Not all ministry and outreach can be taken out of a traditional context: Sisters working in health care and some educational settings continue to serve in face-to-face settings, with the now-familiar adaptations of wearing masks and social distancing. But for others, moving their ministry online has been a sometimes-bumpy — but ultimately rewarding — process.
Sister Jeanette Buehler participates, along with Sister Judy Niday, in the women’s interfaith discussion group, an enriching interfaith opportunity in Dayton. Over the past several years, women of different religious groups, primarily Jewish, Christian and Muslim, have come together in informal, interactive sessions to learn about and understand each other’s faith traditions. Prior to COVID-19, such gatherings included presentations, conversations and lots of food, and as many as 90 women met at various synagogues, churches and mosques.
Since coronavirus restrictions were implemented in mid-March, such in-person gatherings were no longer possible. Beginning in September, digital meetings on Zoom have enabled the women to reconnect. The topic that first month was “Political Activism,” followed by “Abraham: Our Common Father” in October and “How Many Times Should You Knock: Commandments for Everyday Life” in November. For further information or to register for meetings, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sister Judy has previous experience in online ministry: For the past seven years, she has served as a spiritual director and facilitator for United Theological Seminary in Trotwood, working on a team of spiritual directors and facilitators from a variety of faith traditions to connect with and guide students as they assimilate theology, practical ministry skills, personal life and call exploration. For the past five years, her work has been primarily online.
“The class work is set up by the contextual ministry director on a program called Canvas. All I have to do is go into the program and find my class and follow the syllabus and rubrics in grading and posting my responses to their work,” Sister Judy explained.
She works with six to eight students during the academic year, which typically begins with a three-day in-person retreat. Due to the pandemic, this year’s retreat was conducted online, with presentations and group discussions taking place through a web conferencing program.
“There are many challenges for the online students. They are trying to balance school, family, work, church and personal spiritual practices,” Sister Judy said. “On the other hand, it is a positive because they can stay at home and not leave family behind to be on campus, as well as cutting down costs for travel and housing.”
Whether in person or online, Sister Judy said she continues to enjoy her interactions with UTS students. “I am in awe as I read their weekly reflections of their individual life’s journeys,” she said. “They gift me with a greater appreciation of the varied ways in which God’s Word and work gets done.”
Sister Jeanette also coordinates prayer vigils to commemorate homicides in the Dayton area, a ministry in which the Congregation has participated for many years. In the past, the prayer vigils were held at sites where homicides had occurred. Although site visits are no longer possible during the pandemic, victims and their families are not forgotten. Notifications of homicides are sent out to members of the vigil group on a regular basis, along with a modified prayer.
Since the beginning of COVID-19 restrictions, there have been over 35 homicides in the neighborhoods where vigils are usually conducted. Whenever possible, attempts are made to inform family members of the group’s care and prayer through funeral homes whenever obituaries are published.
“With daily coronavirus deaths at the forefront of our minds, and at the center of each news report, homicides that occur during this time may be overlooked. Yet each victim’s death, regardless of manner, leaves loved ones behind,” Sister Jeanette said. “All life is precious, all life is gift from a loving Creator God. There is a saying: ‘Hope is believing in light in the midst of darkness and life in the midst of death.’ Let us be people of hope.”
Sister Maryann Bremke co-founded Brunner Literacy Center in Trotwood with Sister Helen Weber and administered the center’s educational programs for several years. Upon semi-retirement, she has focused on tutoring at the center on Salem Avenue, as well as at the Day Reporting Center, part of an incarceration center focused on drug treatment.
She helps students who are studying math in preparation for GED (high school equivalency) exams —“anything from basic math functions to geometry (my personal favorite),” she said. Until the onset of the coronavirus outbreak, those tutoring sessions were always done one-on-one and face-to-face. As tutoring shifted to a web conferencing program, Sister Maryann encountered some challenges.
“I don’t think online tutoring can ever be as effective as personal presence,” she said. “Body language doesn’t get conveyed well in online teaching. Often I, as a tutor, have to surmise what is being understood whereas when I tutor in person, I can tell when the student is absorbing the knowledge.” In addition, tools such as white boards and hands-on manipulatives like blocks, tiles and cubes are not as effective in helping students understand math concepts when utilized through video calls.
Even so, Sister Maryann is ready to meet those challenges, finding approaches that will help students grasp math concepts and maintaining one of the most important aspects of her ministry: establishing a personal connection with her students.
“One-on-one attention helps individuals who fell through the cracks in a large classroom. Personal interest shown to a student, online if not in person, helps to build a person’s confidence and encourages them to keep trying,” she said.
“I would like to encourage anyone, who is in the least bit interested, to volunteer to tutor at the Brunner Literacy Center or at the Day Reporting Center,” she added. “Don’t sell yourself short. If you can help or did help your kids with homework, you can tutor adults who never learned reading and math concepts the first time around. Follow the adage ‘If you can read, write or do math, pay it forward.’
“Literacy changes lives and if you can be instrumental in helping someone on his or her journey to being able to read, write or work math, what a gift you will have been to that person.”
For the Precious Blood Sisters who reside on Emma Hall at the Maria Joseph Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, the COVID crisis has meant that just one Sister living outside the facility is permitted to visit: Sister Gerri McGeorge. Through the pandemic, Sister Gerri and MJC staff have used Zoom on an iPad to help the Sisters stay connected in various ways.
Some have used the technology to maintain participation in their cluster (congregational prayer and discussion groups). “This has enabled them to stay connected with others and feel like they are a ‘part of the whole,’” Sister Gerri said.
Sister Edna Hess, President of the Congregation, and the congregational Council — Sisters Patty Kremer, Margo Young, Ann Clark and Marla Gipson — have also been able to keep in touch with the Sisters at Emma Hall through Zoom. “Most of the Emma Hall Sisters were surprised that they could not just hear Sisters Edna, Patty, Margo, Ann and Marla, but also see them,” Sister Gerri said. “This really helped to lift their spirits during this time of ‘no outside visitors.’
“This whole process of using Zoom has been a learning experience for me as well,” Sister Gerri continued. “I had never used Zoom prior to this time, and I still have to ask many questions of the experts in this field. But we are continuing to learn together, and someday we will all be masters in using this wonderful communication.”
Story by Mary Knapke