by Martha Holmen
In the midst of pandemic, kids from parishes in York-Simcoe and beyond got a taste of normal church life every Sunday as part of an online children’s ministry program in the area.
When churches closed their doors to in-person worship, Amy de Sousa, area youth coordinator for York-Simcoe and the youth and family pastor at St. Philip on-the-Hill, Unionville, moved her parish’s children’s ministry online. Once she’d found her feet, she started to wonder whether all churches had been able to make this transition. “At the end of August, God placed it on my heart to try to offer it more widely,” she says. When she mentioned the idea to Bishop Peter Fenty, then-area bishop of York-Simcoe, he was enthusiastic. “I knew he was retiring in October, so I thought it’s really neat that he still wants to invest in the youth of the area.”
After sending out a call for volunteers from parishes in York-Simcoe, Ms. de Sousa added Amanda Ball and Lauren Wirtzfeld from St. Mary, Richmond Hill to her team. The program launched in October 2020 and met every Sunday for 11 months, with anywhere from eight to 19 kids participating each week. “From day one it was really great,” says Ms. de Sousa. “They just came back every week. Word got out, so it wasn’t just kids from York-Simcoe. One family from Don Mills hopped on.”
Ms. de Sousa wrote the curriculum herself, following Year B in the lectionary. “It was more like church, not like Sunday School. It’s using the liturgy and connecting it to the kids in the context of the pandemic,” she says.
She thinks that focus on liturgy is one of the reasons families kept coming back. “These kids and adults, their worlds were turned upside down. There’s something in the rhythm and routine of Anglican liturgy that’s incredibly comforting,” she says. “You know what’s coming, you know what to say. I can do the doxology. I know that, and that makes me feel good.”
The Rev. Jonathan Turtle, incumbent of the Parish of Craighurst and Midhurst, confirms that the liturgical rhythms were part of what appealed to his family. “The liturgical shape of it was what I appreciated most. They said the Lord’s Prayer together. It was structured like a liturgy, with a confession and absolution, everything,” he says. “They were there not just to learn a bible story, although that’s really good. They were there to worship and to pray together.”
With a wide range of ages, from 3-year-olds up to Grade 5 students, Ms. de Sousa had to be creative to keep the kids engaged. “We’d keep it fun. We’d always do a mental health check-in,” she says. Using collaborative tools like a Google slideshow, she was able to let everyone participate. “I would put up a blank face and ask how they were feeling. Even the youngest could draw and scribble on the screen.”
She used stories and short videos to keep things moving, never lingering too long on slides with text. With a background in special education, she also drew on tools from the classroom to inspire her charges. “We would talk about a growth mindset based on scripture and the bible,” she says. “Every week I told them, the more you create these synapses in your brain based on scripture, the more scripture will flow to the surface when you need it – and we really need it now.”
Despite the challenges of an online-only format, Ms. de Sousa embraced the flexibility the platform allowed. “Online, you can cover a lot more content. In person, you can have a lot more discussion. It’s like two worlds, and it would be great if we could combine them into one,” she says.
One difference she says she noticed from in-person children’s ministry was how it empowered the young participants. “The fact that children can independently log onto your program is amazing. Kids want to learn about God, they want to hear about the gospel. They’re not relying on their parents to drive them to church. They’re taking their spiritual education into their own hands a bit,” she says. “That independence is needed for kids to hang onto their faith for their whole life.”
The area-wide program ended after Labour Day, but Ms. de Sousa invited participants to join her online ministry from St. Philip on-the-Hill if their own churches weren’t offering virtual children’s programs.
She’s also eager to help other children’s ministers figure out how to start their own programs. Though some in-person ministries have started back up this fall, she says it’s not too late to start something new. “Just because the pandemic is shifting, it doesn’t mean people will return right away. Kids are still at home,” she says. “Not everyone’s coming back. Children’s ministry has evolved. Try it out!”
Mr. Turtle says he and his family are grateful for Ms. de Sousa’s efforts. “I would say a big thank you to Amy and her team for being able to adapt and provide this, not just for children in their own parish but across our diocesan area,” he says. “If what Amy was doing reflects children’s ministry across our diocese, then I’m really quite hopeful and encouraged for our children as they grow up and become teens and young adults and go off to their own endeavours.”
For her part, Ms. de Sousa says running the online children’s ministry helped shape her pandemic experience in a positive way. “I could journey alongside kids spiritually through this time. It made me feel good to try to offer spiritual support,” she says. “To know this was received is incredible and amazing, and I feel really blessed about that.”