When the Kenyan government ordered the country into lockdown to curtail the spread of the coronavirus earlier this year, Maryknoll Father Joseph Healey remembered a quote from the movie “The Sound of Music”: “When God closes a door, somewhere he opens a window.”
Father Healey’s primary ministry in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, is with small Christian communities, which grew out of the call from the Second Vatican Council for more lay involvement in the life of the Catholic Church. These communities usually consist of 15-20 members who meet physically once a week and focus on the Gospel reading for the upcoming Sunday.
When the government stopped all gatherings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the small Christian community meetings were suspended, along with Masses and other church services throughout Kenya. In addition, four major cities, including Nairobi, restricted travel. The 5,500 communities in the capital were left with a simple choice, “go digital or die,” Father Healey said.
“Now a window has opened, namely online small Christian communities that are also called virtual SCCs and digital SCCs,” said the missionary from Baltimore. Instead of physically going to a home in the local neighborhood, the parish or another meeting location, members of the “jumuiya” — Swahili for community — gather online, either via computer or their mobile phones, he said.
Father Healey, who has served in Kenya since 1968, quotes Pope Francis to describe how the Catholics of the jumuiyas have responded to restrictions of the coronavirus crisis: “Pope Francis advises, ‘If you have a problem, turn it into a challenge, and then turn that challenge into an opportunity.’ Many Catholics in Kenya have turned the problem of closed churches on Sunday into an opportunity.”
In a country of 48 million people that is about twice the size of Nevada, social distancing is not only difficult from a logistical standpoint, it is also foreign culturally. People tend to live in close families and communities, Father Healey said. In the cities, many live in densely populated neighborhoods, particularly in the poor shantytowns.
“The digital church or the online church or the virtual church is a new way of becoming Catholic Church,” he said. “We have a new kairos. We have a new online practice. Let us seize this moment, carpe diem, to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to all people.”
Father Healey, who founded the social communications department of the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa, has promoted small Christian communities for decades. He advises the virtual jumuiyas to meet on the same day and time as they would for their physical meetings.
Kenya has more than 45,000 small Christian communities. In addition to watching Masses on TV and on the internet, members send text messages and audio and video clips to their weekly online meetings, which are now being conducted on various social platforms such as WhatsApp, Zoom, Skype and Facebook.
“Certainly, a couple thousand online SCCs have started, but we don’t have solid figures,” Father Healey told Maryknoll Magazine.
“In our SCC meeting, we try to share the same way we share (in person), but online using Zoom,” said Bernard Mberere, the information technology coordinator for AMECEA in Nairobi. “All together through these online meetings they have been able to share the Gospel of the coming Sunday, discuss the challenges they are facing because they can’t meet physically and how they can assist each other and find a way of doing that.”
Mberere, who is also the moderator of a small Christian community of St. Christopher Parish, said many parishes contain multiple communities, usually formed around a neighborhood. He said there are still challenges for those who cannot get online, because they do not have a smartphone or lack access to a computer or the internet.
“Now we have resorted to holding Mass over the radio or holding Mass over the television, but the Catholic Church is also looking for a way of responding and helping the needs of the people.” Mberere said, adding that, through the jumuiyas, people can tell their needs and concerns to the local community leaders, who in turn raise these challenges to the parish level, where they may find assistance.
“Online SCCs present an important opportunity for the members to attend the meetings even if they are traveling or when they have relocated,” said Alphonce Omolo, moderator of the St. Isidore of Seville International Online Skype SCC, which has been meeting Tuesday afternoons virtually since 2012. “Online SCCs are certainly a sure way to keep SCCs alive for Catholic Christians and to give one another social and spiritual support, especially during unprecedented times such as living during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The digital meetings usually start with a prayer, followed by sharing among the members about what has been happening in the past week, Father Healey said. They members listen to an audio clip of the reading of the upcoming Sunday Gospel.
“In the ‘Gospel sharing’ through sending text messages from our smartphones, we try to connect the Gospel to our daily life today,” he said. “Our whole world is shaken and upset by the virus. In the present crisis of the coronavirus, we are following the example of the sufferings of Jesus Christ, and Jesus is the great healer and has the power to heal us.”
During the online prayer, the members typically mention people who are sick with the virus as well as their caregivers, he said.
The communities also are trying to continue their practice of action and outreach. Donations from among the small Christian community members are pooled into a treasury that has been used to help Kenyans affected by flooding and mudslides in January and February. Since March, community members have collected donations for those suffering from lack of work due to the lockdown, even as church donations have decreased because of the pandemic, Father Healey said.