Banner hanging at Orleans United Church
Written by Colleen Mayo-Pankhurst
In early 2020, a new term entered the international lexicon: COVID-19. By March 15, many public spaces in Ontario, including places of worship and schools, were ordered to close and residents were asked to do something called “social distancing”. There was a run on toilet paper, yeast, and flour in grocery stores. We re-examined the value of front-line minimum wage earners including grocery store clerks, cross-border truck drivers, personal support workers and public transit workers. And we were confronted with the vulnerability of higher risk professionals like first responders and medical personnel. Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer continues to urge frequent handwashing and the wearing of masks.
As of June 17, close to 100,000 cases of the new virus have been identified in Canada and over 8,000 people have died. What many have known for decades has become public knowledge: long-term residences are chronically under-staffed by underpaid workers, creating vulnerability for staff and residents and heartache for families unable to visit sick and dying loved ones.
Opportunities and Priorities
The pandemic has created much stress and hardship around the world; however, it has also caused many to re-evaluate life’s priorities. It has forced us to be creative to work from home and to find alternate ways to communicate with one another. This has certainly been the case in our faith communities, which have identified opportunities for growth and for silver linings. The top priority for both Christ Church Bells Corners (CCBC) and Orleans United Church (OUC) has been caring for their flock. In the absence of holding group worship services and making house visits to isolated parishioners, phones and computers have become essential tools of weekly worship and communication.
At CCBC, a four-tier system to contact all parishioners was rapidly established. From isolated people living alone, to those with dementia, to regular active congregants, to the rest on the parish roster — each person receives a phone call twice a week, weekly, or twice a month. Calls are made by the clergy and those on the Pastoral Care Team and the lay leaders. These calls enable the church to identify those in need (e.g. groceries, emergency funds, transportation, spiritual support) and in both congregations, the number of offers to help has exceeded the requests for help. Calls also provide an opportunity for those in relative isolation to have a friendly conversation and retain a sense of belonging to their church community. One minister said, at first it was the elderly and shut-ins who needed support; soon it became parents of young children running out of ideas to keep the kids busy.
Connecting with Technology
Greater use is made of technology to offer worship services online via live streaming, real time Zoom gatherings, and pre-recorded services offered on Facebook and YouTube. Many in the congregations have stepped up to take on or to expand their leadership roles, hoping to support and to reduce the load on the clergy.
As OUC has the IT equipment to record and live stream video services, clergy from seven area United Churches work together to offer a joint weekly worship service, with ministers taking a different role each week. This wonderfully collaborative experience sees musicians, clergy, and lay folk from all congregations getting to know each other as they participate in the services. Several weeks ago, one minister, dressed in pearls and pajamas, started offering virtual Sunday School to children after the church service, complete with crafts and ice cream.
Both parishes distribute weekly or semi-weekly newsletters and emails to provide a wide variety of information including pastoral messages, upcoming liturgies and Bible studies, lists of community resources for support and learning, links to others’ services (e.g. Church of England, other parishes), ideas for offering support (e.g. sewing masks), opportunities for online get-togethers, and articles of interest about parish activities (e.g. update on the CCBC affordable housing project). Weekly staff meetings, monthly Parish Council meetings, and occasional committee meetings via Zoom ensure that the work of the parish moves forward.
Supporting the community beyond the parish has always been a focus of faith communities, especially during crises. CCBC is partnering with the local food cupboard to both store and deliver boxed lunches to children who have come to rely on these lunches at school. OUC has groups delivering care packages, while CCBC is delivering resource packages with lessons for children to complement the online Sunday children’s activities.
In addition, one minister is preparing resources for those who are bereaved and cannot gather with family for traditional support. She says these are extraordinary times and we are dealing with complicated grief. One way in which HELP Ottawa could help is to locate resources on the psychological aspects of complicated grief to share with affected families.
One minister says that the online options for worship have also provided a non-threatening environment for those who may not belong to congregations to check out various services. She predicts that this may result in some new people reaching out to parishes not only in times of need, but also as potential new members.
Churches are developing protocols for returning to worship in their buildings. Says one minister, “we’re watching closely what is happening in Austria and Germany as their churches begin to reopen.” There is much sharing of ideas about how to protect congregations and how to share communion safely. Meanwhile, all Anglican churches in the Ecclesiastical Province of Ontario (including west Quebec) must refrain from worshipping in person until at least September. Individual United Churches will be making their own choices.
Innovation during the pandemic may, in fact, alter the way we “do church.” It is quite possible that continued online worship may be an excellent way for sick and isolated individuals to worship with their communities. This may enable the maintenance of deeper and closer relationships with the most vulnerable in parishes.
While both congregations look forward to the day when they can safely gather in person, they are certainly proving that, while the doors are closed, the church remains alive and well!