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This article is part of our Winter 2021 Breaking Barriers. This installment focuses on unexpected access. If you'd like to read more stories from this issue, please subscribe to Breaking Barriers

Willowdale CRC has addressed a variety of accessibility challenges over the last year. Zoom has opened doors to some people who otherwise would not have been able to participate in the life of the congregation. Pastor Tom van Milligen has been helping them with a virtual hymn sing, which is turning into a robust and growing small group that not only celebrates the music of the church, but also has become a place where folks can check in with each other during a time of isolation. 

Older members have had difficulty contributing to others’ lives during a time of social distancing. One of the beautiful aspects of this hymn sing is that members not only suggest songs to be sung, but also volunteer to look up the history of those songs and share it with the group. They pray with each other after they check in together, contributing to the pastoral care of the members of the group. Thanks to Zoom, this group is made up of folks who never would have attended an evening event and who never had attended any other small group offerings previously. What changed? A felt need to connect and the ability to do so via technology. 

Willowdale made a concerted effort to help its seniors navigate the technology of Zoom so that they could connect using the devices that they already were familiar with. Worship is also held via Zoom, and congregation members contribute to the service from their homes. It is so rich and meaningful to hear a child sing a verse of a song followed by an 80-year-old singing the next verse. Ministry leaders have noticed that former members of the congregation are returning to Sunday morning Zoom church because they can attend from a nursing home many kilometers away. Post-sermon reflection groups are growing with people who would not have been able to attend face to face. One gentleman joins from China because technology has made this possible.

A growing portion of the congregation speaks Farsi, requiring translation of sermons and other ministry programming. Ministry leaders are currently looking into how Zoom can support simultaneous sermon translation and breakout rooms where the Farsi members will be able to reflect and ask clarification questions of the preacher. Online worship has enabled both the Farsi group specifically and the congregation in general to invite newcomers to experience worship and fellowship without distance being a barrier. 

This post was written by Rev. Lesli van Milligen (Willowdale CRC, Toronto ON). 

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