Atlanta women’s Bible ministry weighs Easter lessons from COVID pandemic

Nancy McGuirk talks with the leaders of her women's Bible study class during a Zoom call at her Atlanta home Monday, March 15, 2021.  (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Combined ShapeCaption
Nancy McGuirk talks with the leaders of her women's Bible study class during a Zoom call at her Atlanta home Monday, March 15, 2021. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Kimberlyn Abbey, a group leader in one of metro Atlanta’s largest women’s Bible studies, has a little different perspective on this year’s Easter compared to last year, when the coronavirus pandemic was just beginning to shut down the nation.

“Where I’m originally from, we were going through a civil war,” Abbey, a native of Liberia, says. “When the pandemic began erupting here, we had been in the U.S. for just two years, and we just had to get back into the mindset of hunkering down and making sure we had enough food and other essentials. For us, not being able to be free to move around was a reality we were used to.”

Now, a year later, Abbey, 45, is grateful to be a part of Women’s Community Bible Study (WCBS), a group founded by Buckhead resident Nancy McGuirk almost three decades ago. “Last Easter, we were just going into lockdown, and every single woman who’s been in this ministry has grown over the past year.

“The pandemic has brought people together,” Abbey says. “Before COVID, people weren’t as attentive about their relationships as they are now. Easter reminds us that sometimes it’s easy to dismiss those moments when you can’t see your friend or loved one, because you take for granted you’re going to see them again. COVID has made us realize you’re not sure what’s going to happen to your family or your neighbors.”

As McGuirk herself says, “If there was ever a time to celebrate the meaning of Easter, it’s now.”

The WCBS is housed at Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Buckhead, and over the past 30 years, it has grown to 500 regularly attending members. The group had been meeting each Wednesday morning, prior to the pandemic.

That number, of course, has been impacted by COVID, but even during the pandemic and with meetings held through Zoom, McGuirk — whose husband, Terry McGuirk, is chairman and CEO of Atlanta Braves Holdings LLC, the parent company of the Atlanta Braves and Braves Development Co. — says the membership maintained a base of about 300 participants.

Virtual leaders’ meetings are held on Mondays; small groups on Wednesdays — including some in-person sessions. Now, however, “women are signing up to participate again,” McGuirk says.

The group includes women of all denominations, nationalities and backgrounds, including Fatima MacKoy, a native of Brazil who joined the group in 2003 after finding it through a friend. Several years ago, she underwent open-heart surgery for an aortic infection, a procedure she says during which “only 10% to 20% of people survive.”

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

The Bible group not only helped MacKoy, 64, through prayer, but with medical expenses as well.

“They really increased my faith,” MacKoy, who is one of McGuirk’s group leaders, says. “Easter is very special to me, because we need prayer now more than ever.”

McGuirk began her ministry with 14 women. She says she was inspired after a friend explained to her what being a Christian “really means. It’s about relationship, not a religion. Even after attending church all my life, I knew that was not how I was living.

“This conviction resulted in a hunger to know God more than ever,” McGuirk says, “so I knew I needed to study the Bible. After taking every course our church offered on the Bible over the years, they eventually asked me to lead a Bible study.”

All 14 members signed up to continue the ministry the following year, and then McGuirk found herself with a waiting list of more than 80 people.

“I asked the church to open the doors to the community, and as they did, over the years, hundreds began to join us,” McGuirk says.

A family Easter service project

Like Abbey, McGuirk says the pandemic has brought changes to not only Easter this year, but to her family — made up of three daughters, one son, 12 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren — as well.

“Easter has always been important to us,” McGuirk says. “We usually try to have the family over every year when they can make it, but our family has grown so large we take whoever we can get.”

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

This year, McGuirk put together her own little Easter service project for her family. After a small group of friends asked her what gifts she’d like for a recent birthday, McGuirk asked them to write Easter love notes to the homeless, which she would stuff — along with grocery gift cards — into envelopes. Her children and grandchildren spent weeks before Easter visiting homeless areas, and handing the gifts out to the poorest among us.

My friend, God loves you. He is your provider and your hope. It's been a hard year for many, but we can always look to the cross and see the love of God. He sent his son to die for our sins and give us new life and life eternal. This is the good news of Easter. Put your faith in Christ. He will see you through this. God has a plan. He will send others to help! May you sense His presence and love even now!

- Love note to the homeless by Nancy McGuirk

“Maybe this pandemic, which caused all of us to slow down, has also made us more mindful of the needs of others, more than usual,” McGuirk says. “Maybe, with so much heartache around us, we are looking more and more outside of ourselves. As we count our blessings, we seek out opportunities to make a difference.”

A COVID disruption

Rich Kannwischer, senior pastor at Peachtree Presbyterian Church, where WCBS is housed, has a uniquely personal connection to the pandemic. His wife’s birthday — March 11 — coincides with the World Health Organization’s declaration of the coronavirus pandemic. Easter fell 32 days later, on April 12.

“COVID hit us so disruptively, and so quickly,” says Kannwischer, who has been a pastor for 23 years and senior pastor at Peachtree Presbyterian for more than four. “All of a sudden, every church has to become a startup, and figure out how to do an online, digital ministry.”

Kannwischer and his family had just returned from one of the last Disney cruises that set sail before the pandemic struck. Three days after his return, he was recording his Sunday message alone in the church’s sanctuary.

Every ministry of Kannwischer’s church has been forced to now rely on video conferencing, even groups led by elderly members. “Within two weeks, seniors — who aren’t known for their technological mobility — were continuing the work of the ministry together.”

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Of McGuirk’s group, Kannwischer says “it’s so encouraging to see such a vital, vibrant ministry of women who gather together on a regular basis and share each other’s burdens and pray and serve together.”

Kannwischer only recently saw his parents for the first time since December 2019. They were going to visit on Easter Sunday of last year, but instead decided to self-quarantine out of caution.

“There isn’t a dimension of life that hasn’t been severely impacted by what we’ve been through since before last Easter,” he says. “Any one of last year’s political or civil unrests — not to mention the pandemic — would have been enough for us to handle during one season. To go through all of these crises together makes us understand how much we need and depend on one another.

“The big question is, what is COVID’s spiritual impact? How long will it take our communities and our neighbors to relearn not to fear one another?”

Abbey knows firsthand about terror and fear. The first Liberian Civil War broke out in December 1989, followed by another in 1999. Her father was killed in the violence, leaving Abbey, her mother and sisters to flee the West African coastal nation on a cargo ship to Ghana, and then onto the U.S.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

“Along the way, there was a lot of pain and suffering,” Abbey says. “I tell my small WCBS group, when you don’t have food and water for weeks, there comes a different understanding regarding the things you have now. You have a sense of gratitude for where you were and where you are now, and how much God has given us.”

Abbey was invited to the WCBS by Janet York, another of McGuirk’s group leaders.

“This past year, we’ve had several very timely Bible studies through Zoom on trusting God and overcoming our daily struggles, at the same time we’re going through the elections and the global pandemic,” York says. “The pandemic has brought people closer together and resulted in people appreciating being together.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

“I’ve spoken to people across the country who couldn’t visit their loved ones in the hospital,” York says. “Easter reminds us of what’s important, that relationships with family and friends are what’s truly special.”

Strengthening relationships

Kannwischer says the year since last Easter has been polarizing when examining relationships. Good relationships were strengthened by the challenges of the past year; already strained relationships got worse. “It has stripped us all of pretense; there’s no question about that,” he said.

McGuirk was reminded how fleeting life is. When a friend died from COVID, the one truth that tempered the pain was the knowledge that her friend had gone home to be with the love of her life. Her friend, McGuirk says, “lived with an eternal perspective, which is what God wants for every person.”

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Some Americans say their religious faith has strengthened as a result of the outbreak, even as the vast majority of U.S. churchgoers report their congregations closed regular worship services to the public, according to a 2020 Pew Research Center survey.

One-quarter of U.S. adults overall (24%) say their faith has become stronger because of the coronavirus pandemic, while just 2% say their faith has become weaker. The majority say their faith hasn’t changed much (47%) or that the question isn’t applicable because they were not religious to begin with (26%).

A time to reprioritize our lives

But now, as virus restrictions begin loosening across the U.S. and more Americans are receiving COVID-19 vaccines, McGuirk and her ministry, as well as Peachtree Presbyterian, are looking to seeing one another in person. While some church members may have given up on meeting in person, Kannwischer says the pandemic has taught how precious life is, and the sacredness and importance of being together.

While nearly three-fourths of consumers typically gather with friends and family for Easter, this year less than half will do so, according to Numerator, a Chicago-based data and tech company. Due to COVID concerns, 42% of those surveyed said they would be seeing fewer people and limiting contact with others, while another 39% said they would be staying at home this Easter and limiting their time in public.

While WCBS’ in-person gatherings are dependent on when Peachtree Presbyterian decides to loosen its virus restrictions, McGuirk hopes people don’t forget the lessons of the pandemic. Kannwischer says the church is likely to be at 20% capacity this Easter.

“This crisis has shaken us, and that is good,” McGuirk says. “The pandemic has forced people to reprioritize their lives and realize they’re not as much in control of their lives as they think.

“Before 2020, many people were so busy chasing dreams of power, possessions and prominence, and in so doing they were disconnected from their loved ones,” she says. “We were addicted to technology, our faces buried in our phones and obsessed with social media. While we craved connection, we had, in fact, created worlds of isolation. God teaches that’s what important in life is relationships — the one we have with him and the ones we have with one another.”

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