For the last several blog entries, the majority of the space has been dedicated to the various difficulties we've encountered with trying to handle meetings, field service, etc. So for this entry, I'd like to tell you about how all that work has paid off even better than we could've expected. And since this is in a written form and not a conversation, I'm going to take you the long way around to it.
A particular challenge with the pandemic is that many need-greaters were out of the country when everything shut down and restrictions were put in place. Happily with meetings moving over to Zoom and so forth, they were able to remain with their congregations, but getting back to their return visits and Bible studies proved a challenge. Lots of people in Guyana don't have internet connections, so therefore how can a publisher in the US/England/Trinidad stay in contact with them? International calling isn't really an option considering the cost and the sheer amount of minutes that would be used. Zoom does have a feature to call a phone number and be connected to the meeting, but the number you call is a US number and therefore doesn't do us any good.
Due to this problem, we began working with a network of need-greaters to find a way around this, and we did at last work out a marvelous system to allow someone in another country to join Zoom, and then we (locally in Guyana) call their return visits and patch them together. I won't go into the details because it's long and complicated, but suffice it to say we found a workable system and everyone was happy.
The more we used this system, the more it nagged at some of our minds. Here's why:
I've talked at length about how in Orealla we use phones for our meetings due to even rarer internet than most of Guyana, and the internet we do have we pay based off how much we use. Problem with phone meetings is the signal is bad and the more phones we have on the conference call, the more beeps we get during the meeting. But some in Orealla had internet. Is there a way we can adapt this overseas publisher return visit system to our meetings here?
The breaking point came during a meeting where we had so many phones tied in that we would get 10 beeps every 15 seconds. We couldn't hear anything. It was time to change how we connected our meetings. So we did a test. We calculated exactly how much data it would take to connect to an audio only Zoom meeting, and then called every single household in the congregation with a smartphone and asked if they would be willing to try it. About half the congregation had smartphones and data. We set up a Zoom room and had them join, and then we connected the other half of the congregation by phone like normal.
The result? Massive success. Clearer sound than we'd ever had, and fewer beeps (sometimes no beeps at all for, again, reasons that take too long to explain).
With every passing week, more people began budgeting data for meetings and making the switch over to Zoom, which has had the extra bonus of freeing up space on the telephone conference call so we could have more interested ones listening in (because yes, we had to turn people away from the meetings before this due to not having space on the limited size conference call). Our average meeting attendance continues to climb and so far shows little sign of slowing down. The special talk had an attendance of at least 89, more than double our 42 publisher count. Our goal became, for the Memorial, to get all publishers on Zoom so we'd have the phones completely free for interested ones without internet or Zoom or whatnot.
Plans were going great. Everything in place.
Then the day before the Memorial, during a seemingly normal day of field service, I got a text message that one of the brothers in our congregation died.
As I heard other publishers talking in the background on their call, I stared at the phone dumbfounded. I read it about ten times over because I was sure I had misread something. Finally I responded asking for clarification. It couldn't be. This brother was 40 years old. He had no real medical problems. He had a wife and three children between the ages of 17 and 10. He was the picture of health. Turns out an accident had killed him that morning.
We had already experienced trying to organize a funeral in the middle of the lockdown. But this was the day before the Memorial. How do you prioritize?
The man's wife and children gave us the answer. They focused on the Memorial. They were going to address everything else later. They made the bread, got the wine, prepared their home, and that morning watched the Morning Worship video. They invited some of their relatives, who attended.
And what a Memorial. With the Zoom/phone linkup we got 149 in attendance, more than we've had for some of our circuit assemblies. And while every Memorial talk is meaningful, this one was more so than ever for us.
Sunday morning we began working out the arrangements for the funeral. Monday the family was in field service again. Tuesday I realized the deceased man's father was scheduled for talk at our midweek meeting, so I called him to offer to find a substitute for it. He refused, and Thursday he gave the talk as assigned. Saturday was the funeral and the family strictly adhered to the Covid protocols locally put in place, and made sure all attendees did too. So many wanted to attend that we had to make the Zoom feature available for that as well, and so many came that it filled up our room.
The brother who died was my neighbor in a literal sense. He also did more than anyone else around (myself included) to make sure my home kept well stocked with food and essential supplies during the most difficult parts of lockdown. And someday he'll be delighted to learn his family and congregation made sure to focus more on the death of Jesus than on him. He was that kind of guy.