The popular saying — When God closes a door, somewhere He opens a window – provides a good metaphor for reading the signs of the times today. In Kenya in March, 2020 during the terrible coronavirus pandemic crisis a door closed, namely the Kenyan Government wisely ordered that our Catholic Churches be closed and that our weekly Small Christian Communities (SCCs) physical meetings be suspended. But then a window opened, namely Online Small Christian Communities that are also called Virtual SCCs and Digital SCCs. SCC members in Kenya are using (alphabetically) Facebook, Facetime, Google Hangouts, Google Meets, Microsoft Team, Skype, WhatsApp, Zoom and other media platforms on the internet. SCC members send text messages, audio clips and video clips to their weekly online meetings. Our motto: Go digital or die.
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 the opportunity of watching mass on television and on the internet (via smartphones, tablets and laptops) – both live-streamed and recorded. Particularly popular are the Sunday Masses from the Holy Family Basilica, Nairobi that are available on Capuchin TV, Citizen TV, KBC and NTV as well as diocesan websites (such as Lwanga Communications Centre in Mombasa Archdiocese) and social media platforms like Facebook, FaceTime, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram. During this pandemic many Catholics watch the masses, prayer services, talks and blessings of Pope Francis in Rome especially through the Vatican Website and the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN). This Vatican News website, that offers video, radio, podcasts, images, news and audio services in more than 30 languages, saw its number of visitors and page views quadruple from the same liturgical period last year.
Holy Week 2020 offered online spiritual and prayer experiences special in both content and process. Some examples:
A key to understanding the 45,000 SCCs in Kenya is that they are not a program or project in the parish or in the university/secondary school but “a way of life.” SCC members’ use of the WhatsApp Platform on social media has expanded and transformed their communications and networking. Now there are daily posts to share information, spiritual formation and plans as part of the daily life of the SCC. Some examples (alphabetically):
Collections for deceased people (especially through MPESA).
Daily mass readings and reflections especially the Sunday Gospel.
Highlights of Jumuiya Masses.
Photographs of SCC events.
Practical action and service outreach projects.
Public health information.
Responsibility for coordinating a Sunday mass in the local parish.
Rotating homes of SCC members for the daily evening prayers and the rosary.
Weekly online gatherings.
Many examples are documented on the Small Christian Communities (SCCs) Facebook Page.
CASE STUDY OF ST. KIZITO ONLINE SCC
There is a popular saying in Spanish — We create the path by walking – that encourages the growth of SCCs in their local context from the grassroots up. In light of today’s signs of the times a new path has developed in Kenya and in other countries: Weekly “Online Small Christian Communities.” St. Kizito Small Christian Community (SCC) is one of the 12 SCCs in St. Austin Parish in Nairobi Archdiocese. It is located in Waruku, an informal settlement area near Kangemi. This SCC has been having weekly physical gatherings in the members’ homes in their neighborhood since 2003.
But then everything changed with the coronavirus lockdown in Kenya. Our first St. Kizito Online SCC gathering was on Sunday, 5 April, 2020. We used the Gospel of the following Easter Sunday (John 20:1-9): The Gospel Sharing/Reflection Animator Mwanajumuiya Agnes Wanjala downloaded the audio version and sent the text version of this gospel to our St. Kizito SCC WhatsApp Platform the night before. At exactly 2 p.m. on Sunday we began the Bible Service. After the Opening Prayer we shared online through text messages in Swahili the verses that struck us the most. Then SCC members shared their reflections on the Gospel and how this passage applies to our daily lives here in Kenya. Many reflections referred to the challenge of the coronavirus crisis in the world today. The reoccurring message was to depend on Jesus Christ. Then we had the Prayer of the Faithful and the final prayer and blessing. We ended with an audio clip of a rousing song provided by Mwanajumuiya Nicholas Mulei.
Our Moderator Mwanajumuiya Ben Wanjala counted 21 members who participated in this weekly St. Kizito Online SCC gathering though text messages and two audio clips on our WhatsApp Platform. We overcame the problems of the lack of electricity and the lack of internet connectivity. Our Prayer Leader Mwanajumuiya Gabriel Mwatela did a great job.
To summarize: In the universal context the whole world is in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic. In the local Nairobi, Kenya context we are presently in a situation of partial lockdown, quarantine, night curfew and restricted travel. Ben Wanjala and Agnes Wanjala are now stuck in Kitale, Kenya and cannot travel. Our SCC Treasury is way down. SCC members struggle to find money for their internet bundles. But we meet faithfully online every Sunday afternoon. Our WhatsApp community members are active online every day.
Let us begin where we are. The Chinese proverb says: “The longest journey begins a single step.”
Both Skype and Zoom social media platforms provide special online prayer and reflection visual (video) experiences. St. Isidore of Seville International Online Skype SCC has been meeting at 5 p.m. Kenya time on Tuesday afternoons since 2012. Dr. Alphonce Omolo who is the moderator explains that what is distinctive is that members of our Online SCC meet virtually (that is, via Skype) while the traditional SCCs meetings are face-to-face or physical. We carry out works of charity on the individual level. He states: “Online SCCs present an important opportunity for the members to attend the meetings even if they are traveling or when they have relocated. 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 coronavirus pandemic.”
Some weekly SCCs in Kenya use Zoom that allows members to see each other on their laptop, tablet or smartphone. Members share their reflections on the Gospel of the following Sunday through an interactive process. Webinars and larger gatherings use the Small Breakout Communities feature of Zoom. Zoom Video conferencing (audio and video) and Zoom Teleconferencing (audio).
The Catholic Church has many opportunities to use online learning. Right now our Catholic institutions are using Moodle, Blackboard, Google Classroom and other platforms for online classes. Writing, editing and research websites abound. Interactive electronic libraries and databases are growing. There is a rich content of spiritual, prayer, biblical, catechetical, pastoral and evangelization resources and websites.
The Digital Church or the Online Church or the Virtual Church is a new way of becoming Catholic Church. We have a new vocabulary (alphabetically): Digital Catholicism. DIY (Do It Yourself) materials. Inexpensive mobile phones/cell phones especially in rural areas. Interactive shared homilies. Live-stream mass. Mirror Server. Online editing and correcting of articles. Online E-Resources. Smartphone fast. Spiritual communion. Spirituality in a time of quarantine. Synodal Church. Virtual reality (VR) headsets. Watch Party.
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.
Rev. Joseph G. Healey, MM
P.O. Box 43058
00100 Nairobi, Kenya
0723-362-993 (Safaricom, Kenya)
973-216-4997 (AT&T, USA)
WhatsApp: 1+ 973-216-4997