By Revd Sue Pegg MA Methodist Minister in West Yorkshire.
‘May the Lord bless you and keep you;
May the Lord be kind and gracious to you;
May the Lord look on you with favour and give you peace’
(Numbers: Chapter 6)
It began with a phone call from Alison in the Arthur Rank Centre office, offering a lottery grant to fund work by churches in rural villages which would help ease isolation and loneliness during the difficult days of the pandemic.
At the time of the call the nation had been in lockdown for many months and despite making half a dozen phone calls a day to church and community folk, as well as embracing Zoom, I was becoming increasingly aware that many in our village communities were shielding in order to stay safe.
Being confined to their homes meant elderly folk were beginning to desperately miss the social contact usually enjoyed through various groups, coffee mornings and lunches. The offer of the grant money was a blessing as it had potential to ease their increasingly difficult situation.
Revd Val Keating, our local Anglican vicar, accepted an invitation to work together to reach as many folk as we could in the communities of five West Yorkshire villages, so we got together to share ideas.
Knowing that many were shielding and really missing family, especially their adult children and grandchildren, it seemed Mothering Sunday would be a good time to begin the work. Our first purchase was some small lace bags, like ‘favour bags’ often given to wedding guests. A lady in one village ran a local cottage business and made small decorative flowers from recycled plastic.
Thinking these would make ideal gifts we ordered 70 of them to put in the bags along with a Mothering Sunday greeting. Then, along with volunteers, the bags of blessing as we called them were delivered personally to those known to us who were feeling the pain of isolation as symbols of love and of hope. We were greeted with smiles and tears. The gifts seem to be very much appreciated.
The Mothering Sunday work encouraged us forward to an Easter project using similar bags. This time we wished people a Happy Easter with small chocolate eggs, a love heart, and an invitation to ‘Feel God’s love’. Once again there were tears and smiles and many stories about long hours spent shielding and in isolation. Eager to spread the love as much as possible, villagers from one church made a wooden cross and hooked some bags onto it. It was then placed outside church with an invitation to take a bag of blessing from the cross during the Easter weekend.
Despite the building being closed for services (which were currently held on Zoom) this enabled the church to reach out with love during the important Christian celebration.
We also delivered the Palm Crosses made by rural villagers in Africa, whose only source of income was from the crosses they made. It was a way of offering hope from one isolated community at the other side of the world to our local communities and it was felt a way both could receive God’s blessings.
The bags of blessing began to gain momentum and as a group of urban churches heard of our work in the countryside they too adopted the idea and as a result over 5,000 were distributed around our local town.
By Easter the pandemic was beginning to ease but it was noticeable that many, especially the elderly, and despite receiving Covid vaccines, were reluctant to leave their homes so we began praying about a way forward for the summer months where people could feel safe but also begin to reconnect with their friends.
To date the Rural Isolation Funding has enabled us to offer Gentle Exercise/ Pilates classes in two villages for eight two-hour sessions during the summer months. We hope the classes will entice people out of their homes to reconnect with others in the community in a Covid secure environment. The classes will run until early September when it’s hoped it will be safe for usual coffee mornings and lunch clubs to resume.
Our hope is that the Rural Isolation Grant used to finance the various aspects of the work has, in small ways, helped to elevate loneliness and isolation during the dark days of the pandemic to those living in the local villages and offered them peace and love. The bags of blessing certainly brought a smile to faces and perhaps, in the words of the Psalmist (Psalm 34) enabled some to ‘taste and see that God is good’ amid their suffering.
We pray that the exercise classes will provide a crucial link between the pandemic and normality of life resuming.
Our thanks go to Alison and the Arthur Rank Centre for making the projects possible through Lottery funding.