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Nov10TueHow the COVID-19 pandemic opened a door to community connections in Calgary. November 10, 2020 by James Watson
On a warm evening this past summer, Lieutenant Connie Cristall was walking her dog in her Calgary neighbourhood when someone stopped to say hello. An ordinary moment on the surface, but one with deeper significance, because it marked a turning point in her relationship with the community.
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Lieutenant Cristall moved to Calgary three years ago, appointed as a corps planter in response to the creative and thriving ministry at The Salvation Army’s Barbara Mitchell Family Resource Centre, located in the diverse Shaganappi area. The centre has nurtured a friendly atmosphere where spiritual conversations are welcome.
When she moved into the neighbourhood, Lieutenant Cristall began trying to establish community connections—shopping, frequenting local coffee shops, visiting people. She partnered with the existing Messy Church and Bible studies at the centre and worked with the staff to develop a leadership team, composed of a chaplain, program staff, neighbours and people who have been participants in the centre’s programs.
As the team explored opportunities for sharing faith and building community, their diversity of spiritual journeys helped establish a vision and direction for the new corps.
In 2018, Lieutenant Cristall and the leadership team piloted a “cafechurch” model (see cafechurchnetwork.wordpress.com). The multi-purpose space at the centre is bright and comfortable, an ideal space for table group discussions. As life issues, such as internet safety or parenting, started conversation around the tables, someone would share a personal story and then biblical wisdom was explored. This environment encouraged people to come out of their shells. Newcomers moved from being shy visitors to asking to share their story with the group.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began and physical distancing came into effect, it was a challenge to find opportunities to develop relationships while adapting to new public health realities. They were able to use videoconference “room” functions to continue their table discussions.
“Even though we’re not meeting in person, we still have that connection,” says Noshelle Armogan, a senior soldier who started attending through the cafechurch. “That beautiful warmth through the Zoom calls … who would have thought?”
A few people have visited the new corps on Zoom without turning on their camera, but if something connects for them, they enter the discussion.
Another way Lieutenant Cristall is involved in the neighbourhood is through the Shaganappi Community Association, where she’s part of a committee studying housing issues. Her connections with the association gave her insight into new local developments and prompted conversations with people who also care deeply about the neighbourhood.
When pandemic health concerns emerged in the spring, the community association asked her to share her perspective on the mental-health issues affecting the community, alongside an expert in the field. Lieutenant Cristall was introduced at the start of the webinar as the pastor of the new Salvation Army church in the Barbara Mitchell Family Resource Centre.
This invitation from the community association was a divine moment. The webinar raised awareness of her care for the neighbourhood and opened conversations with neighbours—including a friendly chat while walking her dog, with someone who attended the webinar.
This was a welcome development, and COVID-19 is partly responsible. Reflecting on her experience over the past three years, Lieutenant Cristall shares, “I had a hard time becoming known in the Shaganappi community. The pandemic opened a door for me. Really, God opened the door, and I was given an invitation to walk in.”
James Watson is the corps health and planting consultant for the Canada and Bermuda Territory.