AMECEA: WhatsApp Small Christian Community Meetings in The Context of Covid-19

By Andrew Kaufa, smm

“My husband and I are well aware about the Coronavirus and staying at home just as the authorities have requested all people to do is what we are doing. Everything is closed except the grocery and drug stores. Churches are closed; the Shrine is also closed. We will be spending the Holy Week and Easter watching the services on our computers or television. It is very strange and scary. We pray every day that all the members of our family will be safe from this terrible virus,” shared Margret Sheehan.

This is the reality all over the world in these unprecedented times. And if necessity is the mother of invention and innovation, as Steven Johnson argues in his book entitled Everything Bad Is Good For You, (2016), the delightful pursuits of prayer and liturgical service characterized by creativity as initiative by Pope Francis and many other bishops have done since the Coronavirus pandemic can be a groundbreaking for doing things differently.

Addressing the need for Interaction during Social Distancing

Yes, with social distancing as a WHO recommendation and ban on public gatherings by authorities, Christians can no longer congregate in the basilicas, parish churches or in homes for Small Christian Community meetings. Christians who used to come together as a family of God in the neighborhood, share the Word of God, pray together and plan some work of mercy are now turning to virtual reality systems that can still help them to get spiritual nourishment.

But what governments and Church authorities have done by suspending liturgical gatherings drives home what Megan Gambino said, “Human have been inventing ways to entertain themselves from eons. These amusements, from carving bone flutes to playing chess, to cooking with new spices, shopping and drinking in bars are often seen just as that.”

In the context of AMECEA region where Small Christian Communities have become the ecclesiastical model, it is probably coming out of the same human capacity to pursue initiatives and try new innovations, that instead of merely surrendering to the pandemic, some pastoral agents and lay faithful are in search of what to do in order to continue receiving spiritual nourishment, hence the idea of using WhatsApp on their mobile phones for Small Christian Community (SCC) meetings.

Potential of WhatsApp

According to the study of M. Steup (2019) on the most potential business messaging apps in English speaking Africa, WhatsApp is the most dominant, with overall usage of the internet on the lower side of the graph. The study affirms that mobile phone based internet usage in African countries including Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania makes up 60-80 percent of the internet traffic. Furthermore, a considerable number of the mobile phone users are using social media channels and apps on their handsets as the main way to stay up-to-date with information or news.

This is explained by the fact that low data mobile apps are turning to be the most convenient for mobile phone users in Africa, more especially by the rural mass and the younger population in general.

It is certainly interesting that according to the current Internet World Stats (IWS), user population of Facebook in Africa which is the second largest continent in size and population after Asia, is still low. On this note, the IWS report is showing that the countries in AMECEA region score as low as 25.7% on average; with Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda scoring significantly higher than Malawi, Zambia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan and South Sudan.

But when we look at WhatsApp use, Steup demonstrates that there is in it greater business potential in Africa, probably much more as compared to YouTube and Facebook. The reason has already been stated above: it is a low data mobile phone app, very convenient to the users.

If this is what Steup says about business in the economic sense, this is the argument in this article, can’t the same be said about it from the pastoral perspective? Looking at the mobile phone penetration in AMECEA region, and more especially the utility of WhatsApp among mobile phone users, does it not give our Small Christian Communities great opportunities to reach out to one another and support each other during these difficult times by praying together, share faith stories and information? Is this not a ground breaking for doing SCC meetings differently?

Case studies

It must be emphasized though, that when it comes to creativity and innovativeness, whatever we probably took for granted in the past can become an important and profound turning point in society. Thus, it should be interesting for our region to appreciate how other members of family of God reaching out to one another as a Small

Christian Community via the mobile phone using WhatsApp, and how they are using it for their spiritual nourishment given the current situation.

A laconic survey on the subject disclosed that there are already Small Christian Communities in the region more particularly in Kenya and Tanzania where, apart from using online platforms, such as Skype and Zoom for SCC meetings, members are also using the WhatsApp for their meetings: the St Kizito SCC at Saint Austin Parish and Saint Joseph SCC at St Jude Donholm Parish in Nairobi, Kenya. According to some of the members of these communities who were interviewed, it is proving to be as effective as the traditional SCC meetings where members meet physically.

How does it go?

Obviously, sharing the Word of God is central to any SCC meeting whether in the traditional physical interaction setup or via online and WhatsApp. However, Mwanajumuiya Joseph Healey, a member of St Kizito SCC advises that “When it comes to the question of which method to follow during the meeting, the 7 Step Method is just one of the ways but there are other methods also.” Therefore, “use the method that is most fitting, according to the local context. The word to underline is creativity.”

On this note Peter Kyalo, a member of Saint Joseph SCC, highlights that unlike online SCC meetings where members use Skype and is on a telephony network, the SCC meeting via WhatsApp is on text, audio or video hence it “… is less formal and provides a wide room for social engagement.”

“In the first place, all the members of our SCC are added on the WhatsApp group so that when one shares something, all who are online are able to see it,” Ben Wanjala, a member of Saint Kizito SCC says.

As usual, SCC meetings start with a prayer. After the prayer it is important that the members share briefly about their life situation, telling the group anything good or bad that happened recently to them. Then, they go to the Word of God.

“Due to the time factor, we post the Gospel of the following week early before the meeting. This allows us to start our meeting by mentioning the verse that has touched you, then follows the ring of the Word, intercessions; the ‘Peace of Christ’; from there we close the meeting,” shared Ben.

And Peter adds, “Members are asked to take a few minutes to go through the Gospel again on their own; then a 2-minute moment of silence is observed after which the Moderator asks members to share their reflection either by text, video or audio clip.

“Given that WhatsApp SCC meeting depends on the user devices, it may not be possible to strictly follow the 7 Step Method. Instead, members agree on what can be achieved from the & Step Method and then journey together throughout the session,” he continued.

All in all, Ben and Peter seem to find the WhatsApp SCC meeting to have a lot of advantages.

“Members who are absent at the time of the meeting are later able to see what happened during the meeting, follow through the discussions and possibly share their reflections,” said Peter.

Challenges

“For instance, if your bundles are finished early or your phone battery or internet connectivity has gone low before the end of the meeting,” said Ben. “Every member has to find his or her way of getting the bundles.”

Peter also notices the economic divide. He said, “There are members of an SCC who cannot join because they do not have a smartphone that supports WhatsApp platform. Also, members without bundles are not able to join since WhatsApp requires that they have an internet connection. However, so far we have managed to have 75% of our members joining every Sunday meeting.”

Other challenges include the fact that it requires the session moderator to be a person who can type very fast in order to ensure active participation; dedication; support of the SCC members; and punctuality of all members.

Future Perspectives

Can the SCC meeting via WhatsApp be an alternative to the traditional SCC meetings model, even beyond the Covid-19 pandemic? The answer is YES but it does not replace the traditional SCC model of people physically coming together. As Fr Emmanuel Chimombo AMECEA Pastoral Coordinator says, “These must be people who are in the same neighbourhood and in normal circumstances they meet physically and pray together; but for one reason or another they are not able. They can do so via this virtual platform.”

In other words, these are people who indeed qualify in their number as a Small Christian Community; they know each other; and belong to the same Small Christian Community – different from any other social group. There may also be some members of the community who are away for one reason or another but still feel part of the community; and indeed, they are.

“I would say from my personal experience that the WhatsApp SCC meeting is certainly an alternative. I do not know how long it will take before everything comes back to normal. We can participate from wherever we are,” insists Ben.

“There are many things that can be done during meetings when members physically interact, for instance, sing a hymn together. However, during and past the Coronavirus pandemic, I see the WhatsApp continuing to enhance SCC meetings and activities. It is a sure channel for meeting, more especially during holidays like Christmas festive season when the members are not together for an extended period and therefore cannot have a meeting physically but virtually,” says Peter.

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