Sunshine amid the gloom – the incredible lockdown work this parish is doing

At Holy Cross Church, Catford, we run a “Diamond Club“. Each week, 50 elderly members meet in the parish community centre, Hartley Hall, to take part in a variety of dementia-friendly activities designed to promote health and well-being, reduce isolation and loneliness and bring cheer wherever possible. On 10 March this all changed when I was contacted by our parish priest,  who suggested that due to the potential impact of the coronavirus, we should consider cancelling the club. Reluctantly, the decision was made and we set about telephoning all 50 members.

After speaking to them, it became apparent that their need to keep “connected” over the coming days and weeks ahead was going to be fundamental to their well-being. All had telephones, yet despite the provision of some digital workshops and 1:1 sessions about the use of smart phones, tablets and computers, very few had pursued government and local council initiatives to get us all online and therefore couldn’t access the wonderful array of digital opportunities on offer. The live-stream masses, YouTube videos, WhatsApp messages, Zoom calls and other guidelines and information provided online from church and Government was lost to them.

It became immediately apparent to me that despite my plans to commence a four month sabbatical, God had a different path in mind. For half of my working life I had been a general and mental health nurse and the other twenty years, I had spent co-ordinating community groups for older people. I was ready for a change – six weeks in Ireland, a pilgrimage to Oberammergau and four weeks, with family, volunteering in Ghana; however, as the virus began to take a grip, the change was not the one I’d expected. God needed me to walk another path.

Happily, with the support of our parish priest and a team of wonderful parish volunteers we have managed to keep connected with over one hundred and eighty elderly people each week through telephone befriending. These rich and fruitful conversations often reach below the surface and explore vulnerable feelings, fears and hope at this difficult time. Each week a magazine called “Bring Me sunshine” is sent out filled with puzzles, quizzes, contributed stories, poems, prayers and updates. Sixty of these are posted and the rest are hand delivered with a friendly smile and often a much welcome, socially distanced chat on the doorstep. The deliveries also now include, along with the church newsletters, an activity goody bag filled with books, puzzles, craft packs, DVDs, mindful colouring, soap and one week a box of “Catford Brew” teabags. Many of the items are donated by neighbours, council workers, social media connections and from a few companies we approached.

For the past three years, with fundraising and some funding from Lewisham Council, we have hosted a very successful project involving several local churches, called “Bring Me Sunshine”. It takes the theme of ‘Holidays at Home’ and a hundred elderly people from the community and local churches meet for at least twelve holiday type fun-filled events a year in our partnering church halls. During these times we have had to reconsider how we can “bring sunshine” to others so answering the call to reach out, we linked with the other churches, the local Anglican churches, St Andrews and St Laurence, Brownhill Road Baptist church and the Salvation Army and have now included their elderly members in our befriending and our deliveries of magazines and activity goody bags. Volunteers from their churches have joined the team and now twelve willing and able helpers deliver the magazines and activity packs each week.

For VE day our church leaders joined the delivery crew and met with their parishioners whilst socially distancing. This brought great joy. A Holy Cross parishioner accompanied the group and played the “Last Post” on his trumpet in eight streets, bringing tears and applause as people came out to their doorstep or opened windows to be part of the commemoration. One lady, who had lost two members of her family in World War Two, shed a tear saying, “that was the best thing that anyone could have given me in years”.

The “Bring me sunshine” team, concerned about the horrific number of deaths and difficulties that care homes are facing, produced memory sticks of eighteen thirty minute activities which could be used in care settings, in social distancing groups or in individual rooms. These included among others, exercise sessions, sing-a-longs, meditative exercises, talks on art, concerts, African drumming, monologues from a drama group – all given by local people and friends who wanted to show their care and support  to these deserving older people and front line staff. The activities were introduced by actors Kevin McNally known from Pirates of the Caribbean, Phyllis Logan from Downton Abbey and Damien Egan mayor of Lewisham.

Our parish mental health group TTT (Third Thursday Time) has supported the venture and members support each other and regularly send articles for the magazine. One young student e-mails out positive daily messages, often based around scripture which bring light and hope to another vulnerable group within our community.

After eight weeks the needs of our more isolated elderly people remain a big concern and we are adapting and responding wherever possible to keep people connected. This week’s activity bag will contain suggestions for physical exercises which we will advise be done at the same time each day by everyone in their homes, there’s something comforting about knowing others are doing the same. With this in mind, we suggest Tuesday prayer at 7pm, where we call to mind as many older people as we can from our churches and groups will light a candle and pray for them.

This has been an ever expanding project and a time to seize opportunities for growth as we gather more isolated elderly people, more helpers, good neighbours, community minded people, church volunteers, and local businesses who want to offer support. All this in the midst of real illness and death reinforces my belief of faith in action and real ecumenicalism at work.

We will continue with God’s Grace, to “Bring Sunshine” wherever we can.

This article by Lesley Allen is reproduced as it appeared in The Tablet.

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