The COVID-19 pandemic did not prevent On Eagle’s Wings (OEW) from being a presence (albeit virtual) in northern communities this summer.
In a regular year, the inter-denominational ministry with bases in Edmonton, Yellowknife, and Fort McMurray, provides volunteer teams to lead vacation Bible camp in more than 20 communities in Alberta, Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Ontario, and Québec. But the borders of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut were closed to outside travelers to keep the pandemic from spreading.
“At the start of the pandemic we adopted a wait-and-see approach, but as the months wore on, it was abundantly clear we weren’t going to be able to do things in any kind of normal fashion,” said the Rev. Lesley Hand, executive director of On Eagle’s Wings. “Normal for us is recruiting the volunteers, equipping the team and sending the team into the community for a week.” Vacation Bible camp teams visit upwards of 12 northern communities each summer.
Rather than “cancelling everything outright,” Hand asked volunteers to re-direct their gifts, time and talents into making a video of themselves telling a Bible story, or leading a craft, skit, song or another activity from the “Christ Loves All People” (CLAP) Bible Camp curriculum. Volunteers, who typically would spend part of their vacation leading a Bible camp, responded enthusiastically to Hand’s request.
OEW launched its first-ever Video Vacation Bible Camp in partnership with Bishop David Lehmann and the Diocese of Caledonia. At the ministry’s Edmonton headquarters, volunteers worked for two weeks assembling 1,000 Bible camp kits (200 of each kit). Each kit contained a DVD of Bible stories and songs, an activity booklet, crafting materials and general stationary supplies.
“This was absolutely a God orchestration,” said Hand. “I’d been praying for a couple of weeks about what we could do, and how we could still work with the communities remotely. Then Bishop David called out of the blue to ask if we’d like to partner with him. He explained that he had received a grant to hire a summer intern to work at Camp Caledonia which had closed due to the pandemic. ‘Was there a way,’ he wondered, ‘to simplify the OEW curriculum for families to do backyard Bible camp at home?’”
For each of the five Bible stories in the CLAP curriculum, families received a craft kit and an activity book designed by Mathew McPhee, a postulant of the Edmonton diocese who is studying at Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto. He is worked out of his parents’ home in Sylvan Lake for the summer.
Accessing a stable internet connection can be a challenge in the north and not all families have a computer. McPhee recorded the videos onto DVDs, in addition to uploading the content to YouTube channels for On Eagle’s Wings and the Caledonia diocese.
“He was thrown in the deep end and has swum admirably,” said Hand of McPhee.
“What’s really cool is this started as a way for us to reach the families we serve and for Bishop David to reach the families in Caledonia diocese, and now Bishop Lesley Wheeler-Dame would like to use it in Yukon diocese and United and Lutheran churches in the Yukon have also expressed interest. It’s just like God is spreading it all over.”
Hand was able to breathe a sigh of relief by the third week of July, when the kits were delivered to families in Arctic communities. While OEW did save a bit of money by not transporting people to the north, some flights had already been booked before the pandemic. However, she was able to send the supplies for Grise Fiord, Resolute Bay, Tuktoyaktuk, Aklavik and Ft. McPherson by air cargo from Edmonton.
“We were blessed to have a trucking company take supplies for 60 families directly to Behchoko by road at no cost,” she said. “My daughter took the box for Fort Chipewyan to Fort McMurray and put it on McMurray Aviation there.”
Once the kits reached their destination, community leaders had “great ideas about how they wanted to give them to families,” she said. Some leaders distributed the kits every Saturday afternoon, encouraging families to work on them together on Sunday as part of their at-home worship. Others made the kits available for pick-up at their local store, depending on each community’s needs.
Surplus Video VBC supplies were offered and gladly accepted by Hand’s clergy connections in the parishes of St. Augustines-Parkland, Spruce Grove; St Anne's, Valleyview; St Andrew's/Zion, Boyle/Colinton and distributed to local families.
“We are immensely thankful for our volunteers, donors, and friends who help make Bible camps possible,” said Hand. “We’ve been busy, this has been a lot of work and it’s tiring. But it’s been a lot fun and we know that God is going to use it and that’s the main thing.”