Professor Jason Leitch: man of faith
Professor Jason Leitch: man of faith
On 23rd March, the day the current lockdown was announced, Professor Jason Leitch, the Scottish Government’s National Clinical Director recorded a short video message for the Church of Scotland, advising churches on how they should react in the light of the COVID-19 crisis. Professor Leitch who has since then become one of Scotland’s best known faces, is himself a Christian, a member of Airdrie Baptist Church were he grew up in the 1970s and early 80s.
Churches, Jason said, should not open during the crisis. ‘I honestly can’t believe I’m having to tell you that,’ he continued, but told us that closing churches among other buildings was a necessary step to save lives.
However, he added that because churches are closed, it doesn’t mean that church is closed. ‘Church in its broadest sense is open and required, necessary for society, so I hope you will rethink what it means to be church at this time – as communities, as electronic communities and as families. As you get together in new ways, I hope you find new ways of connecting with those who are vulnerable, those who are elderly and perhaps find that quite difficult, and the younger groups around the country as well. We’re going to need to re-think what church is for a little while, and then we’ll come out the other end.’
Jason also spoke about opportunities for volunteering and helping others. It was important to care for vulnerable people, but vital to do this safely – frequent contact by phone or electronically, leaving shopping on the doorstep. Keep in touch, he urged. ‘Do it excessively, because we’re really worried about loneliness, we’re worried about mental illness, particularly for those groups who are already cut off a little bit from the mainstream.’
Finally, he spoke about faith, and ‘about how faith can help people in the current situation, and how it’s helping me as an individual. Well, what more important part of your make-up, of your human being could there be than that faith and I hope you reach for it, and I hope each of you manage to find what you need from that faith. I know I and my household and my broader [family] – my mum and dad and my sister, I know it’s really important to us that we hold on to that faith. And faith, I think, leads to hope. Hope not only for our nation and what will come from this over the next few months, but hope in a bigger, bigger picture and a bigger world.’
More questions for Professor Leitch
I’m sure many people were encouraged by Jason’s warmth and compassion, his understanding of what it means to ‘be church’ as well as for his forthright advice. I wanted to explore Jason’s faith a little more deeply, and he kindly agreed to respond to questions I sent him. (I should say that I knew Jason personally, as a pupil and member of the Christian Fellowship at Airdrie Academy where I ran he library from 1980-93, and as a member of Airdrie Baptist Church to which I belonged. )
I asked Jason how well he felt churches had responded to his call to find new and innovative ways of ‘being church’ during the lockdown. He replied:
I think churches have done incredibly well to adapt to a new way of working. We know that church is not the building and this has never been more evident than now. There have been a lot of innovative ideas from live streaming of services to meetings on platforms like Zoom. We are, again, so grateful to people who have used their talents in technology to make this possible. These things are definitely keeping people well connected and encouraged during this time when they can’t meet in person.
I was curious about Jason’s faith story. How had he come to faith as a Christian, and how was that faith sustained?
I was brought up by Christian parents and was taught about faith through their example. I understood this more deeply for myself as a teenager of 16 and have pursued this since. Like everyone else, I have had ups and downs in my faith journey but I have friends, family and a church family who all encourage me and help me to sustain my faith.
I asked Jason what part he though faith was playing as Scotland addressed the COVID crisis. He replied ‘There are people of faith involved in every aspect of this situation from government, to NHS staff, to the general public trying to follow the advice being given. There is no doubt that faith helps people in difficult situations, including this one. Faith always offers peace and hope in spite of current circumstances.’
What difference does being a person of faith make in Jason’s work? He says ‘I think this boils down to values and character. I have tried to help people by giving truthful advice and answers to questions. It’s about treating people the way you would want to be treated and remembering that the decisions you make affect individuals and families in very real ways.’
Jason always comes across in his public appearances as positive and confident. But how confident was he, I wondered, that his faith would sustain him through the turbulent weeks ahead? He replied:
My faith has not really been shaken by this crisis. In fact, it has made me even more aware of, and grateful for, the different gifts and talents people have been given to help in different ways. I have seen incredible acts of kindness and compassion in different communities, as well as the absolutely fascinating expertise of scientists involved in studying this virus. There are so many positive stories to tell and this definitely encourages me in the face of something that could be overwhelming.
I found this response uplifting, but I also thought of people facing trauma, death or bereavement as a result of COVID-19 What would Jason say, I wondered, to someone who was doubting God as a result of personal tragedy caused by COVID-19. He told me:
Every time I hear of numbers of people being lost to this disease, I can’t help but think of individual families devastated and grieving for their loved one. This is a horrible virus and it is no respecter of age, class or border. I would say that in these times, we should try to cling to our faith more to help us through the most difficult of times. As I said at the start, faith can offer peace and hope when our current circumstances seem insurmountable.
I was so grateful to Jason for sharing his answers with me. As a result, I wrote this Christian Viewpoint piece which appeared in last week’s Highland News:
The bigger, bigger picture
Professor Jason Leitch, the Scottish Government’s National Clinical Director is often on TV, radio and @jasonleitch sharing informed, practical advice about the Coronavirus: people warm to his openness and blunt eloquence.
In a short video he made for the Church of Scotland, Jason Leitch describes the faith which he, his wife, his sister and parents share, a faith which brings them hope – not only for our nation over the next few months, but also hope in a ‘bigger, bigger picture.’
I ask Jason what difference he thinks faith is making in a Scotland under the shadow of COVID-19. He tells me he knows of people whose response to the current crisis is shaped by faith – people in the government, in the NHS, in churches, in the general public. I guess he’s referring to people in all the faith traditions.
Someone might respond ‘So what? The care which in you is prompted by your faith in God flows in my heart from a simple desire to help people.’
When I ask Jason whether his faith is strong enough for the current crisis, he tells me his faith is actually being strengthened – he’s ‘even more aware of, and grateful for the gifts and talents people have been given to help in different ways.’ All this, he says ‘Encourages me in the face of something that could be overwhelming.’
This, I believe, is part of the bigger picture – whether or not God is named, God gives skills and talents, God prompts people to act compassionately, God is working within us all for the good of humanity. That’s what God is like.
What, I wondered, would Jason say to someone doubting God because of personal loss through COVID-19? He would urge them to cling to their faith, for ‘faith can offer peace and hope when our current circumstances seem insurmountable.’ Wise words, I thought, but what of the times when we feel so bleak and broken that words can’t reach us?
I asked Jason what sustains him in the faith in which he was brought up and which he personally embraced as a teenager. He mentions the help of friends, family and church, through whom, I guess, the whisper of God reaches him. How unusual, I thought, to see a senior public official being so vulnerable.
But that’s the point: in our vulnerability and brokenness, God finds ways to sustain us. God’s faithfulness to us is stronger than our wavering faithfulness to God.
There is always a bigger picture. Bigger than the present moment; bigger than our human understanding; bigger even than time and space. A picture being painted by the Great Love who sustains us even though we are overwhelmed.