who “teaches us to number our days so that we may get a heart of wisdom” (90:12). We can put up with the frustrations, inconveniences, loneliness, illness and loss of the pandemic because we worship God who “satisfies us in the morning with [his] steadfast love so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (90:14). These are lessons to learn for life, not just for college. With God’s help, we will learn these lessons in new and perhaps deeper ways by gathering together this semester in the midst of a pandemic.

We are facing a significant public health challenge, and we are doing everything we can at JBU to be wise in responding to this issue. But that public health challenge may also clarify the spiritual struggle that we face every day. Will we live sacrificially for God and others, or will we live first for ourselves and our expectations? Will we be caught in Kubler Ross’s cycle of grief again and again, or can we allow Christ to fill our grief with his presence so that we might live out the fruit of his spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control)? Will we allow God to use this semester to refine our character and nourish our faith, or will we spend it longing for what we have lost. 

This challenge is as great for me as it is for you, for I too am a sinner in need of grace. However, I could not think of a better community than JBU to help me grow in faith in Christ.  I also could not imagine a better group of students to respond together as community to the challenge ahead. As you come to campus in the next week, I ask that you pray with me the last two verses of Psalm 90: “Let your work be shown to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hand upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands.”

Thanks for reading another letter from me that was probably TMTR (too much to read). Look forward to seeing you soon.

All God’s blessings,

Dr. Charles W. Pollard
President, John Brown University