Surprised by God – reflections on church during COVID

The Revd Canon Catherine Dobson, Rector of the Coastal Group, shares her reflections on leading her group of churches through this pandemic.

The Coastal Group covers the beautiful stretch of the northeast coast of Norfolk from Bacton, Walcott, Happisburgh, Eccles, to Sea Palling and Waxham and the inland villages of Witton, Ridlington, Hempstead and Lessingham – places that are usually popular holiday destinations and much enjoyed beaches for day-trippers.

Many retire to these villages, having spent happy holidays here, and like many other pretty Norfolk villages, there is a high proportion of older people. And a good number of these do not have internet.

So when the lockdown came, it was a challenge to think how best we could continue in contact with those people especially. A local resident contacted me and suggested setting up a volunteer scheme to support those who might need some practical help.

A practical response

To begin with, we looked at our existing networks and how we have provided pastoral care previously.

Then it dawned on us, that we had a ready-made team of volunteers under 70 who were DBS checked and trained in safeguarding who are Churchwardens and  VA School Governors.

Just before lockdown, we were able to get together and agree on a plan of action with due regard to confidentiality and safeguarding. We put up posters in each of the villages and leafleted each house with details of the scheme, and it was up and running very quickly.

Since setting-up the hotline, volunteers have picked up prescriptions, shopped for groceries and run essential errands, and have found in helping others, they have been blessed in return.

One volunteer said: “My experience of being a volunteer is meeting people in the community I had never met before. One lady I met I got her shopping for her. We had a lovely chat in the garden (obviously social distancing). We both worked in the same profession (she had retired).

“It was just before the Easter weekend and I just popped a little Easter chocolate with a note wishing all the people I shopped for that day a happy Easter. I received a text message from this lady thanking me for the little Easter treat it made her day.

“Just being able to make someone’s day in all this madness made mine.

Another volunteer said: “It has made me feel useful and given me additional purpose during the lockdown. It helps me feel connected to our community, which is really important.”

Worship-by-post

For the first couple of weeks after the churches were closed for worship, members of the ministry team wrote reflections with a hymn, Bible reading and prayer, which were sent out by email, post and published on social media.

It has been interesting to see the response from those who do not usually come to services.

We have received emails of appreciation, ‘likes’ and prayer requests too.

John Prince, Licensed Lay Minister for the Coastal Group also felt the time was right to re-energise the prayer chain: “Our prayer chain has seen an increase for prayer requests over the last few weeks during this difficult time. This has prompted us to review the way the prayer chain operates and we now give more regular updates. The prayer chain consists of a team of dedicated individuals who pray regularly, with confidentiality being paramount. It is an important part of our pastoral ministry, giving support through prayer, for those who are in need whatever their personal situation may be.”

A lightbulb moment about Zoom

Although the written reflections are greatly appreciated and continue, we found that people missed seeing and hearing one another.

And having begun to get to grips with Zoom, with the support of Keith James, we found that Zoom offers the facility of joining from a home phone, as well as online.

This was a real light bulb moment, as I was acutely aware that there could so easily have been a divide between those who have internet and those who don’t, and we have always worked hard at being an inclusive community that is ‘here for everyone’.

So we began by getting the support of key people over 80 who could pilot the phone system, and then become ambassadors and encouragers of others to give it a try.

Revd Eiler Mellerup,  our retired OLM, who received Maundy Money this year, was key in this process: “As one of the older people, I found it really easy to join in. The whole experience was enjoyable and meaningful. Much simpler than paying an electricity bill over the phone!”

Our first Zoom service took place on Easter Sunday, and it was wonderful to get people worshipping together. Things didn’t always work as planned – people manage to unmute themselves by accident, dogs barked and we lost connection with a key person at one point, but the experience was an honest and real act of worship together as a community.

Zoom services now take place on a fortnightly basis, and we are getting better all the time!

Last Sunday it was a wonderful surprise to have two groups of people joining in from Spain – a local family working out there for a year, and a couple who are unable to get a flight home, having been out there for the winter.

Again, some of those joining are not the people we would usually see in church.

Maybe joining a service from home is much less threatening than walking through the church door – more like the anonymous cathedral form of worship?

It is a great way to show what the church does, and for people to try it out. And many have picked up new skills, using Zoom for family get-togethers and other occasions.

One parishioner emailed to say: “Services by Zoom have contributed to the IT skills of many in the Coastal Group, me included!”

 

Unsurprisingly, God continues to be made known, even in lockdown.

But I am often surprised to find God at work in unexpected places and through unexpected means.

Being surprised by God at work is a real joy and encouragement to us all.

God’s presence in prayer is tangible and brings comfort to those who are concerned for loved ones who are key workers or unwell. And in some ways, stripped of some of the admin that usually takes up a great deal of time, we are finding more obvious ways to be the people of God in this place.

 

Needing help?

Help is available in Bacton, Happisburgh, Hempstead with Eccles and Lessingham, Ridlington, Sea Palling with Waxham, Walcott and Witton.

The notice posted on the Coastal Group website says: “Coastal Group community is offering help during coronavirus outbreak. As a church community, we are concerned for those who are vulnerable in our neighbourhoods and who might need help. Using a network of DBS checked volunteers, we can help with the delivery of shopping/medication to your door-step, taking post or simply chatting on the phone.

“We can also signpost partner organisations if you are experiencing hardship. If you are in need, we will do our best to help. If you are already supporting your neighbours, thank you for all you are doing.”

Those needing help should call the Revd Catherine Dobson on 01692 650359 and leave a message to be called back.

Website:  www.coastalgroup.org.uk/