Refugees are benefitting from Zoom prayer calls

There have been many changes to our usual routine as a result of the physical distancing measures that are vital in the response to the coronavirus outbreak. One of the biggest shifts has been the increased use of the technology to bring us together virtually, be it for work, family time or even our social and religious activities.

It is perhaps the latter that has presented the biggest shift, given most church activities focus on communal gathering and require an active participation in a shared physical space. There has been a real challenge to replicate the same spaces of prayer using the technology that we have to connect us.

This has been true for us at the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) too. Two of our most popular activities for our refugee friends are our women’s prayer and men’s reflection groups, something which isn’t too surprising given the deep faith of so many of those who come to JRS. Both groups have moved to video call in the past few weeks, with our facilitators rising to the challenge of adapting to using new technologies to ensure the groups can continue to meet during this testing time.

Fr Harry Elias SJ facilitates our men’s prayer group having had plenty of experience after 12 years as a chaplain to the Immigration Removal Centres at Heathrow, which JRS does outreach to. Whilst helping to facilitate the group, Harry gets plenty from it himself: “I enjoy the interaction, praying together, the insights they provide me, their letting me into their lives so that I could present their needs to the Lord together with my compassion.”

Sr Vianney Connolly, alongside Sr Lucia, has recently started helping to facilitate the women’s prayer, joining a thriving group with members from all over the world who bring the richness of their different religious traditions, expressions and languages. One common thread that seems to be shared is the love of singing that Sr Vianney hopes will continue in the group’s new form of meeting: “I hope that the women will maybe read the short passage from scripture in English and French and be happy to start a verse or chorus of a hymn in both languages too. If our friends from Ethiopia rejoin the group it would be good if the French version could alternate sometimes with the Amharic.” However, she acknowledges that this highlights one of the difficulties in the new method of meeting: “It's not easy to sing together now but it's worth a try.”

The difficulties of using new technologies are not insignificant. The first hurdle was learning to use the new software, something Harry acknowledges “The biggest challenge was my own anxiety because of my unfamiliarity with the technology but that was soon dispelled because of Dallya at one end and the novice Sam at my side”. Vianney too was unfamiliar with using the software but like Harry she has adapted with flying colours. She offers her advice to those who be hesitant to try new means of communication: “Say to yourself, ‘If others can do this so can I. I can do most things if I take it step by step’."

Another point that was important to consider was the difficulty many of our friends would have accessing an online video call. Whilst a small number of our refugee friends have smart phones and may be able to access wifi, for most this would be impossible. This has been allayed somewhat by being able to have people dial in to the call using their phones, and crucially, we’ve been able to ‘dial out’ – directly welcoming people into the space of prayer and community. They may not be able to see the other members of the group but they are still able to share in the prayers and feel part of a group they might otherwise be excluded. The increased use of the technology available is sparking more creative solutions to allow people to take part.

We hope the groups resuming their activities, even in a different form, will help them keep the close bonds and spiritual support that helps our friends deal with the many challenges they face in day to day life. As a volunteer and staff team, we too have been using the technology to have morning prayer with one another to help keep our spirits up. From our experience, there are many possibilities to keep our communities both socially and spiritually nourished in this tough time of physical distancing.

Blog by Nicholas Hanrahan, Community Outreach Officer at Jesuit Refugee Service UK