2020 Annual Review | Endurance and Hope
The year was 1914. The dark clouds of World War I were gathering. Ernest Shackleton, a young Antarctic explorer, was preparing to lead the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, attempting the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent via the South Pole. His plans were grand, the task huge and the potential glory, great. But deep in the Antarctic Ocean, the plan was halted, and his mission changed.
Shackleton and his crew of 27 planned to sail their ship Endurance through the Weddell Sea to the Antarctic Peninsula, where their land crossing would begin. However, before they reached land, Endurance was trapped, then crushed in an icepack. Within a few days, their grand plans were irrevocably changed, and new challenges awaited.
The similarities with our situation over a century later in 2020 are striking. For TSCF, and indeed much of the world, COVID-19 has resulted in aborted journeys, changed plans and reframed missions. As we look back on the past year, it’s clear we are at a seminal moment in history.
Navigating the uncharted paths of our COVID response, I have repeatedly been reminded of Scripture and Shackleton and encouraged to learn from both. As the Māori whakataukī says, “Ka mua, ka muri” meaning “Walking backwards into the future;” we learn from the past as we head into the future.
An Ambitious Vision
Shackleton’s plan was simple, yet bold and ambitious. Preparations were made, a team assembled and a goal established – to achieve the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent.
As TSCF, our vision is also simple, bold and ambitious. We want to see students across NZ being transformed by the gospel of Christ and becoming servant leaders of character. We want them to be shaped by Biblical convictions, integrating faith, study, work and life, bringing cultural renewal to NZ’s tertiary institutions. Our mission is to reach students for Christ and change students for life.
A Changed Plan
Just weeks after departure, Endurance was surrounded by packed ice “different…from anything encountered before,” and unable to move. For the crew of Endurance, the realisation they were beset came very slowly, like a creeping resignation. Within weeks, Shackleton made official what they had all come to accept – they would have to winter onboard Endurance. No one could have foreseen the disastrous chain of events that had brought them to their predicament – unseasonable gales, changeable weather and sub-zero temperatures. As the months went on, the grim reality became apparent: their ship was trapped, would be crushed, and sink. When the time came, Shackleton simply said, “She’s going, boys. I think it’s time to get off.”
Throughout this obvious disappointment and immediate danger, Shackleton maintained a realistic perspective. Their ship was gone, but they were still alive. They had three boats to aid them and supplies to keep them. All was not lost, though everything had changed. Later, as Shackleton and his crew faced the realities and choices of their situation, he asked the question: “Can we stay where we are?”
As 2020 began, it was terrific to see TSCF’s vision outworked. Encouraging numbers of students gathered at our Student Lounge at Festival One, then at various Launch events, Orientation Weeks and Clubs Days on numerous campuses. The mood amongst students and staff was buoyant.
However, it soon became clear that things were going to change. Within weeks of our first COVID case in NZ – a virus different from anything encountered before – a global pandemic was declared, our borders closed, community transmission occurred and NZ went into Level 4 lockdown. After a promising start to the year, student meetings had to go online, Easter camps were cancelled and Summit, our national conference – due to take place in Queenstown – became an online event. Large numbers of international students stayed away or returned home. Student ministry began to look radically different.
As we adjusted to “the new normal,” students and staff learned the upsides and downsides of an online existence. Outreach became much harder, with difficulties creating meaningful connections with new students. “Zoom fatigue” meant students who spent all day watching lectures were less inclined to join an online TSCF meeting. The challenges were real, but our mission remained. Student ministry had changed, but it had not ceased.
One year from the start of the pandemic, we can feel the strong temptation to maintain the status quo and stay safe. It is good to ask the same question that Shackleton asked his men: “Can we stay where we are?” We surely answer with a resounding “No!” We consider which changes we must keep and which changes must still be made to adapt for the future. Though we have had times of forced inactivity, we cannot remain inactive forever. We must move forward with hope in times of uncertainty.
A United Team
Shackleton’s genius was leading a diverse crew to live and work together in harmony, despite their marked individuality. He wanted people who shared his vision and enthusiasm for exploration. His focus was on the one thing that gave them the best chance of achieving their goals – unity, not uniformity. In the face of crisis, this team of 28 were able to pull together to achieve the unthinkable. Shackleton was convinced their best chance of reaching safety was to remain together. It required leadership, teamwork, humility and hard work.
TSCF is a team of students, staff, supporters and churches working together to be the mission arm of the church reaching students for Christ. We are all part of something bigger. We have heard much about NZ’s “Team of 5 million,” where every member plays their part. In TSCF, our team is nearer 5,000, but nevertheless, every person plays their part, and we are thankful to each one. As Romans 12:4–5 says:
“Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ, we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”
Despite a challenging year, one of the encouragements has been to see our team united and working together to achieve a common goal. The complexities of lockdown, restricted campus access and prevailing uncertainty have brought a fresh reminder of our need for collaboration and connectedness in our mission. Though at times we feel our isolation as a distant island nation, we have no need for isolation in our mission at home.
Our situation in NZ remains so different from much of the world. While we have experienced distance from many of the grim realities of the global pandemic and enjoyed freedoms as a result, we know many of our IFES friends around the world are suffering immensely. Just before the true scale of the pandemic was realised, I had the privilege of visiting CECE Ecuador, where I joined Ruth Hicks (TSCF Graduate and CECE’s General Secretary) to speak at their national camp. Over the past year, Ecuador has suffered on a scale unimaginable for those of us who are largely protected from the virus. Whilst our situation is much better, we must not forget others whose lives are in turmoil because of the pandemic.
A Challenging Task
For Shackleton, his initial goal was ambitious. No one had ever completed a land crossing of Antarctica. However, when Endurance was trapped and eventually sank, his task became even more dangerous; they could not stay where they were indefinitely.
The voyage of three lifeboats across 160 km of icy sea was perilous, but their only option. Shackleton and his crew navigated themselves to Elephant Island, a place remote, uninhabited and rarely visited. Then Shackleton and five men sailed one of the lifeboats, the James Caird, 1300 km to the island of South Georgia. For two-and-a-half weeks they faced a prolonged struggle with heavy seas and hurricane-force winds. It was nothing short of a miracle that they made it to land.
Landing on the south side of the island, they faced 40 km of challenging, unexplored interior to reach potential rescuers at the whaling station of Stromness. By day and night, they crossed the mountainous terrain to reach civilisation, risking life and limb, with no map to guide them.
Through these journeys, Shackleton’s crew faced the constant strains of danger, fatigue, ice-cold conditions, frostbite, wind, rain, snow and storms. Their endurance was immense and their sacrifices great.
As TSCF we have been through challenging times in 2020. When the Level 4 lockdown was first announced, we were unsure of the financial implications. We were aware supporters’ circumstances may change and the ability to financially partner with us may be affected. We applied in good faith for the government’s COVID-19 subsidy. Thankfully, we were able to return it in full, as the drop in income we experienced wasn’t near the 30% required.
The challenges have not simply been financial. The uncertainty of regional disruptions and restricted campus access has made it more difficult to plan or grow our student groups. For many, the impact of the pandemic has taken its toll mentally, physically and spiritually. It appears these challenges may be with us for some time yet. The sacrifices by so many have been great. Paul’s description in 2 Corinthians 6 of, “great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses” is apt. But our story is one of God’s goodness and grace.
A Creative Edge
Through the many challenges, Shackleton and his crew showed a willingness to embrace creativity. Shackleton took the modern step of pre-selling the rights to stories, photographs and film of the expedition. When it was clear Endurance would not survive, he showed flexibility and adaptability, creatively using their resources to achieve the rescue they needed. When faced with difficult choices that required creative solutions, Shackleton’s attitude was, “We’ll try it!”
The ongoing challenges of 2020 have taken us back to essentials and encouraged us to try new ways of doing things. Student creativity and flexibility have come to the fore. Zoom and social media have been our allies, allowing us to creatively adapt events to be held online. We tried online outreach events, which helped us in hosting Summit 2020, our first-ever online conference; we had the largest number of students attend in recent years! We also held our first online AGM, enabling participation from supporters across NZ and the world. Creativity and a “We’ll try it!” attitude are part of our DNA.
An Enduring Hope
Shackleton’s leadership was characterised by his continued optimism despite some of the bleakest circumstances. He showed courage, positivity, cheerfulness and patience. He realised that without hope, his crew would perish. At times that hope must have seemed misplaced. But he kept a balanced sense of realism, pragmatism and optimism. As he later said, “In trouble, danger and disappointment, never give up hope. The worst can always be got over.” He understood the situation, but he recognised the hand of Providence protecting and guiding them, observing that at times it felt like they had an extra person with them.
Whilst COVID-19 certainly limited our activities on campus, it didn’t abort all opportunities. In Otago, the planned Mark Drama took place during Level 2 restrictions (limited to 100 people, all appropriately physically distanced). Despite fewer activities taking place over the year, a small number of students made a commitment to follow Jesus as Saviour and Lord. We pray they would grow deep roots that bear fruit in years to come.
As I write, the uncertainty of COVID-19 and its longer-term implications continues. Our borders are closed to most international students, and the possibilities of further lockdowns and restrictions remain.
When Shackleton left Elephant Island for South Georgia and the hope of rescue, he left Frank Wild, his right-hand man, in charge of the remaining crew. Each day, Wild would wake the men with the words, “The boss [Shackleton] may come today!” Our enduring hope is in one who does not disappoint. We look forward, awaiting the day he returns, but until then, we endure and persevere. As Romans 5:2–4 says, “We rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”
Despite these challenges, God has been good to us, and in his kindness, he has been at work and provided for all our needs. As Paul writes to Timothy, “God’s Word is not chained,” or as our friends at CECE, Ecuador have put it, “The gospel is not in lockdown.”
I find great encouragement in the final words of Acts, where Luke tells us that Paul, who for two whole years had been in “lockdown” alone under house arrest, with just a soldier to guard him, “proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ – with all boldness and without hindrance!” (Acts 28:30–31). May we face the future with endurance, enjoying the opportunity to proclaim the kingdom of God and teach of the Lord Jesus Christ boldly and without hindrance!
Ben Carswell, National Director