Keeping Our Faith Community Connected
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Philippians 2:3 (NRSV)
The digital divide is not a new issue—there have been chasms between the “haves” and “have-nots” since technology began. Three main factors contribute to it: access to technology; digital literacy; and ability to use technology. Of these, access is the most foundational: Is the technology available at all, and if it is, can a person acquire it? But the side of the digital divide on which a person resides is determined by many sociocultural factors, including race, income/socioeconomic resources, geographic location, and ability. Access to technology is a social justice issue.
A story shared recently by a vestry member at our church opened my eyes and heart to how severely some members’ lack of access to technology is affecting our faith community. She told me of how she received a phone call after each Sunday’s YouTube service from a follow parishioner who would eagerly pepper her with questions: “How was the service?”… “What songs did you sing?”… “What was the sermon about?” … “What did the rector say?” The vestry member received these calls because the parishioner had no access to a computer, smartphone, or the Internet. Clearly, she wants to participate in her faith community, but access to technology precluded her from connecting with us. This is unjust and exclusionary.
In 2019, the Pew Research Center reported that people who are Black, Latinx, living in homes with annual incomes under $30,000, have a disability, or live in urban and rural areas are less likely to own a computer, smartphone, or have broadband Internet in their homes than those who are White, live in households that earn more than $30,000 annually, do not have a disability, or reside in suburban areas. In other words, a person’s power and privilege affects their access to technology. It follows that a person’s ability to connect and communicate with others during the pandemic can be determined by their race, where they live, their job, and their technological capability. Access or lack of access to technology is another indicator of oppression and systemic racism baked into our society.
If we view the factors that contribute to the digital divide as a pyramid, with access to technology at its base, then digital literacy—a person’s level of skill in handling technology—is the middle level immediately above that. In this case, the question to ask is whether a person knows how to use the device and has the skills or ability to manage its basic functions. For example, can a person turn their device on and off, and can they answer an incoming call on a smartphone? Digital literacy requires learning: either figuring out how to use a device for oneself or receiving instruction on how to do so. Many factors in addition to those previously mentioned affect digital literacy, including age. At a recent virtual coffee hour, for example, someone recalled a letter he received from a fellow congregant who is a resident in a local nursing home. The letter asked the recipient to “call her.” He was puzzled at this, as the writer has a cell phone, but called nonetheless. Then during the conversation, the letter writer revealed that she did indeed have a new cell phone but did not know how to use it and could not see the numbers. It was only her self-advocacy and outreach that ensured her inclusion in our faith community.
The third, top, level in the pyramid—the ability to use technology—is quite similar to digital literacy. The issue is whether a person knows how to use a device to its fullest capacity. They may have the resources to purchase technology (i.e., have access to it), and to operate the device’s basic functions (i.e., be digitally literate), but not be able to take full advantage of the device’s features (i.e., not be able to use the technology). One example of this that many would recognize is knowing how to get into a Zoom meeting, but not how to use all of the “bells and whistles” of Zoom or of a smartphone; another would be a parishioner in her 90s who owned and used a computer in the past, but for whom it had become too much to navigate and “bother with.” As a result, she is now being excluded from her faith community of more than 40 years.
Due to the pandemic, we are relying more than ever on technology to communicate and maintain our faith community. St. John’s, Getty Square in Yonkers re-envisioned church to be inclusive of all members of our congregation, regardless of their position on the digital divide. We created a stratified three-prong approach called “Keeping our Faith Community Connected” (KCC), which continues to evolve. Our KCC approach focuses on the following elements: 1) services; 2) events; and 3) network of communication among parishioners.
We aim to incorporate congregants on both sides of the digital divide into our worship services. As many churches do, we offer services streamed on YouTube each week. To foster community, at times we invite parishioners to record themselves reciting the lectionary readings, or to come to the church to be recorded. For our Christmas pageant, we invited two families to record themselves reading the story of Christ’s birth, with members of each family being assigned roles. Recognizing that we were excluding members of the parish because of the digital divide, we organized a weekly, lay-led Evening Prayer service on Zoom. Our rector helped to prepare a service leaflet that would be easy for participants to follow and could be used week after week. The typeface on the service leaflet was adjusted and enlarged so it would be easier to read. A flyer was created with the Zoom phone number for the service, and the phone number of someone to contact with questions or for technical support. Both the flyer and the service leaflet were mailed to all members of the congregation. Because multiple people speaking simultaneously on Zoom can be distracting, when it is time to pray in unison, Evening Prayer participants are invited to pray together or offered the opportunity to mute themselves if they prefer.
To foster a sense of community and continue with our routine functioning, we host other events on Zoom, too. Some participants join using the video conferencing feature, while others participate by phone. Although it is not fully accessible to all on the digital divide, we rely on Zoom because many people are at least familiar with dialing a phone and responding to automated prompts. We hold weekly Sunday coffee hour, vestry meetings, book clubs, youth group, spiritual formation/development classes, and committee meetings on Zoom. Documents that participants will need for the meeting are emailed, shared on the screen, and mailed in advance to the homes of those with limited technological access/knowledge. This requires additional planning but fosters social equity.
As we did this, we recognized that despite our efforts, members of our parish were still being excluded from our faith community during the pandemic due to the digital divide. These were also typically the most vulnerable members of our parish—the ones who were potentially the most isolated. As St. Paul instructs us in his letter to the Philippians (2:3), we must hold these parishioners close during this time of physical distancing. Staying connected with these members of our parish is critical.
In the third stage of our approach, therefore, we created a network to ensure that all parish members were in regular communication with other members, especially the most vulnerable. Once we started this, we were amazed at the web of connectedness that was alive in our parish. Everyone we contacted was in touch with multiple people on a regular basis, with one parishioner listing more than ten people she communicates with routinely! Realizing that some of our more isolated parishioners may welcome regular contact from more than one congregant, we invited and facilitated those matches.
In addition to fostering communication between congregants, we also reach out to parishioners using methods that do not require technology. We mail special announcements, important information, and issues of Forward Day by Day to all members of the congregation. When sending material that must be returned, we include a self-addressed stamped envelope to alleviate the burden on the recipient of locating a stamp. People have openly expressed how they enjoy receiving this mail.
The digital divide is a social justice issue. Particularly during the pandemic, technology has become a tool to keep us connected, both socially and spiritually. A person’s position on the digital divide has therefore affected their ability to participate in their faith community. We must eradicate the digital divide to foster a more just, connected society, especially as we worship remotely. We cannot allow gaps based on skin color, financial resources, ability status, or where a person lives to continue.