Beyond the Zoom: Building Community Connections

By Leonard Freeman

So you figured out how to do a Sunday service for an hour on Zoom, the online application that allows people to gather via cellphone or computer. Now what?

For St. Paul’s Church in Duluth, Minnesota, the decision early in the pandemic was to go full steam ahead, not only into online worship, but with new personal physical offerings for parishioners and community alike.

“We dove in right off the bat,” says Fr. Bill Van Oss, “trying to stay as involved in the community as we can.”  And “finding ways to keep our parishioners engaged in these ministries as well,” says Sue Van Oss, his wife and director of Christian formation, and unofficial technology coordinator. “It wasn’t just us pushing stuff out… but us helping them to stay engaged in these challenging times.”

“The staff and vestry called everyone in the parish… some two-hundred plus households… to see if they have what they needed… masks, groceries, whatever,” says Bill. “And we decided right from the beginning that we wanted to be there… be available online… every day of the week.”

So after going online with worship via Facebook Live and Zoom on Sunday, March 15, Sue took the lead in developing their regular online offerings. “We chose the same time each day… 9am or 9pm.. so that it would be easier to find. So there’s a “Monday Message” each week from Bill, Tuesdays an interactive Bible Study via Zoom, Wednesdays Morning Prayer, Thursdays a live 9pm Compline service, Fridays “St Pauls Sings” pre-recorded by our music director Tom Hamilton, to teach songs that are then archived on our website, and on Saturdays “Community Connection.”

“That Saturday piece,” says Sue, “really engages people in how they can directly help. Each Community Connection, via Facebook Live, shares five ways/five ideas for how we can help our neighbors. We highlight different agencies and what they might need to do their jobs… Loaves and Fishes, for example, recently needed sleeping bags and outdoor gear because the Duluth “Warming Center” for homeless people had closed; and so we could let people know what was needed and where they could drop it off.”

In addition to their online efforts, St. Paul’s also decided to develop more personal and physical contact during these potentially isolating times, especially for their sixty households who are not internet-connected. The wardens and vestry developed a phone tree for the entire two hundred-plus households; and each week a team of fourteen “phone pals” calls each of those sixty non-internet households to share the Rector’s Monday Message with them and check in on how they’re doing, and what they might need.

“We have teams of volunteers who are doing pick-up for shut-ins and those who can’t get out…. basic staples, groceries and prescriptions mostly,” says Bill. And for Holy Week, to keep physically in touch Sue’s team produced and distributed 55 special packets. Still another group sews and distributes masks.

“We’ve had a very robust website for several years,” says Sue, “but these are special times, and as God’s Church we needed to step it up and step out.”


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