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Lawn chair fellowship hour keeps Newmarket connected during coronavirus crisis

St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church remains closed, but task force working on reopening plans
20200629 lawn chair visit
St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church ministry team member, Rev. Robert Royal (right), is shown here at a recent lawn chair visit with the Heron family of Newmarket, including (from left), Jordyn, Lisa, Margaret, and Fraser.

Newmarket’s St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church on Water Street remains closed while the church’s task force discusses COVID-19 reopening safety measures, but that hasn’t stopped the ministry team from coming up with novel ways to stay in touch with parishioners.

In the early days of the coronavirus crisis, Rev. Robert Royal devised a plan he calls the lawn chair ministry. That involved him bringing his own lawn chair to a parishioner’s home and sitting on the front lawn. From behind the safety of the home’s windows, an individual could talk on the phone with Royal for fellowship.

“It’s been really, really awesome,” Royal said. “As the weather became more pleasant, it has morphed from there to where parishioners are now inviting me over to sit on in the back yard or on the deck, physically distanced, to celebrate Holy Communion, to chat about life, spirituality, and the coronavirus.”

So far, Royal has had 21 lawn chair visits with parishioners, with more scheduled in the coming days and weeks. Those fellowship get-togethers have taken him to Newmarket and beyond, including Aurora, East Gwillimbury, Sharon, Keswick, Aurora, and Whitchurch-Stouffville.

“This is giving me an opportunity to get to know the parishioners better, and a chance for them to get to know me, also,” said Royal, adding that one of his lawn chair visits found him sitting on the front lawn of an apartment building where a parishioner lived for more than a hour of fellowship.

“On average, the visit lasts about an hour and a half,” Royal said. “It’s a way to remain in touch, answer their questions, talk about whatever is on their minds and hearts. This is their time.”

Royal said he is committed to keeping the lawn chair visits going until the church resumes in-person worship services because of the toll COVID-19 has taken and will continue to take on people’s mental health.

“People are missing that physical contact, and this is one way we can address that, we can be in the same space, talking one-on-one, but physically distanced,” he said.

St. Andrew’s, like other local places of worship, shifted into the virtual space to deliver weekly worship services through YouTube and Zoom for the congregation as a whole, as well as offering online social gatherings for its women, men, and youth groups.

It has also continued to support the broader community at a distance with donations to the Newmarket Food Pantry, Inn from the Cold, the prayer shawl pastoral ministry, and others.

“Even though we’re in the middle of this pandemic, it doesn’t mean that outreach has to stop, it just means we have to change the way we do it,” said Royal.

An official statement from the Presbyterian Church in Canada said, “The Session of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Newmarket, has established a task force to discuss all of the issues, parameters, timing, and organization involved in the re-opening of St. Andrew’s, for the purposes of worship services, church groups, and rental spaces”. 

The congregation will be updated on a regular basis around the timing for reopening, but no date has yet been set, Royal said.

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