When the novel coronavirus pandemic hit, life went online. From school classes to fitness workouts to worship services, everything started streaming on the web. But what happens if you don’t have internet access? How are those Mennonites staying connected with their churches?
“It is a little different without being able to go [to church]. We miss it, but, you know, take the circumstances as it is,” says Irene Seifert, 87, who attends North Kildonan Mennonite Church in Winnipeg.
Of the 100-person average that attends the church every Sunday, “I would think we have at least 25 people who regularly come to worship but are not connected online . . . that’s substantial,” says Marvin Thiessen, the church’s lead pastor. All of those offline folks are 80 years old or older and a number of them live in care homes.
For people with internet, the North Kildonan team is recording services in the church and uploading them to YouTube and occasionally meeting via Zoom. For those without, “We are hand-delivering every week a bulletin and printed sermon to them. Our deacons, we call them caregivers in our church, have made it a point to be in phone contact with all the single people who do not have internet access, which is almost all of that number,” says Thiessen.
The pastors and church council are reaching out to everyone in the congregation.
Seifert says North Kildonan has been “very good” at checking in with her by phone and providing resources. She’s also grateful for Springfield Heights Mennonite Church. Seifert lives in KingsfordHaus, a seniors housing cooperative attached to Springfield Heights, along with about 10 others from North Kildonan who also don’t own electronic devices.
Springfield Heights’s German and English services are both streamed for residents in the lunchroom on Sunday mornings. “It’s a big movie screen that we have there and they set it up for us, and they’re really quite good at it,” says Seifert, who attends the German service and often stays for the English one too, in addition to reading the materials that North Kildonan distributes.
For Hilda Nikkel, COVID-19 is the reason she decided to go online. Nikkel, 58, lives on a two-hectare property in the country, a few kilometres from Sarto, Man. She doesn’t have internet access at home and, until very recently, no computer either.
In order to access the Zoom worship services from Elim Mennonite Church, her congregation in Grunthal, she dials in by phone. But she says holding the phone to her ear for an hour-and-a-half got tiring, and, of course, she couldn’t see the faces of her fellow church members.
“I would not say that I have felt disconnected because I don’t have internet. I phone people at church, so there’s connections that way,” Nikkel says.
Over Easter, she and her sister, who are both deacons at Elim Mennonite, delivered paska to the seniors in their congregation. Nikkel also continues to work full-time and has online access during those hours.
But with only a phone to stay connected at home, she says, “I decided maybe now is the time to get internet access.” She bought a laptop, and her next step is to install a tower on her property to get a signal, since it is surrounded by bush. In the meantime, she goes to her church on Sunday mornings and uses its wi-fi to connect to Zoom on her new computer.
Other churches across Manitoba are using similar methods to connect with their unplugged congregants. Carman Mennonite Church in Carman delivers packages to about 12 people every Saturday, which include a community newsletter, announcements and a printed copy of the sermon and worship service. Charleswood Mennonite Church in Winnipeg mails the weekly bulletin and prayers from the worship service to the only two people in the congregation without internet access. Both churches also delivered hymnals when they stopped meeting in person.
“I have talked with a number of the people over at KingsfordHaus during this time, and they have expressed lots of appreciation for receiving the materials,” says Thiessen.
“We didn’t get [internet] when we were just a bit younger yet, and we didn’t think we needed it, but now I think it would’ve been nice if I would’ve got it,” Seifert says. “But at the time my grandsons were trying to set me up on a computer I said, ‘Why am I going to play around with that thing when I can go downstairs and do my sewing?’ . . . So I never did learn it.”
Seifert says the new format doesn’t significantly change her worship experience, although she misses the sanctuary and friends’ faces. She continues to do her devotions and read her Bible every day, taking the circumstances as they come.