As the fourth wave of COVID-19 engulfs much of Canada, an Arctic bishop is standing ready to restart a series of weekly radio broadcasts to bolster hope and bring comfort.
From November 2020 to March 2021, Lucy Netser, suffragan bishop of the diocese of the Arctic, hosted a weekly radio program in Arviat, Nunavut, a predominantly Inuit hamlet of some 2,850 people. In a two-hour slot every Sunday, broadcast on local station Arviaqpaluk 96.5 FM, Netser offered morning worship, scripture readings, prayers and encouragement for the community.
Netser began the broadcasts after a COVID-19 outbreak in Arviat. Health authorities confirmed the first case on Nov. 13, 2020. The hamlet subsequently become by far Nunavut’s worst-hit community, with 339 confirmed cases—more than two-thirds of all cases in the territory as of April 30.
Soon after the appearance of COVID-19, the hamlet imposed a tight lockdown. Netser contacted the local radio committee to ask if she could bring her Christian message to the airwaves. The committee responded favourably, and other churches soon followed.
Netser broadcast from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. each Sunday. Other churches had their own slots afterwards, with Arviat Alliance Church starting at 1 p.m., Glad Tidings Church at 3 p.m., and St. Therese Catholic Church at 5 p.m.
“In the Arctic, a lot of people go to church,” Netser says. “When something like a pandemic is happening, that’s when we really need to be there for each other and encourage each other and pray for each other.”
By last spring the crisis had passed. On April 20, Arviat marked two weeks since its last resident had come out of isolation. Many locals celebrated with a parade of vehicles. As churches returned to in-person worship—albeit with masks and attendance limits—Netser ended her radio show and moved 650 km away to Coral Harbour, which had also broadcast prayers via radio during the winter.
While there were no cases of COVID-19 in Coral Harbour as of Sept. 22, Netser said, “I went to the radio station a couple times to learn what to do just in case COVID hits again, so I can do prayers on the radio. I’m quite prepared for that.”
She mostly used the Inuktitut version of the Book of Common Prayer to lead prayers on the radio, since there is no Inuktitut translation of the Book of Alternative Services. She also prayed for the community and offered listeners a brief period of silence to pray on their own for people they might be concerned about.
Hymns were a mainstay of the program, with Netser often inviting guests on the air to perform them.
“A lot of people are musical in this community. They sometimes sing over the phone, sometimes more than one person in a house,” she said.
Most weeks, Netser delivered a sermon. But sometimes she invited guests to preach, such as retired Anglican bishop Andrew Atagotaaluk. Guests phoned at a certain time to speak on the radio.
Netser said Arviat residents really liked the on-air prayers, sermons, and hymns.
“I’d say we reach more people that way,” she said. “Some people don’t really like going to the church, but at home, they can have a prayer at home with their family.”
She added, “Sometimes, parents call me afterwards saying that they really enjoyed the radio show today, because ‘my children were listening with me and praying with me.’ Some little kids started knowing my voice, who I was, so that was kinda cute.”
Besides church programs on Sundays, Arviaqpaluk offered a range of other radio programs throughout the week, with each business or community organization given an equal two-hour slot. Mondays included cultural programs. Thursdays provided updates from the health centre. On Fridays listeners could call in to a show focusing on mental health. Content was in a mix of Inuktitut and English—the former being the predominant language in Arviat.
Station manager Laura Tassiuk said community radio was very important in bringing people together during the pandemic, helping residents “be cautious and be careful, and to keep everybody informed so we’ll all be on the same page.”
She also acknowledged the support community programs can offer for people isolated by the pandemic. “I think it keeps everybody calm and sane,” Tassiuk said.
Regardless of whether she returns to the radio to offer prayers and encouragement in Coral Harbour, Netser hoped residents gained encouragement and hope from listening during the peak of the outbreak— and a knowledge that even the hardest times will pass.
“There’ve been pandemics before and that has passed, and it’s going to be like that again,” Netser said. She compared the experience of the pandemic to stormy seas that eventually calm, or the aftermath of an earthquake.
“After the earthquake tremors, then there’s peace,” the bishop said. “It’s like that still … Whatever is happening to you, be encouraged. Whatever you’re facing right now, peace is coming.”
Note: An earlier version of this article appeared in Contact, newsletter of the Council of the North.