By Neva Rae Fox
Through this pandemic, Facebook, social media, YouTube, and other electronic methods have provided a way for many to stay connected. Sheltering in place hasn’t necessarily meant not seeing others, albeit it’s now on a screen.
But what about the people who don’t have internet, or smartphones, or electronic hook-ups, or the ability to see others on a screen? Many congregations have recognized that some parishioners face roadblocks in connecting, and have delved into ways to overcome this issue, mostly using old-fashioned, tried-and-true methods.
The Rev. Rosalind Hughes of Church of the Epiphany in Euclid, OH, said it was back to basics for her church. “We set up an old-fashioned phone tree,” she noted, adding, “I’m mailing the weekly email to the score or so people who don’t have or do email.”
Toni Daniels has been spending a lot of time on the phone. Currently studying at Loyola for an M.Div. to be a board-certified chaplain, she is prevented from visiting healthcare facilities as she fits into high risk groups. As such, “I call people at home. I’ve become a tele-chaplain.”
Daniels is a member of St. Paul and the Redeemer, Hyde Park, Il, a community with 300 families. “I’ve started working with the pastoral care team and members of the vestry from my church in making calls to parishioners, just to check-in,” she explained. “It’s been wonderful to serve as a tele-chaplain to those I see in passing. It’s a wonderful way to encounter the body of Christ.”
Daniels echoed the experiences of others. “The response has been that people appreciate someone is thinking of them. Or crying on the phone. Mostly I pray with people. They feel like they are being connected with the church and with God by praying with them.”
St. Stephen’s in Richmond, VA, reports that the phone lines have been busy. “While we’re pouring energy into technological methods of connecting, we have also launched a massive effort to reach out to people in other ways,” noted Sarah Bartenstein, the church’s director of communications. “Our clergy and pastoral care volunteers are calling people and sending hand-written notes every day. That’s no small thing in a parish of 4,700 people.”
Bartenstein added, “The vestry is also working with staff and volunteers on a campaign to call every household to check-in. No agenda — just hello, we miss you, want to be sure you and your family are OK.”
Some churches are sending “Thinking of You” notes or postcards. At St. Peter’s, Medford, NJ, “We have something called ‘Letters of Light,’ which is for sending notes to parishioners who can’t get out,” explained Tiffany Myers, vestryperson in charge of communications. “We are adding those who don’t have internet or smartphones to the list of shut-ins, and the community ministries person is sending them cards and notes.”
Myers added, “We have also talked about getting Sunday School teachers to ask their students to do the same, so that they can hear from others. I know that our clergy called them, too, and I think may continue to do so with some regularity.”
Some are finding that phone and mail outreach, along with electronics, is comforting in this time of isolation.
Bishop José A. McLoughlin of the Diocese of Western North Carolina talked about the value of using the phone in addition to electronic means. “We are in for the marathon,” he said. “I call some of my priests every day to connect.” And when his list is done, he’ll start all over again.
Bartenstein agreed. “Even those who do use technology love receiving handwritten notes and calls. “
Daniels observed, “You can be really lonely even if you have FaceTime or Zoom or whatever.”