By Carolina Scipioni
When the coronavirus pandemic disrupted our communities’ daily lives, our parishes looked tirelessly for other ways to continue ministering. Pastors and parish staff found themselves asking a question that they previously knew the answer for: How do we stay connected with members of our community? Some started phone trees, others either started or expanded their e-newsletters, and yet many embraced new technologies such as live streaming, social media, and teleconferencing.
For Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, the answer was unique and simple: “We knew we had to meet our parishioners where they already were — on WhatsApp,” said Idania Barousse, Parish Pastoral Associate.
WhatsApp is a texting platform known as the primary form of communication outside of the English-speaking world. It is free and easy to use, making it the most convenient way for many people to stay connected and get news and information. Most parishioners at Our Lady of Guadalupe already use the app to stay connected with family and friends, both abroad and nearby.
The parish had been using WhatsApp for about three years before the pandemic hit, but not in a very consistent and intentional way. However, when the pandemic forced everyone to shelter at home, this app became a saving grace for this parish community.
Idania shared that when Masses were suspended, she immediately turned to WhatsApp but never anticipated the enormous impact in parish communications during this crisis. When she started paying more attention, she realized a few things. One was that unlike other apps and technologies, older people were also using WhatsApp. “They might not have Facebook or check emails, but they use WhatsApp daily,” said Idania. In fact, she noticed that whenever she sent information via email, parishioners would convert it to a WhatsApp message and then share it.
The other thing that she noticed was that apps were popular since many parishioners don’t have access to a computer, but most of them have a phone. “Communicating with the phone is also a better option for many of our families,” Idania stated, “since many families share homes with other families and might not have the privacy that others have in their homes. The phone allows them to go anywhere and to find their own space to read a reflection or watch a live-streamed Mass.”
The parish is now using WhatsApp several times a day to communicate with different groups. They advertise resources like mobile health clinics, free COVID-19 testing, food distribution for those in need, and live-streamed Mass times. Idania mentioned that they even used it as a tool for faith formation and to share Lent reflections before Easter.
But the communication is not just one-way from the parish to the parishioners. Parishioners also reply to the groups, creating prayer chains or requesting prayers for special intentions. It is an excellent way to learn about what is happening in the community.
“I am pleasantly surprised that a network of parishioners, a ‘virtual village,’ has developed almost naturally,” said Idania. “I send a message asking a few leaders to share. Within 30 minutes, the message goes around our community and spreads like wildfire. All I write is ‘comparte’ (share), and they do.”
When asked why she thought this was working so well in her community, Idania said, “This is a community where the concept of ‘co-responsibility’ was always well understood. People share a lot here – they contribute to our Church financially, they support campaigns in whatever way they can, and they are active in ministry. During this time of crisis, this sense of co-responsibility transferred to the sharing of important messages. We were all isolated, so each felt responsible for sharing information with others that might not have it.”
As Idania said, “WhatsApp was to us the best door to the virtual world.” Now, as the restrictions slowly begin to lift, the possibilities to nurture co-responsibility in this way are endless.