On a Friday afternoon in November, friends gather excitedly from various communities in Ontario. They will spend an hour together and then reluctantly say goodbye for another week. It is, of course, an online visit. Host Herb Goodhoofd has arranged the meetups to keep participants from various Ontario Friendship Ministries connected while COVID-19 prevention measures keep them separated.
Ten years ago, Goodhoofd, a member at Clearview Christian Reformed Church in Oakville, Ont., organized a Friendship Festival. This annual event brought together up to 200 friends with developmental disabilities for a day of fun and fellowship. With COVID restrictions in place, this year’s festival planned for October was canceled.
But in March Goodhoofd decided to host a weekly online video meeting called “Zoom into Friendship,” welcoming friends who were part of the Friendship Festival Facebook group.
On this Friday, Goodhoofd is having trouble with his sound. The group of friends, who have become adept at Zoom meetings, welcome each other, and the chatter becomes animated as they anticipate meeting without their leader. Goodhoofd finally joins the conversation amid a great welcome. As excitement settles, mics are muted, and, one by one, each friend has an opportunity to say hello and share something about the past week. Up to 20 people join the meeting each week. Some live on their own; others live with family or with friends in group homes. Goodhoofd makes a point of including family members or care providers who are on the Zoom meetings.
In Abbotsford, B.C., Elaine Hart has been leading a Friendship group since 2018. Hart, a member of Trinity CRC, took over a program that goes back more than 25 years. The nearly 50 participants include members of Hart’s church, but most are from the wider community. The group is diverse in age, independence, ability to communicate, and mobility. Prior to COVID, they met three Tuesday mornings a month, taking a break in the summer. Tuesday mornings would include singing, teaching, prayer, refreshments, and fellowship.
In March the gatherings at Trinity were shut down. Hart and her volunteers decided to provide a monthly newsletter. “Our group is not tech-savvy,” she explains. The newsletter includes a prayer corner, Scripture and teaching, coloring pages or puzzles, and even a good joke. Birthdays are always noted. Volunteers keep in touch with phone calls to their friends or make arrangements to meet outside for a walk or coffee.
Hart appreciates the support of her team. “We encourage each other through emails and phone calls with a ‘What can I do to help?’ attitude and a willingness to share ideas,” she said. The No. 1 question from their friends, however, is “When can we meet in church again?” as gathering restrictions continue.
As the Abbotsford group prepares for Advent, everyone will receive an Advent plank. Made by a Trinity CRC member, the decorated boards have battery-operated candles, including the Christ candle for Christmas Day. They’re being shared along with a liturgy—words to read about God's love and care as they light each candle.
Goodhoofd also includes a time for sharing about God’s love in his weekly Zoom sessions. In the coming weeks the Ontario group will also light Advent candles together on Zoom in anticipation of the birth of Jesus.
As this Friday Zoom closes, much has been shared. Martin enjoys walking and loves every kind of food. Joel likes Chris’ bright-yellow shirt. Joanne is proud to be the first one with a Christmas tree. And Amanda reminds the group that “to love God is everything.” One by one everyone leaves the meeting. It has been an hour of true friendship shared.