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When the COVID-19 pandemic filled Father Hernán Astudillo’s days with funerals, loneliness and tears, he found solace in caring for a new sort of flock

Father Hernán Astudillo holds one of the three chickens he keeps in his Toronto backyard, with the help of his two grandchildren.Photography by Yader Guzman/The Globe and Mail

For comfort during this past year, Father Hernan Astudillo has found solace in God, his grandchildren and three chickens named Red and Yellow and General Trump.

The task of naming the chickens was claimed by Father Astudillo’s eight-year-old grandson, Dominic, who went literal with the first two, and, after eavesdropping enough lively adult discussions, political with the third.

“I want to teach this chicken how to be humble,” he declared, “and also, how important it is to lay eggs.” A just cause, his grandfather agreed.

Which is why Father Astudillo, a Toronto Anglican priest who preaches social justice and former refugee from Ecuador who still flinches at the sight of a military uniform, now spends afternoons under the apple tree in his Toronto backyard, communing with General Trump, who has, for her part, come though on the eggs, and will now humbly eat corn offered by hand, while sitting on a lap.

“Those chickens became the best therapy for all of us,” he says. “For me, that is providence: God provides the tools.”

Grandchildren Dominic and Belén help Father Astudillo turn up soil in the backyard, in search of worms for the chickens to eat.

Also, he learned long ago: When life is heavy, look for moments of light. And life, of late, has been especially heavy.

At a funeral, a good pastor may cry “only in his heart,” as Father Astudillo explains, to stay strong for the grieving family. Since the pandemic began, he has conducted nearly 100 funerals, five times more than the year before COVID-19. Some of these people were known to him, many were strangers. The funeral homes call him because he speaks Spanish, and because he told them, “I will always be there.” He has performed virtual services with families in New Jersey and New York, and in Mexico and Ecuador. “Here is a priest who can help you,” one relative tells another, and sends the name forward.

There have been two suicides in his congregation, just recently. One was a man with a young family, who had been weighed down trying to pay bills, and beaten down by racism at work. One day, he didn’t come home to his wife and kids.

A few weeks ago, Father Astudillo held a small, joint funeral for a married couple in their 70s who died within hours of each other from COVID-19. One of his mentors – a priest who runs a refuge for migrant families in Mexico – also died of COVID a week before Christmas. He had been getting better, right before he was suddenly worse, a trick the virus often plays on those praying for a miracle.

The heart can’t hold it all. The pastor confesses: “I cry inside my car alone everyday. I cry as if I am a child.”

Father Astudillo delivers a Sunday service to the Ortiz family on March 28. Each Sunday, he holds multiple 30-minute services to reach as many in his congregation as possible.

Outside his bedroom window, a maple tree has helped him to focus his thoughts as he prays.

So yes, life is heavy.

And yet.

There is this tree, a grand maple. Father Astudillo guesses it to be a hundred years old. He can see it from his small room on the third floor of a house in Little Italy, where he lives with his family.

Sitting at his window, as the pandemic claimed the seasons, he prayed to that tree – through the spring wakening, the lushness of summer, the fading fall, and the bare, cold winter. While the world was in chaos, that tree held fast. It spoke to him: The world is in need. Keep your faith. Father Astudillo’s prayer is always a version of these words: “Lord here I am, your simple servant, use me in the way that I can help others.”

When he was young, he served by studying with the Roman Catholic priests in Ecuador, and working with the poor – choices that eventually drew the attention of the military, and forced him to flee to Canada. He arrived in 1992 with nothing, knowing no one. He played his pan flute and guitar on the street for coins. One day, he wandered into an Anglican church, and was welcomed by the congregation. In 1999, he was ordained as the first Hispanic Anglican priest in Canada and started the first Spanish-speaking Anglican congregation in Toronto, San Lorenzo, now 500 families strong.

During the pandemic, like many clergy across the country, Father Astudillo, 57, has remained on the front line, finding creative ways to serve his parish. His cell phone rings at all hours. At church, he holds 20-minute Sunday services for up to 10 people at a time, spaced seven metres apart. A sermon and prayers, but no singing. Extra communion bread to take home to family too vulnerable to attend. He leads Facebook and Zoom services in Spanish, as well as a radio broadcast where he encourages people to wear masks and not have parties.

Father Astudillo plays a song he wrote about a 2010 massacre of Mexican migrants by a drug cartel.

His ministry focuses on social and political equality for the poor and marginalized - lessons that have only become more important as racialized communities have borne a heavier burden of the pandemic’s toll. He understands what it’s like to be told to lose your accent to belong, to know true suffering in the place where your story started. For years, he’s been driving donated ambulances and school buses, stocked with supplies, to Central America. During the pandemic, the Caravan of Hope project still managed to send two vehicles south, by putting them on a cargo boat in Montreal.

God provides, as Father Astudillo likes to say. This Easter will be another one without the traditional church celebration of music and worship, potluck and procession. But those first Easters were not full of pageantry either, he says. So find hope in each other, and in nature. Like the old Maple growing buds for the 100th spring just outside your window. Or the chickens who scratch for worms while you tell them what a day it’s been. And when the world calls, answer.

“I don’t believe you pray, and everything works out,” Father Astudillo SAYS. “You need to act.”

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