Bayview United Church starts offering Sunday service over the phone. The congregation at Bayview United Church on better days before the quarantine. Photo courtesy: Bayview United Church/Brian Kai.
TORONTO — When the COVID-19 pandemic indefinitely shuttered the doors of community programs and facilities across Canada, Bayview United Church looked for a way to connect and support its congregation during a time of crisis.
Starting on March 22, the North York church implemented teleconference Sunday services. Congregants can gather spiritually by listening to Reverend Cindy Cooper on their phones from the safety of their own homes.
“Church is about community,” says Rev. Cooper. “People are looking forward to this service. For some, it is the highlight of their week. They’re with their friends, their community, and together we are sharing a common love for our faith. The service has given them a sense of hope; that we’re going to get through this. We’re all going through the same thing, and together we’ll be stronger. There will be brighter days ahead.”
Set up by church council member Brian Kai, every Sunday at 10:40 a.m., congregants call in and enter a conference ID number on their phone. Once dialled in, they can hear everyone else on the line. It is a comfort to know their friends and community are all there listening at the same time, explains Kai. Five minutes before service begins, Kai mutes all of the lines, and pianist Karen Quinton plays. Then Rev. Cooper comes on the line and service begins, says Kai.
While some churches have started offering service through video conferences, Bayview United Church opted for the teleconference calls to accommodate their older congregation. For many seniors who don’t have computers, the move to video calls would cut them off completely from attending. For much of the senior congregation, attending church was a big part of their social lives. Social isolation has cut them off from their friends, family, and community.
Continuing service over the phone has rebuilt that sense of community and normalcy in their lives, says Dee Dee Yatabe, Kai’s wife and Bayview United Church member. Before the church’s first teleconference service, Yatabe and Kai helped their mothers connect to the teleconference. After some practice, both of their 95 year old mothers could call in, and they were confident most of the congregation could as well.
An unexpected outcome of the teleconferences was members who were unable to attend church before the COVID-19 closures are now calling in, like those who were in poor health or unable to leave their homes, says Yatabe.
“People who physically couldn’t attend church anymore can now attend by picking up the phone and calling in, and they’re loving it,” says Yatabe.
The teleconferences do not come without glitches, and the entire process has been a learning experience, says Kai.
The first couple of services taught them what works and what doesn’t. Like the pianist and soloist cannot perform at the same time because it sounds out of sync on the call. Instead they’ve adapted so the pianist plays the prelude to the hymn, stops, and then the soloist sings.
“There are some technical problems, but as time goes on we’re getting better and better at this,” says Kai. “Every Wednesday we have a planning meeting for the Sunday Service where we go over what’s going to happen and all the technical stuff that we have to worry about.”
Kai, who managed global computer networks before retiring last year, has been working on implementing and improving the teleconferences everyday like a full time job.
In May, the church will be looking at moving the service to zoom, a video and teleconference platform. It would be a more affordable program where they can incorporate video, but people can still connect through their phones.
But for now, the teleconferences offer a way for the church members to be connected, says Rev. Cooper. Church members have also been supporting each other by calling and running errands or getting groceries for those who cannot go out.
On Easter, there were 95 calls into the teleconference, which does not count how many people are behind each call. For services following Easter, with normally quieter attendances, still around 80 calls are coming in.
“As a church, sometimes I wonder, will people come back? They really like this. They can worship in their home, they don’t have to get dressed, they can worship in their pyjamas, and have their coffee and put their feet up,” says Rev. Cooper. “But I think what will bring them back is that sense of community, of seeing one another and being together. I think that will be what will bring people back.”
For more information about Bayview United Church and the teleconference service, visit the church’s website.