A Maryknoll priest helps Small Christian Communities
in Kenya get online during pandemic crisis
When the Kenyan government ordered the country into lockdown to curtail the spread of the coronavirus earlier this year, Maryknoll Father Joseph Healey remembered a quote from the movie The Sound of Music: “When God closes a door, somewhere He opens a window.”
Father Healey’s primary ministry in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, is with Small Christian Communities, which grew out of the call from the Second Vatican Council for more lay involvement in the life of the Catholic Church. These communities usually consist of 15 to 20 members who meet physically once a week and focus on the Gospel reading for the upcoming Sunday. Some SCCs are larger, depending on whether they are located in rural or urban centers.
When the government there slammed the door on all gatherings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Small Christian Community meetings were suspended, along with Masses and other church services throughout Kenya. In addition, four major cities including Nairobi restricted travel. The 5,500 Small Christian Communities in the capital were left with a simple choice, “go digital or die,” Father Healey says.
“Now a window has opened, namely online Small Christian Communities that are also called virtual SCCs and digital SCCs,” the missioner from Baltimore, Md., says. Instead of physically going to a home in the local neighborhood, the parish or another meeting location, members of the jumuiya—as SCCs are called in Kenya using the Swahili word for community—gather online, either via computer or their mobile phones, he says.
Father Healey, who has served in Kenya since 1968, quotes Pope Francis to describe how the Catholics of the jumuiyas have responded to restrictions of the coronavirus crisis: “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 an opportunity.”
Social distancing is not only difficult from a logistical standpoint in a country of 48 million people, it is also foreign culturally as people tend to live in close families and communities, Father Healey says. In the cities many live in densely populated neighborhoods, particularly in the poor shantytowns.
“Digital platforms are filling a need, but they are also revealing how important our human interactions are and make us long for their return,” he says. “We experience God in and through human persons, especially Jesus Christ. It is the human closeness that enables us to understand a ‘distant’ or transcendent God.”
Father Healey, who is the founder of the Social Communications Department of the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa (AMECEA), has promoted SCCs for decades. He advises the virtual jumuiyas to meet on the same day and time as they would for their physical meetings.
In total, he says, Kenya has more than 45,000 Small Christian Communities around the country. In addition to watching Masses on TV and on the Internet, SCC members are sending text messages and audio and video clips to their weekly online meetings, which are now being conducted on various social platforms such as WhatsApp, Zoom, Skype and Facebook.
“Certainly, a couple thousand online SCCs have started, but we don’t have solid figures,” he says.
“In our SCC meeting we try to share the same way we share (in person) but online using Zoom,” says Bernard Mberere, the information technology coordinator for AMECEA in Nairobi. “All together through these online meetings they have been able to share the Gospel of the coming Sunday, discuss the challenges they are facing because they can’t meet physically, and how they can assist each other and find a way of doing that.”
Mberere, who is also the moderator, or leader, of the Blessed Holy Rosary Small Christian Community of St. Christopher parish in the Ruiru Kembo area of Nairobi, says many parishes contain multiple Small Christian Communities, usually formed around a neighborhood.
Although many SCCs are now able to meet online, there are still challenges for those who cannot get online because they do not have a smartphone or lack access to a computer and Internet service, he says.
“We are not going to the Sunday services as we are used to,” Mberere says. “Now we have resorted to holding Mass over the radio or holding Mass over the television, but the Catholic Church is also looking for a way of responding, and helping the needs of the people.” Through the SCCs, people can bring their needs and concerns to the local community leaders, who in turn raise these challenges to the parish level, where they may find assistance, he says.
“Online SCCs present an important opportunity for the members to attend the meetings even if they are traveling or when they have relocated,” says Dr. Alphonce Omolo, the moderator of the St. Isidore of Seville International Online Skype SCC, a pioneer in online SCCs that has been meeting Tuesday afternoons virtually since 2012. “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 COVID-19 pandemic.”
Father Healey, who participates in the St. Kizito Small Christian Community at St. Austin’s parish in the Waruku informal settlement, or shantytown, near the Maryknoll residence in Nairobi, noted that the lockdown stranded the SCC’s moderator, Ben Wanjala, and his wife Agnes, the assistant prayer leader, in the northern city of Kitale. Though prevented from returning to Nairobi, they are still able to participate in the SCC from afar, Father Healey says.
The digital meetings usually start with a prayer, followed by sharing among the members about what has been happening in the past week, Father Healey says. They then listen to an audio clip of the reading of the upcoming Sunday Gospel.
“In the ‘Gospel sharing’ through sending text messages from our smartphones, we try to connect the Gospel to our daily life today,” he says. “Our whole world is shaken and upset by the virus. In the present crisis of the coronavirus we are following the example of the sufferings of Jesus Christ, and Jesus is the Great Healer and has the power to heal us.”
During the online prayer, the members typically mention people who are sick with the virus and their caregivers, he says.
“I think we can be proud in Maryknoll that for many, many years we have been a leader in humanitarian relief efforts and food distribution,” Father Healey says, “but now the situation is totally different because of the lockdown, because of the quarantine, because of the closing of borders. I can’t go outside of Nairobi, Kenya, right now. So we have to find new and creative means of getting food and soap and help to the people.”
Donations from among the Small Christian Community members are pooled into a treasury that has been used to help Kenyans impacted by flooding and mudslides in January and February. Since March they have collected donations for those suffering from lack of work due to the lockdown, even as church donations have decreased because of the pandemic, he says.
“What we’re giving them is flour, cooking oil, rice: basic essentials,” Father Healey says. “The distribution is through the Small Christian Communities.” The SCC members know their communities and who are the poorest families, he says.
“So we’re trying both to continue our practice of prayer—the Bible is essential to our weekly Small Christian Community meeting—and do practical action and outreach,” he says.
“The digital Church or the online Church or the virtual Church is a new way of becoming Catholic Church,” the missioner says. “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.”
Featured Image: Members of St. Kizito SCC, Waruku, St Austin Parish, Nairobi, Kenya, including Maryknoll Father Joseph Healey (center), gather at the Marian statue on the Maryknoll Society Compound in Nairobi. (Courtesy of Joseph Healey/Kenya)