By Neva Rae Fox

A mere few months ago, the idea of Sunday online devotions as the primary means of worshipping would have been dismissed as non-feasible. Today, because of the pandemic, online worshipping has become the norm. Churches celebrated Holy Week and Easter online, and as Eastertide continues, a new movement has expanded church communities in the form of virtual coffee hours.

The Rev. Karen Freeman from Grace Church in Fairfield, California, said “Everyone values seeing each other and talking to each other” at their virtual coffee hour.

The smell of coffee may be absent and the youth choir might not be running through the parish hall, but Episcopalians across the church are embracing of the idea of virtual coffee hours for that much needed, and much missed, community.

“I think this is a vital ministry for this moment,” said the Rev. Greg Tallant of Holy Trinity in Decatur, Georgia, “Folks are isolated and hunger for community, especially the community of their church. I’m sure there are some lessons we can learn about this for the future, but I haven’t had time to really think through it yet to imagine what they might be. I’m amazed at how quickly we’ve adapted to this technology out of necessity.”

Some follow a format and an agenda, while others simply provide the space for people to say ‘hi’ and to check in with each other.  Whether it’s for 20 minutes or two hours, the result is the same – the joy of connecting.

In some instances, the virtual coffee hour has expanded to discussion groups in different “rooms.” At St. Gregory’s in Deerfield, Illinois, Casey Kremer explained,  “We spend a few minutes chatting and catching up and then Anne Bryson Jolly, the host and rector, divides us up into meeting rooms of usually five to seven people. You never know who’s going to be in your meeting (table), but you are given a chance to really connect with the members. After about 45 minutes, we are called back to the main Zoom meeting.”

Kremer said generosity helped make it a success. “There was a lot of time spent between those members who were not interested in technology and those who knew everything. Members who had old iPads sitting around donated them for those who needed a large screen. It took time but everyone now looks forward to Sunday.”

The Rev. Canon Ron Pollock of St. John’s in Somerville, New Jersey, offered virtual coffee hour for the first time the week after Easter. The result was heartwarming. “Seeing the faces and hearing the voices of dear parishioners brought a sense of peace and delight that we all yearn for in this moment of isolation and loneliness, all joining in connecting with one another in such a positive and spiritually grounding way,” he said.

Also new that week: St. Anne’s in, Ankeny, Iowa. “Our priest initiated a Zoom invite and we chatted,” said Andi Robinson Baker. “We had eight families come in and it lasted for 45 minutes.”

It’s lively at Trinity in Houghton, Michigan. Lydia Kelsey Bucklin described the format: “Check-in around the squares, one person sharing while others mute, lots of coffee drinking, kids and pets running in and out, laughter and prayer requests.”

Most of the coffee hours occur about the same time as they were prior to the social distancing restrictions.

Warden Jay Blossom at St. Mark’s in Philadelphia says their virtual coffee hours have been going on for several weeks. “We’ve had about 25 participants (i.e. individuals, couples or families) each week, after a Facebook live-streamed mass that has about 140 or more participants.”

Sometimes unexpected people pop in to virtual coffee hour at Good Shepherd in Webster City, Iowa. “A 19-year-old showed up. A daughter from Memphis showed up. The Bishop showed up. We generally have 18-22 present. This is a lifeline to many!” said Deborah Leksell.

The Rev. Meghan Mullarkey, associate vicar of St. Columba’s in Kent, Washington, took a structured approach. “We have everyone come in and say ‘hi’ and then we have breakout groups of five people/families. We give three suggested questions. One of the priests goes into each room for a minute and says ‘hi.’ Then we all come back together for a couple of minutes. I found the smaller break out groups to be really meaningful.”

The Rev. Sarah Lamming of St. Mary Magdalene  of Silver Spring, Maryland offers an array of online events along with the virtual coffee hour. “We do ‘fellowship time’ with everyone at 8; at the 10:30 services we use the breakout function and have 10 small groups for about 10 minutes before bringing people back together. Then during the week, we have small group gatherings where four to six people gather for an hour. We have a weekly hymn sing, where people sang their hymn requests. And the virtual choir gets a playlist ready.”

“People really appreciate the ability to see one another!” said Patricia Arlin Bradley at St. Peter’s in Morristown, New Jersey.

Neva Rae Fox worships at St. John’s in Somerville, New Jersey. 

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