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How a Newham church is keeping community connected during coronavirus lockdown

PUBLISHED: 10:00 12 April 2020

Like all places of worship, Ascension Church Victoria Dock is closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: David Chesney

Like all places of worship, Ascension Church Victoria Dock is closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: David Chesney

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In times of crisis and uncertainty, faith and a sense of community are vital.

Ascension Church Victoria Dock vicar and Ascension Community Trust chair Dave Chesney.Ascension Church Victoria Dock vicar and Ascension Community Trust chair Dave Chesney.

That’s why, during the coronavirus pandemic, churches across Newham are doing everything they can to help their congregations remain connected - both spiritually and socially.

As Reverend Dave Chesney, vicar at Ascension Church, Victoria Dock, puts it: “Churches may be closed, but our hearts are open”.

Churches have explored new ways to reach and communicate with their congregation – their “family” - since places of worship were told to close by the government to help reduce the spread of coronavirus.

Ascension has been contacting people and sending out notices by phone, text and email, and started a WhatsApp group so members can stay in touch with their vicar and each other.

Ascension Community Trust chief executive Hannah Tulloch and Tommy Sedgwick at the church's Ascension Community Trust chief executive Hannah Tulloch and Tommy Sedgwick at the church's "pop-up foodbank." Picture: Dave Chesney

Rev Chesney said: “That’s one of the things we felt was important: the idea of staying connected.”

As a designated key worker, he has also been able to make deliveries and speak to people directly – at a safe distance – which has helped to convey messages and provide reassurance.

Like other churches, Ascension has been livestreaming a morning and an evening prayer each day as well as Sunday services that Rev Chesney delivers from his home.

He uses Facebook Live to stream and uploads a recording to a YouTube channel he has set up for anyone who wants to watch it another time.

The church is also using video conferencing software Zoom to hold weekly bible study sessions.

Rev Chesney said: “We’re learning to adjust. As vicars and ministers, we are a part of the family as well and that’s been the hardest thing, the idea that the interaction is not necessarily there and feeling part of the family because we’re not together physically.”

The use of social media platforms helps to overcome physical barriers by facilitating virtual interaction.

For this reason, Rev Chesney prefers livestreaming – mistakes and all – to uploading pre-recorded videos, as some churches are doing.

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He said: “I think the shaky camera and the mistakes that are made, like in a normal service, is much more authentic than trying to produce a polished service.

“It’s more real doing it live, and it’s interactive – I’ve been encouraging people to make comments on Facebook as the service goes through, it’s great to have that.”

The uptake for livestreams has been strong and “growing very quickly” as more people tune in and engage with it.

Like other churches, Rev Chesney is finding that more people are watching his streams than would normally attend a Sunday service.

He said: “We’re not by any means a big church where we are in Custom House but, looking at the numbers, my first service on March 22 had 562 views – I certainly couldn’t fit that many people in my church.”

Rev Chesney added technology would, he believes, continue to be used in similar ways after churches reopen.

He said: “When we get through this, what will church look like? Will we go back to the old way of doing things?

“I think what will happen is yes, we will – people love to come together physically, that’s all part of being a church – but now we’re trying this out and doing things a new way, it’ll be ‘both, and’ rather than ‘either, or.’

“Now we’re doing it, it’ll be another way of how we communicate with each other.”

But while digital technology can extend their reach, churches like Ascension are mindful of keeping sight of their responsibilities to their local community.

“We have to be careful though that we don’t lose this idea of a ‘local church’,” Rev Chesney said.

“We’re now finding people tuning in from all over on Facebook, because they can, but we can’t forget that this is a community church and we’re here to serve the community.”

The church has tapped into a Covid-19 mutual aid group and started a foodbank, working with the council to make sure it isn’t “overlapping” with other services.

As the nearby Nightingale Hospital is within its parish, Ascension is also sending chocolates, biscuits and other treats, as well as cards with messages from church members, to hotels where the temporary hospital’s workers are staying “to let them know they’re being thought of and prayed for”.


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