How Christian charities are adapting their outreach
Pandemic restrictions have forced many outreach ministries to new heights of creativity. As Canadians lament many that have closed temporarily or even permanently, some charities have found surprising and inspiring success.
Christian camp app
The challenge for Christian camps this year is unprecedented. Most overnight camps are trying to survive without summer camper revenue or their usual rental revenue the rest of the year. (Day camps are allowed in some places.)
"Camp directors and camp personnel love what they do, and they’re grieving because they can’t do it in the same way," says Bill McCaskell of Winnipeg, national director at One Hope Canada which runs 36 camps across Canada (www.OneHopeCanada.ca). "It’s been tough. The emotional load has had even more of an impact for us."
One Hope had been working on an app with Dubbit, a UK-based developer that specializes in apps for children. The original app was planned as a way to continue and extend connections and disciple ship for campers once camp was over.
"And then March 15 happened," says McCaskell. "We normally have 19,000 kids at overnight camps in one summer. Now many camps will be virtually-based."
That means when kids register they will receive "camp in a box" – a box of supplies in the mail and a login code for the app. Camps can schedule live events, play games (even hide and seek!), hold contests with prizes mailed out, discussion times and chat. Appropriate safeties have been built in, and chat rooms are monitored by leaders (www.onehopecanada.ca/mycampapp).
"There are lots of ideas," says McCaskell. "You just have to think differently."
While camp leaders may be discouraged to have to run camp online, he said it has opened new possibilities. "Like Gideon going to battle with a trumpet and a torch. These are not typical ministry tools. But God doesn’t need a physical camp location to change lives."
Sex worker outreach
Deb Stanbury works with sex workers in downtown Toronto and heads a ministry supported mainly by Presbyterian churches (www.AriseMinistry.ca). She usually walks the downtown streets in the middle of the night, talking to prostitutes who greet her with a hug. They chat about how they’re doing, give updates on kids, school and job training. The women ask for Stanbury’s office hours so they can drop by.
"The people we used to work with are gone now," says Stanbury. "The [strip] clubs are closed. Where they are and what they’re all doing, I’m not totally sure." She has no doubt the sex industry persists despite the dangers of the Covid-19 virus – it has simply become more hidden. "It’s moved online. I’m sure there are still apartment-type brothels set up. I also suspect there are still some people working at street level. People who are homeless and more on the edge."
Since Stanbury can no longer connect in person, new forms of ministry have been needed. "Anyone who had actively been doing case management with us we are still in contact with." That can mean regular phone calls and a ten-week program sent by mail that includes self-care workbooks, exercise ideas, colouring pages for both kids and adults, journaling pages, any resources they asked for and a $25 grocery gift card.
She says she’s reconnected with women she hadn’t heard from in years, and women are referring their neighbours who are struggling. Due to isolation, domestic violence cases have increased by 20 to 30 per cent, and mental health challenges are growing.
"I’ve been able to have some amazing conversations," Stanbury says. "If we hadn’t shifted to this model, we wouldn’t have [been able] to journey with them so deeply."
"Crisis," writes Christian blogger Carey Nieuwhof, "is not just a disruptor. It’s an accelerator. Some of the changes that were likely arriving in five to ten years arrived in days. The shift from facility-centred ministry to home-based ministry happened in hours."
Alpha Canada, an organization that teaches Christian basics, has responded to that shift (www.AlphaCanada.org). They moved their trademark in-person groups, often centred around food, to online. But the change has not hindered their work.
"The Holy Spirit is touching people’s hearts, regardless of face-to-face involvement," says Shaila Visser of Vancouver, national director of Alpha Canada.
Since the pandemic hit, 601 churches began running 869 alpha courses online across the country – 187 of those are youth.
"We’ve been blown away," says Visser. "We didn’t anticipate this response from the Church in Canada. It’s thrilling to serve them as they equip their people to reach out."
She says these "micro groups" meeting online will likely stick around once things open up again. "So how do we equip the Church to do evangelism in that way?
"Going online provides a safe place to ask big questions from the comfort of your home and computer – remarkably, in a way, that is even more intimate than face-to-face can be."
As digital connections become a lifeline during lockdown, the Christian tech community has responded in new and exciting ways. One of its hubs for connection is an organization called FaithTech.
"At FaithTech, our mission statement is ‘In the midst of devastation there’s an opportunity for innovation.’ That’s how we started," says founder James Kelly (www.FaithTech.com).
The group had been planning a hackathon – a huge multi day collaboration – but it quickly changed to an online meeting. "We took six months’ planning and did it in about three weeks and had 684 people from 61 countries at the hackathon. And then 55 products were built and submitted."
International teams of developers, experts and mentors worked together at the hackathon to develop new tools to respond to ten immediate and long-term challenges to ministry in a pandemic (www.CovidHack.com).
One of those products is Sound of Your Love, a website where family and friends can record voice messages for someone in hospital who is alone and dying – possibly unable to hold a phone or even speak.
"People can record messages such as prayers, testimony, reconciliation offerings, poems, etc. The person can then call that number and listen on a loop," says Kelly. "The last sense to go before you die is hearing. One of our team members works at a hospice in Texas, and [says that] for patients who hear the voice of loved ones, it changes them. In a very unique way, you’re seeing tech on the front lines."
The Canadian Council of Christian Charities shifted its regular phone and meeting support for churches and charities to online (www.CCCC.org).
"The Green is an online community meant for Christian ministry team members, open to any partnership, group, affiliate or people we’ve worked with in the past," says Barbara Bierman, program manager at CCCC. "It was built to create space for them to network and collaborate."
It was a longtime dream of the organization to launch The Green, originally planned for June 2020. "When the pandemic was declared in March and charities were closing, our CEO called me and asked how quickly we could pivot and launch The Green early. We launched within five days," says Bierman.
The Covid-19 Response Room is part of The Green, but "It’s available to everybody," says Bierman. "It’s a space for people to bring questions, but also best practices and responses. There’s a lengthy list of topics in there and a lot of interaction."
More than 1,200 people have used the room so far.
Canadian Youth Network supports youth leaders and pastors in southern Ontario, Montreal and some other parts of Canada (www.CanadianYouth.net). The pandemic has led them to an increased focus on supporting pastors experiencing depression, anxiety, discouragement and burnout, while those same pastors deal with increased mental health concerns from the youth they serve.
CYN is also helping leaders engage youth who have become tired of online meetings. Their website now offers resources on engagement, safety, service project ideas and more.
"Making students feel cared for outside the meeting is 90 per cent of youth ministry," says Dale Winder, executive director. "If we’re not engaging them, we lose them."
Focusing on very small online groups, and giving young people leadership abilities and creative ways to bring their friends online, helps boost interest and attendance. Live events, games, Q&As and contests also support engagement.
Their biggest annual event is the two-day Change Conference, an evangelism opportunity in Toronto where young people bring their friends (www.ChangeConference.com). This year they have moved it online with the hope of reaching youth across Canada and beyond. Last year’s event attracted 3,000 students. This October, speakers will give students a two-minute gospel message, encouraging and equipping them to share that message with their friends.
Kathleen Smith is the donor relations co-ordinator at Sanctuary, a street-level ministry in downtown Toronto (www.SanctuaryToronto.ca).
Smith reports, "Normally there are 59 drop-in centres in the city. Centres that offer sleeping spaces, places to shower, eat and charge phones. They’re also a source of community. In the beginning, almost all of them closed. We were one of ten that remained open.
"The impact was felt immediately and hugely for people. Many are very isolated. People couldn’t get food. It’s not super common for people to come to us really hungry or starving, but we’ve often been serving people’s only meal of the day. We used to serve 300 meals twice a week. Now we serve 700 meals four times a week."
With public spaces, malls, libraries and fast food spots also closing, washrooms were hard to find for people living on the street. Sanctuary had porta potties brought in to help. Staff also check in on people who are housed but isolated, buying their groceries or other supplies.
"We all have struggled with isolation, but everyone on the street has a history of trauma. There is often abuse, addictions, serious health issues, and now they may be completely isolated from any form of community. It’s a challenge."
Encampments have sprung up throughout the city with people choosing to live in tents rather than overcrowded shelters where the virus has often run rampant. There have been several outbreaks and two people have died. Sanctuary had previously not allowed people to tent on their property, but they now welcome it.
"There are 7,000 people in Toronto without housing," says Smith. "It’s always been a crisis. But what this has done, it has made it very visible."
Now is a "golden opportunity" for churches to reach out to their communities, she says. If a church is located near an encampment, providing bottled water is a way to build connection.
"Just walk up and say hi," she says.
Amy MacLachlan is a freelance writer living west of Toronto. More Covid stories at www.FaithToday.ca/CovidPivot.