They’re not a stereotypical couple, so it stands to reason that they wouldn’t have a stereotypical honeymoon. Archdeacon Alastair McCollum is the English-born, motorcycle-riding, Ozzy Osbourne-loving minister at Victoria’s St. John the Divine Anglican Church.
Dr. Sabina Singh is a Kamloops-born secular Sikh with a passion for dance, a political science instructor who put her career on hold to run for the NDP in last fall’s federal election.
The election campaign was one reason the couple didn’t go on honeymoon right after getting married — the second time around for each — last summer. Then came the Christmas season, which filled McCollum’s calendar.
Finally, a gap opened that would allow them to take off for India after Ash Wednesday, returning four weeks later on April 1, in time for Easter. They weren’t there long before the coronavirus became a concern. The Victorians dutifully adhered to social distancing, as difficult as that is in a country of 1.3 billion, and cancelled a crowded train trip in favour of a 60-kilometre tuk tuk ride.
St. Patrick’s Day found them in the Punjab, singing Danny Boy with Singh’s family there and dancing to the music of Delhi 2 Dublin, streamed from Vancouver.
But then came a call from Sabina’s brother Arjun Singh, a Kamloops city councillor, with word that Canada was closing its borders to foreigners. That was a problem, as McCollum isn’t yet a permanent resident or citizen. Ottawa later clarified that the immediate family of Canadians would be allowed back in, but the couple didn’t know if the distinction would reach airline officials in India.
Happily, it did. After scrambling to reach Delhi, then fretting in the airport for several hours, they made the flight home last Friday — and went straight into quarantine, where they remain today.
McCollum is not necessarily what people — or at least those who don’t go to church — have in mind when they think of a priest (though he would argue that none of the clergy he knows fit the cookie cutter).
He plays guitar, likes heavy metal, rides motorcycles. Before a lifestyle change that saw him drop 120 pounds, he had a passion for real ale. As a vicar in the southwest of England, his efforts to reopen the local pub — he believed it vital to the village’s sense of community — resulted in television cameras recording him pulling pints behind the bar for a reality show called Save Our Boozer. Had he not come to Canada in 2013, a television producer planned to make him the focus of another program, Our Father Who Art in Devon.
If the idea of an Anglican minister marrying someone with roots in a different faith tradition seems novel to some, it doesn’t to him. “I’m not one of those who sees Christianity as being the only way of seeing the world.” He says Singh’s perspective keeps him from becoming insular.
They spend more time dwelling on differences in the kitchen. (“Oh good,” she would say when he first began to make her meals, “another overcooked English supper.”) Note that his Save Our Boozer appearance included a curry-making contest in which the judge, a famous Anglo-Indian chef, declared McCollum’s entry to be the blandest, hottest thing he had ever tasted.
The question now is: What does a non-stereotypical member of the clergy do in non-stereotypical time — particularly when holed up in a mandatory 14-day quarantine?
“I’ve been surprisingly conformist,” he replies. The thing you have to realize about self-isolation is that it’s not about you, it’s about the vulnerable people who need protection.
But then, the vulnerable are also among those who, now more than ever, rely on places of worship. Faith leaders are trying to be creative, to figure out how to go online to reach people.
Maybe, McCollum says, all this will give churches the nudge they need to do things differently. “We have become Sunday-based communities.” COVID or not, that can’t continue.
Still, with in-church services cancelled (when people ask what’s going to happen on Easter, he reassures them “Jesus will still be risen”) right now the challenge is to give parishioners what they find in the pews. “We always say, ‘The church is about people, not buildings,’ but then something like this happens and we say, ‘We like the buildings.’ ” They provide a place of safety, comfort, community.
Is there another way to achieve that connection? McCollum notes parishioners have volunteered to reach out to the elderly. “We’re doing the good old-fashioned thing of giving them a phone call and saying: ‘How’s it going?’
“I’ve had more phone calls in the past week than in the past two years,” he says.
Not the stereotypical way to spend a honeymoon, but a good thing to do anyway. What’s stopping the rest of us?